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.


Local Government Data Service

September 7, 2012

There have been a couple of blog posts and a lot of Tweets recently from well-known characters in the local government web scene regarding establishing/creating/facilitating a Government Data Service (GDS)* but this time for local government. The only concern I voiced was that we had trod this ground before in various formats, including some of the early e-government projects/programmes.

Some of the posts/Tweets were by Carl Haggerty – The Local GDS question – again… and Stuart Harrison – Local GDS: A Skunkworks for Local Government , along with Dominic Campbell and probably others I’ve failed to mention (apologies!). Whilst I no longer have any real involvement in this, not being an IT manager, member of Socitm committees, member of the Local CIO Council (LCIOC) etc anymore I have been party to related conversations over the years including a discussion with the GDS team themselves at their launch who had obviously seen the reality that a lot of the contact with the citizen is at a local government level so were busily (or should I say agilely) developing at least one app for a local government service – I did offer to trial it in a large rural area since it was obviously based upon a city-dweller’s personal experience, and have no idea what happened to it in the end. A Local GDS would have taken this into account (hopefully) whilst the GDS could have focused on the ‘big data’ at their end.

Carl gave a good lead on the LGDS concept by saying it exists already, which it does in many ways, if informally as far as the local government hierarchy is concerned – but there are too many in government interested in controlling things, so it may need to avoid strangulation. Carl mentions talking to the LGA and since they have been in involved in various meetings with Socitm and the LCIOC, they should (in theory) help with the joining up? One of the ‘bodies’ mentioned was LeGSB which has been on the scene for years and been quietly productive – thank you Paul Davidson – which is quietly doing some related work, since one of the fundamentals is getting some STANDARDS in place if this is to work across 400+ LA’s.

I agree with Carl in that it needs some clear thinking, we’ve been here before and there is a tendency for great ideas to be strangled by bureaucracy and people wanting to make a name/well-paid-job for themselves. I don’t think the GDS team is a great example for local government, they’ve been spoiled with the central government budget, although they have learned to consult the end-user, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

Don’t let it get too southern-centric, there are citizens past Birmingham. Some good work has been going on in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so don’t ignore them either. A quick audit of what is happening and has happened is probably worth doing (LGA?) and then decide what quick wins can be made from some agile working across multiple boundaries. But please, please, please don’t reinvent wheels.

* References to ‘data’ should of course be ‘digital’ – brain operating on another planet that day – reminded when making cup of tea in GDS mug.


Customer avoidance

August 11, 2012

I had reason to pay a visit to a large branch of the HSBC bank recently. I’m not a customer of theirs but needed to pay a cheque in for someone else to a bank that they supply a service for. The sliding doors revealed a dimly lit interior full of machines that one is expected to carry out ones transactions through – if you can see which one is the appropriate one in the plush surroundings more reminiscent of a 70’s night club. After wandering about looking for the correct paying-in slip or a service counter I found a lift that indicated there was a service desk on the ground floor but the only one I found was for business customers. I stopped a young assistant, obviously the modern day equivalent of the department store floor walker who directed me to the first floor – I informed her that the lift claimed one was on the ground floor but only received a look that indicated that I was wrong.

Making my way up the stairs (I didn’t trust the lift!) I found a service desk hidden in a far corner with two staff behind glass and a short queue. This journey was quite a long one from the front door, so entirely designed to discourage face-to-face custom. Patiently waiting my turn I was eventually seen to be told that I couldn’t pay the cheque in without a pre-printed paying-in slip – something I had actually managed to do at a smaller rural branch in the past, but times had obviously changed and HSBC were intent on making life hard for customers unwilling to adapt to their systems.

Having got rid of a load of staff in April and now finding itself caught-out laundering money for gangsters and drug cartels, HSBC is obviously reinventing itself for a new market, but it’s not after ordinary customers who just want reasonable service. This was so unlike the Cooperative Bank branch I had just been into, where a cheery “Good Afternoon” had greeted me before I’d even put pen to paying-in slip.

I pray that in its attempts to be efficient government, including local government, avoid the HSBC model and focus on delivering service through systems that work.


Daring to be truthful?

August 9, 2012

A new report from Dare London entitled ‘Digital Britain: the truth about how we live today through technology’ (PDF, 175 pages, 7 Mb) is available from ThisisDare.com. The report analyzes usage data from a number of sources to present a view, in very pithy terms, of how the UK public is using digital media. Amongst the results they note that whilst there are less female users, those women who do use it, use it more. There are analyses of the type of things done online and the amount and time spent doing them by gender and age group, there is then the effect of e-advertsing and how it is having to change to accommodate changes in practice.

There is a similar analysis of mobile usage with a comparison of Android and Apple behaviours, along with a detailed examination of the app economy. The report also views tablet computing and the market there. Included is a lengthy study of the differing online behaviours including use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn along with opportunities for marketing people. The analysis includes buying patterns involving the various coupon offerings and even how television and other viewing, listening as well as reading is being affected by the new media in reality.

Even bloggers get a look in with a breakdown of who does what and their demographics, along with an intense look at games. The report potentially blows out of the water a number of the myths around new technology but concludes with the paragraph that:

“The internet is becoming flatter, deeper and quicker. It’s reaching more people, on more occasions, on more devices, more speedily. Brands need to prepare for that future. Specifically, they need to ready themselves for an internet that no longer lives on a desk and that is no longer run by institutions. Prepare for people and places.”

A lengthy read at 175 pages but far from dense with lots of colour graphs and charts. Yes, technology is changing things but not necessarily in the ways that were forecast or are being touted currently. Thanks for this Dare – it’s not often that everything is brought together for a panoptical view and it makes a difference!


Transparent e-gov

August 3, 2012

The UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met earlier this year and its report on “Implementing the Transparency Agenda” has just been published. The report has the usual somewhat confused outputs that one expects from a PAC report i.e. that little is likely to be changed as a result! Part of this is due to the blurring across strands of government such as ‘Departments’ and local authorities.

The responsible ‘Department’ for Communities & Local Government (CLG) demanded certain information from local government some time ago and although all but one council supplied this, despite the vagueness of the request, more is desirable. However, without some clarity as to format, fields and level i.e. standards, this will remain only of value to a the more advanced ‘armchair auditor’. The report appears to realise the difficulty without being able to make any difference.

The conclusions ask for “price and performance information for adult care”, but with outsourcing of so many arms of service I’m not even sure this could be made available. Similarly for “spending per pupil in individual academy schools” which is surely locked away in the ‘academy’ accounts? As the report states, and has probably been stated before by them, auditors and others that “the government does not understand the costs and benefits of its transparency agenda” – so what will this report change? There is a resounding cry for evidence-based policy but since when do politicians do that?

The report states that “The Cabinet Office recognises problems with the functionality and usability of its data.gov.uk portal”, so what will be done? It then goes on to state that “four out of five” visitors to the site leave immediately! Should we be surprised?

Finally, the report acknowledges that with eight million people without Internet access, they won’t gain any benefits from the data – well actually they might, with ‘armchair auditors’ and journalists doing it for them, especially since those eight million are unlikely to have the analytical skills to play with the data in the first place, and we are relying on the media to report it. We need the data in open, standard formats so that true comparisons can be done as to what happens when policy is led by political agenda rather than any hard evidence. In summary – Is there any open data about open data?