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?

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G-cloud of unknowing

October 18, 2012

I’m pleased to announce that my paper “The ‘cloud’ of unknowing – what a government cloud may and may not offer: a practitioner perspective” has been accepted by the International Journal of Technoethics for publication in early 2013. Since this is a long while to wait here’s the abstract:

“Cloud computing is increasingly ubiquitous in the consumer and private sectors and with financial austerity there is pressure on governments to follow suit. However, the relationship between government and citizen is different to that of supplier and customer, despite the advocacy of New Public Management, particularly where the holding of sensitive data is concerned. The paper examines the potential issues of ‘cloud’ and how they may transfer to ‘government cloud’ (g-cloud), along with the potential problems pertinent to ‘g-cloud’ itself. There is an examination of the literature relating to security, legal and technical matters concluding with the considerations and principles that need to be observed prior to any major transfer of citizen data to a relatively new but still developing area of information systems.”

I do hope you enjoy…


E-government disaster

October 13, 2012

When developing plans in the event of an IT disaster one of the many aspects that needs to be covered is the situation when the web site itself or the  applications feeding into it go down. One can have all sorts of contingencies around web services including muliple servers, resilient Internet feeds, backup power sources etc but what about that one day when it’s all under water or hit by space debris?

A cheap and dirty, but very good solution is demonstrated by the city of Naperville near Chicago, USA, where they have established an emergency page, as described in their local online journal – Positively Naperville. Now I may be teaching all you IT and Web Managers out there to suck eggs but do you have such a thing ready for a nasty disaster. A quick and temporary pointer change and your citizens will know which number to ring or where to visit if your main site goes down – just remember to maintain it, too.

The trouble with all this wizzy IT equipment is that without spending an awful lot more cash upon it one is open to all sorts of potential issues, and what can go wrong will go wrong and at a time when you least want it. Prepare for the unexpected – it’s inneviatble at some time.


Lies, damned lies

October 10, 2012

In a blog that is loosely attributed to a former American president it’s about time I quoted one of his most famous attributions – “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time” – Abraham Lincoln, (attributed) 16th president of US (1809 – 1865). Any attempt to fool people by those with any responsibility for their governance should be treated promptly and publicly. In the UK we have seen the incidence of lies and untruths about the recent past that are currently being revealed increasing, whilst those in authority cringing at the delayed revelations, can only bring themselves to say that matters have changed since then.

Open data may have some of the answers but this requires a basic lack of trust on the citizen side for them to know and suspect which data they need to analyse. This may be compared to  Heather Brooke carrying out Freedom of Information requests to reveal the UK Members of Parliament expenses scandal. This is unlikely to have been revealed, even with open data, without a smell of corrupt practice. Her Majesty’s Members of Parliament and other elected or appointed officials need to treat Her Majesty’s subjects with less disdain and should be treated harshly for breaches of their trust.

Which would come cheapest and easiest – the provision of open data or principled behaviour by those we are expected to trust? This would be transparent and open government on the cheap, but government that we should be able to expect.


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.