HMRC – still all at sea!

July 13, 2013

Today, my wife and I who live at the same address, received a total of FOUR envelopes from the HMRC relating to Child Tax Credits, in fact they duplicated each other to a greater of lesser extent but two were from Glasgow and the other two from Preston. After sitting down for a while and tracking back to paper work part related to a demand for overpayment for the year 2011 – 12 and the thicker duplicate wadge to the tax year 2012 -13. Unfortunately, the calculation for 2012 – 13 had hidden within it the amount being demanded for 2011 -12, whilst the 2011 – 12 amount supplied a BGC slip attached to send to their Bradford office. So four lots of postage, paper & machine time when one would do, if the system operated as it should.

With the reams of paper involved over the past few years that have taxed my mind in completing them (hopefully) accurately, I hate to think how a person with a lesser education would cope. We have paid the amount on the more threatening demand with a cheque since although an electronic option is available I’m not sure they could cope without the relevant bits of paper and I’m ensuring a paper trail. We will now await a demand for the remainder in due course.

I am mainly relieved that my son is past the age where Child Tax Credits apply now but we still have to battle on with the Student Loan online system that infuriates us all from the moment we log on.

If any government truly wanted to save money they would ditch these convoluted, time-wasting systems and find a way to collect taxes and pay benefits in a more organised manner. By this I am not supporting the massive waste of time that is Universal Credit, but making a suggestion to review all existing systems from the point of view of the end user and cut out all the unnecessary complexity that is over-engineered into them because computers permit it, and the neo-bureaucrats want it.


Big problem

October 31, 2012

In an editorial entitled “Why we can’t solve big problems” in the MIT Technology Review Jason Pontin does more than consider ‘big problems’, his piece leads to broader thinking as to what are ‘big problems’, and what problems science can actually deal with. With a background of the billions of dollars and the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US space programme as an example of an earlier ‘big problem’, and transfers into the contrasting role of the relatively trivial developments funded by venture capitalism in today’s world. The conclusion is that there isn’t the political will, supported by the wider public,to solve these ‘big problems’ or even to attack some of the smaller ones that make them up. As Pontin accepts many of the problems are resolvable in technological terms but the harder problems are the social and political background ones that will allow us to direct resources at their solution.

Whilst I accept much of what Pontin says I do not believe problem resolution is anywhere near that straightforward. Even small problems that appear resolvable through the technological lens suddenly create other issues when attacked. Curing diseases brings more mouths to feed, which brings famine, sorting out famine increases the population and land and water requirements, and no amount of technology can control the elemental forces of the weather, earthquakes and unknown disasters to come. Yes, politicians and policy are an answer to some ‘big problems’ but we cannot entirely control planetary destiny.

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.

Shared practice

September 19, 2012

A recent blog post on the Kahootz site upon the topic of “Developing shared services in the public sector” that I viewed as the result of a Twitter follow set me thinking about sharing in the context of the history of local government in the UK and why it can be problematic. Many of the precursors of local government services such as workhouses, waterworks and transport bodies were quite feudal in their manner of operation – the Poor Law Acts of 1597 and 1601, along with the Act of Settlement of 1662 placed responsibility for the collecting of poor relief and the management of the poor with the parish – the lowest common division. As society developed and towns grew bigger this became an issue of scale and in 1696 Bristol was allowed to have a joint workhouse for itself and the nineteen neighbouring parishes, following an Act of Parliament. By the Acts of Settlement the poor were still consigned to their parish of origin, rather than being supported in the one they might have lived in.

It is this historic parochialism compounded by structuration, to use Giddens’ term. and an equally archaic accounting system that left us as ‘functionalism’ was conceived from the mid-1800’s onwards that different agencies claimed responsibility for different services with an increasingly complex bureaucracy managed by people whose place in the hierarchy was determined by the role in this bureaucracy.

Looking at the list of shared services provided by Kahootz/the LGA one can only ask why weren’t these always delivered or shared in this way? Obviously, the answer is because the service was somebody’s pride and joy and they weren’t going to let go. Some services, or practices, remaining within local control can have benefits, such as one’s associated tightly with other practices – development control, whilst it has some democratic responsibility is one such but refuse collection and recycling can obviously be carried out more efficiently on a bigger scale.

Disentangling functions are regrouping them back into logical service practices is a fine art, which continues to be overridden by the political dogmatism and determination to see savings and has similarly been demonstrated by the failure of some outsourcing exercises. Shared services will be successful where the structuration is pragmatically unwoven, but will fail where, despite any political force, the interweaving is historically and socially embedded.

As to Kahootz, there is a need for good communications from the start with all involved but it doesn’t matter what tool you use if you don’t keep in the loop the people required to know. I have seen ICT practitioners left out in the cold before now, and brought in only to explain some difficulties that can only be overcome at the expense of any saving. Have a communications tool by all means, but use it wisely.

Central resource

September 12, 2012

In a report from the Audit Scotland, who are usually a well informed and rational bunch, there is a proposal for a central resource to get over project issues in Scottish central government systems development. The report “Managing ICT contracts: An audit of three public sector programmes” (PDF, 25 pages, 856 Kb + other options) looked at three programmes and found issues with their management, along with the Gateway system also used by the English government. The report stresses the need to ensure the implementation of the opportunities from the McClelland Report (reported here in March 2012 under “Scotland the Brave“) and the resultant action plan. One of the programmes has been cancelled at significant cost, a further contract has been given a years notice, so there are obviously issues and although the public bodies claim benefits they are unable to quantify them – how many more times will money be wasted without proper benefits realization and effective programme management being used?

In general the Auditor General advises “The Scottish Government needs to address these weaknesses and strengthen its strategic oversight of ICT investment to ensure the public sector delivers programmes that improve public services and provide value for money.”