When did local government IT become the aircraft carrier

December 11, 2013

The analogy is often used of certain large bodies being like the aircraft carrier that needs substantial time and space to complete a change of direction. Two years ago when attending the launch of the Government Digital Service  (GDS) I had been most insistent that they adopted the good practice that was available in local government at that time, for given the conditions local government IT was playing under, with frequent changes of legislation and guidance from government most local authorities had, with their IT departments, maintained a focus on the citizen.

Observing from afar over Twitter the recent SocITM 2013 conference I could only observe that with the ascendance of the GDS, roles had been reversed and local government IT in the form of lots of boats like some Dunkirk rescue mission all strung together was having a great deal of trouble manoeuvring, whilst GDS had become the agile one.

This is obviously not a full and fair comparison between all local and central government as the on-going failures by the Department of Work and Pensions to implement Universal Credit in a timely manner confirms, and also that some local authorities have done great things, whilst some have largely disappeared.

The question is how does one turn around that string of little boats (they are in comparison to central government). Some people observing suggested joining a many together and then one would the budgets and labour force, but would one have the management? That is the tricky part – local authority senior management and the elected members have always wanted to steer their own boats however small and insignificant they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but change is needed.  This is what I thought was going to come out of SocITM nearly two years ago as I took my redundancy, but it does not appear to have happened. I may have missed something but the fact that Mike Bracken of the GDS is still offering this week to work with local government, as I heard him say he would two years ago tells me something different.

Local government has had to cope with drastic cuts, redundancies and reorganisations galore since I left, but the bigger vision of turning the aircraft carrier seems to have remained a futile hope as budgets shrink further and staff disappear.

Please tell me it’s not true?


My identity

November 14, 2012

UKAuthority.com states that four potential providers of identity service to the UK Department of Work and Pensions have been chosen in ID Providers chosen for Universal Credit. I wonder why they then list seven: Post Office, Cassidian, Digidentity, Experian, Ingeus, Mydex, and Verizon, or are some of them working together? It’s good that Mydex have a foot in the door, along with our own dear Post Office, but why oh why have we got Experian again. I’ve communicated my own experience with Experian in an earlier blog post, and they are about as user friendly as having a red-hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine.

Speaking out of office and ear-shot with some DWP staff recently I was concerned  that they can only see a future where their entire job is automated, which is how they interpret the government vision. The command and control hierarchy makes those HR-ish noises that they are considerate employers, whilst waiting in the wings to make them redundant. They saw no young people in their ranks, they are also encouraged to see career progression where there isn’t any in reality. I imagine the DWP sees them transferring TUPE-less to the ranks of automata that appear to answer the telephone at Experian. They were intelligent hard-working people and I feel sorry for what they have to put up with.

The recent Independent on Sunday report raising issues with the rollout of Universal Credit quoted a government IT adviser as saying that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary “has been hypnotised by promises of what an online system can deliver. Warnings were given to him more than a year ago. They were ignored.” This follows a history of such ICT hubris from politicians, which was a side conclusion of my doctoral dissertation, but whilst consuming millions of taxpayers money fails to fill promises for the plain simple fact that government and its policies is much more complex than ICT is capable of.


Simple things?

September 29, 2012

The new report by the Policy Exchange entitled “Simple Things, Done Well: Making practical progress on digital engagement and inclusion” offers no real new ideas apart from someone paying for a massed hoard of ‘digital advocates’ to convert those currently not using the internet to being users. A lot of the report focuses upon NEET’s or those over 65 but this still misses the point that many of those not doing it don’t want to do it, or are physically or intellectually constrained from being able to do so.

The recent interviews with government ministers over Universal Credit reported in Universal Chaos demonstrate that they are equally so far out-of-touch with the real world of ordinary people with disabilities, learning difficulties, age-related impairments, along with the poorly educated (for whatever reason) that they don’t understand that whilst some will have a sophisticated telephone or even a computer they are not going to use it to contact AUTHORITY, when they would rather have the trust of physical or verbal contact when dealing with IT (AUTHORITY not information technology).

In many cases, and I can speak from experience, people with learning difficulties or other disabilities have a wide range of challenges to deal with when using computers – sometimes its basic literacy, sometimes it’s the subtleties of meaning involved, that someone with Aspergers or on the autistic spectrum just won’t get. However simple Iain Duncan-Smith and his colleagues at the Government Digital Service think they can make these things, they’re going to have to cater for an awfully wide range of users.

On top of this, a lot of these advocates already exist, and do the work for free, or for little credit. Across the organisations working with people with disabilities I know this happens in many cases already, but it’s not a quick training course where people are self-reliant after a few hours, it’s sometimes long-term support – hence why I say there is nothing new in this document and to some extent it misses out on existing models of experience. The social model of disability is little appreciated by those in power, and in many cases they continue to reinforce it due to a lack of experience of real-life, this also applies to unemployment and poverty.

You may call these things simple if you have the benefit of a good education and physical and mental well-being, without those things and financial stability, ‘simple things’ can become very challenging. As to being ‘well done’ – if it’s all to save money that’s not going to be the case.


Universal Chaos

September 22, 2012

I would heartily recommend everyone to read the uncorrected House of Commons Oral Evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on Universal Credit on Monday 17 September 2012 by Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, if only to read how politicians can avoid giving a straight answer to some very straight questions (and get away with it)! Glenda Jackson can also be read playing a splendid role questionning the two aforementioned Tory apologists, along with Dame Anne Begg (who according to this week’s New Statesman had to put up with Iain Duncan Smith leaning obliviously on the back of her wheelchair in the Commons bar recently).

For local authorities there is no good news as the answers received by Ms Jackson reveal and they now appear to be ‘charitable organisations':

“Q216 Glenda Jackson: Will the funding be there to assist local authorities?

Lord Freud: Clearly, it is premature to say exactly what kind of funding is required.

Q217 Glenda Jackson: We know the cuts they are having to carry.

Lord Freud: We have got funds to introduce Universal Credit.  We are not concerned about who undertakes particular endeavours, and we can pay that on a neutral basis, so, in the sense that, yes, we do have funding for it.

Q218 Chair: My understanding was that a large chunk of the £2 billion-or £3 billion; there seemed to be some argument in the debate last Tuesday-that was set aside to help introduce Universal Credit would go on transitional protection for those whose income would lose out, rather than in the mechanics of it.

Mr Duncan Smith: The mechanics are part of all of that.  The whole point that we have been talking about is getting people online.  All those processes are part of what we have to do.  We are discussing with local government about how that lies and where that sits.  There are other charitable organisations we are talking to.”

And then it gets worse -

“Lord Freud: No. Let me just go through that. What we are transferring to local authorities is a whole range of responsibilities, where they can make better judgments on their local requirements: elements of the Social Fund; the decisions on DHPs, which are very substantial-next year, when you add them all up, DHPs are £165 million; and decisions on direct payments.

Q227 Chair: That just confuses the landscape. The whole point of Universal Credit, and the reason that you get people like me saying that in principle this was a good idea was it was meant to be that single working-age benefit for those who were on means-tested benefit.

Lord Freud: And it is.

Chair: But it is not.

Lord Freud: It is.

Q228 Chair: It was going to be, but then council tax went off to the local authority and the Social Fund went off-“

And shortly after that they give up on that strand…but so it goes on, and on. I’m not sure I’m much clearer about what’s happening with UC, so I look forward to the edited (‘corrected’) highlights in due course from the Committee and congratulate the members of it again on some thorough questioning.


Yes, minister

March 24, 2012

It is reassuring to see that the ironies of Whitehall are still being developed by the latest political incumbents. Just as the previous government came up with such inanities as ‘avoidable contact’ and ‘transformational government’, the UK Budget for 2012 reveals in Section 1.224 page 42 of the Red Book that “the Government […] will transform the quality of digital public services by committing that from 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully. The Government will also ensure that all information is published on a single ’gov.uk’ domain name by the end of 2012 and will move to a ‘digital by default’ approach to its transactional services by 2015”.

The appropriateness of a sign-off test being carried out by a minister, who is probably Oxbridge educated for all their digital illiteracy, and on an application such Universal Credit, which is unlikely to ever apply to them is laughable to put it politely. Hadn’t the thought occurred to the mandarins who wrote this budget this that a better approach might be to involve the ‘third sector’ and its clients at the outset to determine the deliverability of such applications? I’m sure the Citizens Advice Bureaux of this country would be happy to be involved in such a process that would ultimately save them resolving issues that will hit their desks in the future, as a result of a minister getting involved in something they have little or poor cognizance of.

Overall it was nice to see despite the expected unjoined-up-ness and rag-bag of a budget that humour is still extractable from it.


Government Data Service Launch

December 8, 2011

The UK Government Data Service was launched in front of a small but auspicious gathering of around 100 people including the GDS staff crowding the doors to the office, at Aviation House, London on 8 December 2011. At 11:05 Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service, introduced Francis Maude MP, the Cabinet Office Minister. Mr Maude described the long way we had come from the days when providing PDF’s of forms online for signature and posting was classed as e-government. However, he said, we were now in a difficult financial position and government service delivery should be digital where they are capable of being done in such a way, as outlined in the Martha Lane-Fox Digital-by-Default report. He also stated that it will be a difficult decision to turn off conventional services, so the digital ones have to be better and cheaper. There will also be much inertia and resistance to be combatted and It was also necessary to design services from the citizen’s point-of-view, which was being done with Universal Credit.

Ryan Battles then followed on to describe the development of Directgov, from its original launch in 2004 to its current status with a satisfaction level of over 70% and receiving feedback in the form of over 40,000 comments per month, which were also being used by the Beta.gov team to assist in the new site. Tom Loosemore took over to announce that Beta.gov would launch early in 2012 but they wouldn’t be turning off anything yet. It would be small, simpler, cheaper and better than Directgov and covered in ‘calls to action’. They’d accepted that Google was the ‘home page’ of the majority of users i.e. how they got to subsidiary pages on any site. The Beta.gov designer is also working with the Universal Credit team to ensure they both used the ‘global experience language’, i.e. a consistent use of language and presentation of e-services across government.

Neil Williams, a Product Manager, came up to amplify the corporate platform aimed at saying there were five or so Departments involved in the Beta, and these were employing the intuitive new publishing tool to assist devolution of content management. Chris Chant, as Executive Director of Directgov is responsible for the GDS IT, took the platform next and described the rationalisation that had taken place in establishing the new service in a new building. The network was largely wireless, the computers were laptops (the presentations were on a MacBook), people used Google Apps unless security at IL2 was required when they used Office Libre. There was no telephone network, all staff were on mobiles. The only wired network was for communications at IL3. He stated that security had been dealt with last. A saving of 80% was stated. This was ‘Martini IT’ – “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”.

Peter Herlihy next described the e-petitions solution that had been developed in eight weeks from a standing start. There had been 25,000 petitions, 3 million signatures, six of the petitions had passed the 100,000 mark necessary to be raised in Parliament and action was being taken on them. The cost was now less than one pence per transaction per year and would halve in year two. Allon Lister then described the work being done with the Office of Public Guardians where a paper-heavy approach was being replaced by a digital-by-default one. Alice Newton described the development of the Tech City app(lication) that had been created for an area of London with a concentration of new media companies.

Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, described how the building’s origins as a church would hopefully bring the team the divine inspiration needed to do the job. He accepted that the car tax system and some local government are the best but that a combination of new technology would make public service easier and better. Martha Lane-Fox followed Ian by describing the move from a digital entrepreneur to being UK digital champion but with the expectation that the improvement to government digital services would assist the target to increase computer usage for 2012. In fact the team at the GDS have agreed to be out of the office three days per week in 2012 to work with colleagues across the country, such as those at the DWP in Warrington. Martha expressed her view that the Internet is one of the strongest levers for social change, and that it is important that we focus on people – “lives can be changed”.

The room then broke up into three groups for presentations on different aspects. I chose to hear the transition team describe how they captured feedback and used this to improve the way Directgov and Beta.gov were presented. An example was how some people paying for a passport complained that they weren’t sure who cheques were made payable to, this resulted in a change to wording and presentation, and a further change to tabular presentation after later feedback. Similarly interventions were made after comments were found on Twitter by staff, these prompted changes to the pages they had created during the national strike. A major focus had been on making the pages viewable on smartphones when an increasing number were identified as being used to access Directgov, and now 9% of Directgov is viewed on mobile devices (largely iPhone and Android).

Colleagues at the GDS and Cabinet Office are to be congratulated for this massive culture change in a few months. I wait to see it permeate the rest of government (local and central).

PS and there was no mention of avoidable contact (NI14) anywhere


Digital exclusion by default

October 23, 2011

Any proponent of the UK Government’s Universal Credit scheme might do well to read the latest academic review from the department responsible for it, the Department for Work and Pensions. The  Research Report is No 776 “Increasing digital channel use among digitally excluded Jobcentre Plus claimants“, published in October 2011. The authors are Duncan Adam, Vicky Campbell Hall, Dr Maria de Hoyos, Anne E. Green and Dr Andrew Thomas, the research being carried out by TNS-BMRB.

Whilst central government is keen for services to be ‘digital-by-default’, those looking at the citizen-customers as these researchers have, recognise the huge chasm to be crossed in getting the major government service users involved to employ digital channels. The advice offered to Jobcentre Plus is admirable , but well-known in loc al government where trying to increase take-up of electronically-delivered services has been happening these past ten years.

A key omission from the report is any word on partnership! So the mighty DWP is going to sort out this digital and social exclusion by itself without any consideration of working with other government departments or local government. There have been some joint adventures between the JC+ and local government, but we still have job seekers going from one office to the next seeking advice in many cases. Do the DWP have to offer training, whilst the library is doing the same, and the Housing options team are assisting people with computer use to find a house?

Yet again there has to be a more efficient way of doing this.


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