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.

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Generation Y e-government

August 22, 2012

In a recent article on IT Use for Australian Business it is revealed that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) deputy secretary Abul Rizvi had identified a “worrying” drop in the use of online government services between 2009 and 2011 and the department were investigating the use of video to deal with Generation Y. The drop in usage is identified in a report from AGIMO that is linked to (PDF, 96 pp, 3.24 Mb) but in my view this is not a surprise since the same experience was reported from Canada some while ago, and is probably only the fallback from the initial surge in trying new technologies and finding the experience less than ideal

Rather than throwing money at new technologies to resolve the issues around service, the solution is to examine the process, online and offline, and find what the problems are from the citizens’ view, and then sort out that process – be that caused by legislation (overly complex) or waste.


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.