Top management team

April 10, 2012

In the wake of the Socitm Better Connected 2012 review and reports, a further report has been published aimed at the management of UK local authorities. Better Connected 2012: a briefing for the top management team picks up on some of the results of the annual study along with opinions of those involved. It’s only 16 page so the £50 price tag is a little steep, unless you are a subscriber. The author(s) promote what they describe as eight ‘simple, clear points which can act as guiding principles’, unfortunately number eight is ‘we want public services that are more transparent’, which isn’t at all clear to me – is that the policies, data or management that needs to be ‘transparent’? The other seven are equally ‘simple’.

The service picked on and discussed around mystery shopping is that of public libraries. Possibly one of the more difficult to manage in these turbulent times with high asset value, regular revenue costs and an unpredictable market. If the library service concerned has an old software application, they’re highly unlikely to get a new shiny, all-singing one in the current climate – instead they are likely being compressed and expected to do more with less. Ultimately it may be said that going online with the latest applications, and encouraging self-service will cut a few librarian posts, but it’s a fine line in the costings.

I heartily agree with the statement on the eighth page that “council leaders and managers must accept that the main purpose of the website is to deliver services”, but currently policy dictates that it isn’t necessarily the council that is delivering services now, and the private and third sectors have their own opinions as to what their route is once they’ve taken on services and it isn’t necessarily transparency of ease of customer contact. Similarly, the twelfth page argues for lots of user testing, which I totally agree with but third-party application interfaces aren’t easily or affordably tweaked once they are in place.

Unfortunately for all the good intentions the authors are too far detached from the reality of delivering services in the current climate and whilst there is much good advice the attitude is likely to pi** off more council web managers than it will educate.

The Inbox

February 24, 2012

In terms of electronic government email is normally the poor, ignored, unmeasured relation. However, when a citizen sends an email, for example if there’s no form on the website and only a generic, or even very generic, email address, they are still expecting a response, and the fact that they know from experience that email delivery is near instantaneous means they expect a pretty quick response. This has always been the case but the reality is largely ignored. Some local authorities ping back a response that the email has been received and a reply will be forthcoming in a number of days – some even do this for personally addressed mails.

The other area for concern is how many government services count the number of mails received and analyse them in any way. Do we know if particular services get more than expected? Perhaps somebody has unhelpful information on a website requiring users to asks questions every time? Perhaps a form isn’t available that could be delivered to the right service. How do we know any of this whilst hundreds or thousands of emails are manually forwarded, whilst remaining uncounted and unanalysed? How do we determine the response expected, if we send a standard seven-day auto-answer and the sender has placed a ‘High Importance’ flag on it, how will they feel?

An interesting piece of work, complete with infographics has been published on Codeworks Connect entitled ‘Interesting Insights into Email Infographic’, which helps set the scene on user behaviour around email. Whilst not a believer in the adage that we can’t manage what we can’t measure, I do believe that in order to deliver channel shift and improve service delivery we need to know what is happening on all channels and leaving poor relations like email or telephony out in the cold isn’t good enough.

Evaluating citizen participation

February 7, 2012

One of the major difficulties accepted in the discussions around citizen participation was how do we measure it. This was presented more recently in the post ‘Participating in a Democracy’. Whilst being fully referenced and including her a new paper from the IBM Center for The Business of Government probably owes a great deal to the late Sherry Arnstein’s work on the Ladder of Democracy.

The paper entitled ‘A Managers Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation’ (56 pages, 2.6Mb) is written by Tina Nabatchi of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs focuses on revising a modified version of the Ladder of Participation that was published in 2007 as the ‘IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation’. The paper clearly identifies that there are no easy routes to evaluation and the methods outlined require time and effort tu fulfill and although there are mentions of using new media to consult there are no solutions as to measuring with them. In fact the one clear link to anything electronic from the White House website is to the proclamation that protects personal data.

However, as I’ve stated, the big thing is to get participation right, then e-participation will come naturally (with trust), so this is a good start.

Six months on…

December 22, 2011

Haven’t the National Audit Office been busy! First this December we had the review of UK Government web sites and now a progress check on the IT Strategy. The report ‘Implementing the Government ICT Strategy: six-month review of progress’ was published on the 21 December 2011.  The Strategy was actually published at the end of March 2011, so they had a few weeks to review and write-up.

The report states, on the good side, that a number of individuals had been appointed to lead on the Strategy but I wonder how many have lasted the six months? One area the PASC was critical of was the regular redistribution of senior civil servants before projects were finished, but this time a number would appeared to have retired (i.e. gone to work in private industry).

One of the areas picked up on by the report is that there is still no way of measuring the changes – this potentially relates to my previous argument regarding channel shift but there has been enough talk in government about benefit realisation in recent years for it to be put firmly into practice – but this would require less movement of the pieces around the chess board for some consistency to occur. The report also picks up on a lack of human resources to implement the Strategy, which again requires some planning and managing to take place. There also appears to be a lack of clarity about how and when different departments will implement the Strategy – I’ve seen some efforts taking place over the Green ICT element, but that is but one of the four sub-strategies recently published.

At least it is being reviewed – I just home the next one is published shortly after the first anniversary!

Evil crowdsourcing

December 20, 2011

In the supposed season of goodwill to all (bah-humbug),  what a better topic to deal with than ‘evil crowdsourcing’, a term I’ve lifted directly from the MIT Technology Review and an article entitled ‘Hidden Industry Dupes Social Media Users – Paying people to influence discussions in social media is big business in China and the U.S. published on December 12, 2011 by Tom Simonite. As increasing attention is paid by government to the content of social media, particularly in terms of improving services and developing policy (e.g. Crowdsourcing Closer Government Scrutiny), what more cynical suggestion could there be than that it is already being corrupted by people being paid to promote particular items. This is probably no worse than the old practice of prospective MP’s bribing the electorate with barrels of beer but to me it does rather ring of subliminal television messages or the tricks that Derren Brown plays upon people to make them think come up with the right answer!

So when collating your social media comments – beware!

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 team to assist in the new site. Tom Loosemore took over to announce that 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 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 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

Parlour games

December 7, 2011

According to a report in UKAuthority dated 2 December 2011, Mike Bracken, the Head of the Government Digital Service in the UK (note – the website is on WordPress), speaking at the Socitm 2011 Conference in Birmingham, stated that e-government efforts in the past have been plagued by rivalry between local and central government. I would dispute that since it was primarily ruined by central government establishing unreachable targets at the outset and dabbling in local government business to the extent that the views of the citizen were largely ignored! The government also encouraged rivalry between councils by using targets and monitoring them annually and publicly.

I am pleased to report that, in contrast, he does announce the dawn of a new era of cooperation between local and central government, particularly to develop techniques for measuring the usability of online transactions. However,  few years ago, as a part of my academic research I concluded that one of the best mechanisms for doing this was to collate user feedback across all channels to direct changes in the way services are presented. The Company table V9 of commercial applications that use something along these lines to help web managers, customer service managers and others to focus on the customer has been available since then.

I know a number of councils, including my own that use such applications to improve their service delivery, not just online but face-to-face and over the ‘phone. So we have the applications, now all we need is the political will to use what is already available, without turning to the usual big suppliers to central government to re-invent them and put the prices up!