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.


The failure of IT reform

June 10, 2012

Mark Forman and Paul Brubaker write in Federal Computer Week of 18 May 2012 on ‘Why IT reforms have failed to make much difference’. They ask for government IT reforms in three key areas:

  • “Clear authority, responsibility and accountability”
  • “Clear goals for productivity gains”
  • “A viable, transparent common framework for creating new government operating processes”

Whilst I agree with the need for the reforms, from three people who’ve occupied senior posts as government officers I would have expected less naivety. We’ve had a brief change when the Chief Information Officers got to the top of the greasy poles around the place but in far too many cases what they said wasn’t welcome – they too asked for processes to be changed, for technology to be employed after the services we re-aligned and that it wasn’t a matter of technology.  Similarly they will have pointed out the need for outcomes that are deliverable but requiring changed processes.  Given the politicized system’s inability to deliver solutions to these, the CIO will have found themselves unable to deliver and being replaced with a technical functionary who does what the politicians and their advisors request without demanding wider change.


Accountancy age

April 1, 2012

As my years in government IT have drawn to an early end and we’ve just had the UK budget I just thought I’d mark the occasion with a few comments upon accountancy which I have conluded from experience is one of the main reasons little in the system will actually change until that does. It is nothing personal against all the accountants I know and have known, and some I still consider friends, it’s just an attack on the dark art that obfuscates the potential for much real transformation, particularly in government.

An opinion piece in the Guardian a few years ago provides some background as to how the UK has permitted accountancy to take over the country, and to further confirm this, McSweeney, B. (2006). “Are we living in a post-bureaucratic epoch?” Journal of Organizational Change Management 19(1): 22-37. p.27, identified that the number of qualified accountants in the UK Civil Service increased from approximately 600 to over 2000 between 1982 and 2002, whilst the total number of civil servants had fallen.

But here on a lighter but (I hope) not too insulting note are some jokes I found some years ago and have made more politically correct:

What’s the definition of an accountant? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

What’s the definition of a good tax accountant? Someone who has a loophole named after them.

When does a person decide to become an accountant? When they realise they don’t have the charisma to succeed as an undertaker.

What does an accountant use for birth control? Their personality.

What is an extrovert accountant? One who, whilst talking to you, looks at your shoes instead of their own.

What’s an auditor? Someone who arrives after the battle and bayonets the wounded.

Why did the auditor cross the road? Because they looked in the file and that’s what they did last year.

How many kinds of accountant are there? Three kinds – those who can count and those that can’t.

How do you drive an accountant completely crazy? Tie them to a chair, stand in front, and fold up a map the wrong way.

If government wants to implement transformation and cost savings it only has to simplify the whole bureacratic way everything is costed, charged and calculated across government. This will be even more important if there is going to be successful implementaion of ‘cloud’ services.


Complexity

March 1, 2012

Having made a lot of ‘lean’ and ‘systems thinking’ on this blog, it was interesting to find another approach being proposed by academia. Professor Simon Collinson has stepped down from the ivory towers at Henley School of Business (if there are towers of ivory in Reading?) and with Melvin Jay, the founder of Simplicity, berated government for its complexity. This I quite accept, as it has been discussed often enough on this blog, especially when talking about the theories of Paul Henman, in that we (politicians, public servants, systems designers) make processes overly complex because the technology permits and enables this.

The publication that brought their work to my attention was the ‘Public Sector Complexity Review’ a 48 page PDF. I could then work my way back through other publications including The Complexity Challenge (36 page PDF), however I couldn’t find any academic papers supporting the topic by the author. The first report states on the first page that “public sector organisations were on average 30% more complex than their private sector counterparts”, which is no surprise when the private sector don’t contend with being directed by politicians. In the ICT context the authors state on page 9 that “the complex IT environment – a mix of large numbers of legacy systems, and new, sometimes inadequately or poorly implemented enterprise systems – can have a big impact on processes and service delivery”, which will come as no surprise either to anyone working in the arena. The authors’ answer to the dilemma is simple and is expressed on page 10 – “If the government is serious about increasing efficiency, our study shows that taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to identifying and reducing complexity and embedding a culture of simplicity throughout the public sector should be an essential part of their strategy”. I would argue that the solution to this complexity has already been found in “The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education” written by W.Edwards Deming in 1993 and is catered for by his ‘System of Profound Knowledge’.

Complexity as expressed by the authors of these two papers is an issue but its resolution is much more complex and requires a ‘whole of government’ solution.


Keep it stupid, simple

January 17, 2012

Whilst they may not be able to do much about it, at least some of the politicians in the UK have realised what a complex system we have around the claiming of various benefits. The conclusions from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published on the 12 January 2012, recognize the pickle we have got ourselves into:

  • No single body is responsible for coordinating means testing across government
  • At present there is no clear picture of how the entire benefit system affects claimants’ incentives to work
  • Departments do not understand the impact of administering more means-tested benefits locally
  • The benefit system is difficult to understand and places a high burden on claimants
  • administrative costs of means-tested benefits vary so significantly
  • Real-time information systems will be difficult to implement

So, if we have got an unmanageable set of legislation that makes life difficult and expensive for all levels of public service, who is going to sort it out? This self-induced complexity has been frequently discussed here, especially around the ‘New Conditionality’ covered by Paul Henman in Governing electronically – we make processes and systems complex because we believe that ICT will sort it all out for us – it may, but at an enormous cost, especially if the systems are outsourced or poorly designed. Let’s keep it simple or pay the stupid price!


Is government a platform?

October 18, 2011

An intriguing paper by Tim O’Reilly is published in Innovation, volume 6, number 1, following its original appearance in a book entitled Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice, published by O’Reilly Media in 2010 – the paper is entitled ‘Government as a Platform‘.

Early on we have a definition of Government 2.0 -“Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city,state, national, and international level.” Which is nice to know…

O’Reilly argues on page 18 that the best way for government to promote competition and more innovation is open standards. Further, the necessity is to “establish a simple framework that makes it possible for the nation – the citizens, not just the government – to create and share useful data”, reminding us on page 25 that ‘”open by default’ is the key to the breakaway success of many of the Internet’s most successful sites”.

There is then the description of “choice architecture” described by Sunstein & Thaler in ‘Nudge’. This is an important and frequently underrated role in government when so many opportunities for participation have been and can be ruined by poorly designed forms, surveys, questionnaires and similar exercises. O’Reilly is equally assured of the importance of the role of the choice architect, for as he says on page 27 “participation means true engagement with citizens in the business of government, and actual collaboration with citizens in the design of government programs”, and again on page 34 that “it is actually systems for harnessing implicit participation that offer some of the greatest opportunities for Government 2.0”.

Rather optimistically on page 35, O’Reilly states “a Government 2.0 approach would use open government data to enable innovative private sector participation to improve their products and services”, but this is reinforced a page further on by saying “Government 2.0 requires a new approach to the design of programs, not as finished products, perfected in a congressional bill, executive order, or procurement specification, but as ongoing experiments”. This bears similarity with the agile processes currently being promoted in UK government.

The paper ends with a useful list of ten ‘Practical Steps for Government Agencies’, that I won’t repeat but which are worth recycling! Please do.


It works both ways!

September 6, 2011

With the central government pressure on  local government to be transparent and provide open data (thank you Mr Pickles), it’s about time someone considered it the whole way around. If local government is providing data for people to do wizzy things with, as in Fixmystreet or Fixmytransport, shouldn’t this be reciprocated, and those taking data provide the feedback or reciprocal data in a suitably open format rather than emails. Similarly, if we are providing all this open data at the government’s behest shouldn’t that be an end to form-filling? Rather than endless submissions to government departments every year, can’t they just suck in a CSV or XML file living on a website?

When I was writing my dissertation there was lots of ways of looking at e-government for example G2C or government to citizen, C2G being the reverse. There was also G2G, in which case if we push out data for central government and they suck it in, we can then take back their data feeds in electronic form. Such a solution would prevent a lot of double keying across the country, once the schemas are agreed and developers have developed a single or very few sets of interfaces.

Lets see an end to open data as a one-way street and build up to at least it being bi-directional, if not a motorway!