Like a Virgin

December 22, 2012

I’ve been a Virgin mobile phone customer for years. Not out of amazing loyalty but for the fact that for my basic usage they provide the service at a reasonable cost and when I’ve considered the alternatives there were no major benefits. What does annoy me is that when I want to use their online service to check on things I inevitably get the message “Oops! You weren’t expecting that? Neither were we.” but after some many times I am now expecting it. It crops up when I try to log in, when I want to look at other pages, but all I’m offered is ringing a call centre to carry out what should have taken a minute of my time and will now take ten!

This I believe is what will become of “digital by default” in many cases. One would expect that given the years I’ve been using the site, Virgin would have sorted out these glitches but currently it’s worse than ever. I presume they’re laying off staff like everyone else and by the time the next round of cuts by central government have really impacted on local government, IT support will be a nominal service with the few remaining techies rattling around the empty town halls. Central government has always been somewhat bloated, so it will take a bit longer to hit home there and really affect Ministers but eventually there will be no-one to fix the web site and when the number is rung, no-one there either…

On that cheerful note – Season’s greetings and best wishes for the New Year…


Local Government Digital Service

November 18, 2012

In September 2012 I wrote about the Local Government Data Service but since then we’ve seen the publication of the central government Government Digital Strategy, and yet again questions have been asked about why local government hasn’t one or doesn’t get a mention. My riposte is that local government was doing this before the GDS, and it was largely set out in the Socitm publication Planing the Flag. Meanwhile Socitm has published a briefing entitled “The new Government Digital Strategy: what should local public services take from it?”

Whilst the Socitm briefing is largely a promotion for its website take-up and channel benchmarking services, all that is required by any local authority is to actively gather feedback from its service users about the different channels on offer and to use this to improve them. If this makes possible a shift to channels that are truly cheaper to deliver by web or telephone all well and good. I am, of course, ignoring the ‘digital by default’ diktat within the central strategy. In national terms this means the sharing of best practice amongst local authorities and a lot of cooperation by suppliers in helping to improve delivery, not just raking in short-term profits. This is where open source and open data come in – if the commercial applications use apps that can be cross-fertilised with others and the data can be similarly exposed (securely) across applications the benefits to both councils and citizens will soon become general.

Whilst the Cabinet Office report admits that “most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS”, instead of ignoring local government and starving it of resources, central government needs to cooperate properly and assist in making these changes real. So whilst I congratulate the GDS on producing its strategy I will observe whether it gets the rest of central government to cooperate, and whether it actually cooperates with those areas where “most public services are provided”. I’d also appreciate it if there were fewer questions about why local government isn’t do the GDS thing, and a greater appreciation of the fact that it was there first, just with much less of a marketing team…


Social media in a disaster

November 4, 2012

My thanks have to go to Steven Clift for circulating the following links regarding the use of social media in a disaster situation and we are all aware of what the USA has had to go through recently:

First of all some lessons learned from the Joplin tornado – http://extension.missouri.edu/greene/documents/PlansReports/using%20social%20media%20in%20disasters.pdf

There was already Steven’s article – http://bitly.com/localrecovery - about creating micro online groups for more informal ongoing exchange as emergency response moves into recovery.

From Christchurch NZ comes a multi-agency meta site – http://canterburyearthquake.org.nz

As the globe warms and water levels and weather changes, these experiences need to be shared.


Pakistan – watch this space

October 21, 2012

Pakistan may hardly be a frontrunner in the world of e-government but might provide an interesting country to view given the messy politics, illiteracy of the masses, and the many, many more variables that can affect matters around using it. Why am I interested? As a long-time supporter of Khwendo Kor (KK), since its chief executive Maryam Bibi first studied in York, I have followed the machinations in Pakistan, particularly in KP, the former North West Frontier Province, with great interest - I’m also rather partial to the food from the Indian sub-continent. Observers of the KK website can see that actually having one and electronic newsletters is probably more for gaining external aid and support, as communicating inside the country, so this is why I was interested to find Fouad Bajwa’s blog post “Politics and Social Media in Pakistan – The struggle for new power within an immature democracy!” when he presented himself to the W3C E-government Interest Group recently.

I frequently argue on these pages about the lack of chance of social media moving a representative democracy to any kind of direct democracy, which many of its adherents assume will happen, and remain dubious that the Arab Spring was a direct result of social media. Given the lack of chance in the west or ‘developed’ world, what are the chances in a country like Pakistan where it regularly hovers between military despots and one party control, and is thus hardly even a representative democracy. The Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF) argues similarly and emphasises the Internet’s value as a communication tool – as NOREF state in their conclusions “Europe can help mitigate these risks by sponsoring projects that develop guidelines for appropriate content and by supporting initiatives that promote tolerant online communication.” There is obviously some use (good and bad) being made of social media in Pakistan, so as Fouad Bajwa states in his blog “For all those political leaders and their parties that lack interest or do not follow the Social Media in Pakistan should be alerted that the largest voter base of Pakistan irrespective of their rural or urban location are following and commenting on the political carnage in Pakistan.” In other words, if you are in Pakistani politics, one needs to be practising in the social media game, if only to communicate your values and actions.


How hard can it be?

October 17, 2012

I use nPower as the supplier of my electricity and gas at home, to try to reduce paper bills I use their electronic system so that they email me when they want readings and I submit them to their website. The trouble is it is such an awfully slow website – it really is like waiting for the pages to refresh can take minutes. Similarly, they promoted a beta feature that monitors your energy usage, or rather they used to – it’s still part there but you can’t find it through the search facility and there’s no reporting of energy usage that I can find.

The more I attempt to use private sector web sites I get annoyed about all the criticism that public sector webbies have had over the years. The nPower one is dreadful to navigate, full of their marketing terminology, which is meaningless to a customer. If nPower wish to reduce paper customers and the use of paid meter-readers, they’d better get their act together sharpish. So sad as it’s quite attractive, but it goes like a dog and has less intelligence than the said canine.

I did include a complaint about its performance when I was on there but that was over 48 hours ago, and still no response…


Ideas cannot digest reality

October 7, 2012

The title is a statement by Jean Paul Sartre that heads a section in Chapter 7 of James C. Scott’s wonderful book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”, Yale University Press, 1998. One may ask what a book published as part of the Yale Agrarian Studies has to do with electronic government or even government but as Scott states on page 6 in the Introduction it is “a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how”. Despite all the promises to the contrary this is still the behaviour of most governments and a majority of politicians. The book looks at many and varied examples of central planning including the USSR, Brasilia along with providing an ecological view of agricultural methods that haven’t worked and explaining why, but is as appropriate to those working in ICT, policy or politics as directly in the environment.

If nothing else and even if they can’t be bothered to read the 357 pages of the book I would ask those considering any project to make a note of the four ‘rules of thumb’ stated in the Conclusion on page 345 – take small steps, favour reversibility, plan on surprises and plan on human inventiveness.


Digital by diktat

October 1, 2012

The recent comments and debate about the value of ‘digital by default’ or ‘digital by design’ and how ‘assisted digital’ will get around the concerns I and others have expressed had me thinking in a wider context. Most of those involved in the discussions are relatively young and if they aren’t part of generation Y they at least come from a generation where personal computing has been a regular feature of life.

Those making the decisions about ‘digital by default’ e.g. MP’s and Ministers will have offices paid out of the public purse where PA’s and secretaries will handle their electronic communications along with the paper and telephones. How many of them are actually digitally literate I wonder? There were well-voiced doubts about an earlier Prime Minister, who instigated much of the electronic government malarkey and his personal ability to use a computer (i.e. Tony Blair).

Much has been made in local government about councillors having PC’s or iPad’s paid for by their councils, whilst some councillors I have known have refused to have them on that very basis. Should councillors be compelled to use a publicly owned and paid for PC for their council business? Is it improving their role? Does it make them a better councillor? Should the council be paying for iPad, printer, consumables, internet connection or telephone line? Must the councillor have a .gov email address in order to represent their constituents?

If the answer to most of these questions is “yes”, we are definitely in a state of ‘digital by diktat’, where only those happy to use technology in all its changing manifestations can be electable. Then there is the question of the Data Protection Act (DPA) – we’ll leave Freedom of Information alone for the time being. If I email my MP, I expect only my MP to be reading it, but this won’t be the case! If I email my local councillor I imagine the DPA will assume that only he or she will read it, not members of the extended family who may also snaek access to do the online shopping or play games!

It is obviously better if MP’s and councillors can receive emails from citizens since it’s a quick and relatively cheap way to do business (for those with access to it, and the ability to use it), but does it then put those limited to pen and paper, or the telephone on a weakened footing democratically speaking?

The most important thing is for councillors or MP’s to be in touch with their electorates, not excluding them. If this involves having surgeries in different locations, a telephone where messages can be left, all well and good but does it require ever-changing technology and who should pay for it? The council manager will state that there is a need to transfer vital council papers to the councillor, that this will reduce the printing bill, that instead of paper communications can be viewed electronically during any meetings, but do any of these require the council to buy a PC or device for the councillor? One might insist that for data protection purposes, this is so – but does it stop anyone else using that machine? Mightn’t it be better to reduce the volume of paperwork our politicians are expected to cope with – how then do we present material that decisions need to be made on?

Which is more effective - a community policeman sat in front of an array of CCTV cameras watching the area, or one walking or cycling around speaking to people? In terms of elected representatives, which is more effective the one that can be seen in his or her constituency, or the one at the end of a smart phone? I am not intending to belittle the splendid work done by some MP’s, councillors, officers and other organizations to get political representatives safely online and communicating with citizens, what I am challenging is that it is now seen as another way to save money and in the process excluding that proportion of the population who for some reason are unable to be or do not wish to be ‘digital’, from being representatives or achieving representation.


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