How hard can it be?

October 17, 2012

I use nPower as the supplier of my electricity and gas at home, to try to reduce paper bills I use their electronic system so that they email me when they want readings and I submit them to their website. The trouble is it is such an awfully slow website – it really is like waiting for the pages to refresh can take minutes. Similarly, they promoted a beta feature that monitors your energy usage, or rather they used to – it’s still part there but you can’t find it through the search facility and there’s no reporting of energy usage that I can find.

The more I attempt to use private sector web sites I get annoyed about all the criticism that public sector webbies have had over the years. The nPower one is dreadful to navigate, full of their marketing terminology, which is meaningless to a customer. If nPower wish to reduce paper customers and the use of paid meter-readers, they’d better get their act together sharpish. So sad as it’s quite attractive, but it goes like a dog and has less intelligence than the said canine.

I did include a complaint about its performance when I was on there but that was over 48 hours ago, and still no response…

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Lies, damned lies

October 10, 2012

In a blog that is loosely attributed to a former American president it’s about time I quoted one of his most famous attributions – “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time” – Abraham Lincoln, (attributed) 16th president of US (1809 – 1865). Any attempt to fool people by those with any responsibility for their governance should be treated promptly and publicly. In the UK we have seen the incidence of lies and untruths about the recent past that are currently being revealed increasing, whilst those in authority cringing at the delayed revelations, can only bring themselves to say that matters have changed since then.

Open data may have some of the answers but this requires a basic lack of trust on the citizen side for them to know and suspect which data they need to analyse. This may be compared to  Heather Brooke carrying out Freedom of Information requests to reveal the UK Members of Parliament expenses scandal. This is unlikely to have been revealed, even with open data, without a smell of corrupt practice. Her Majesty’s Members of Parliament and other elected or appointed officials need to treat Her Majesty’s subjects with less disdain and should be treated harshly for breaches of their trust.

Which would come cheapest and easiest – the provision of open data or principled behaviour by those we are expected to trust? This would be transparent and open government on the cheap, but government that we should be able to expect.


Ideas cannot digest reality

October 7, 2012

The title is a statement by Jean Paul Sartre that heads a section in Chapter 7 of James C. Scott’s wonderful book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”, Yale University Press, 1998. One may ask what a book published as part of the Yale Agrarian Studies has to do with electronic government or even government but as Scott states on page 6 in the Introduction it is “a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how”. Despite all the promises to the contrary this is still the behaviour of most governments and a majority of politicians. The book looks at many and varied examples of central planning including the USSR, Brasilia along with providing an ecological view of agricultural methods that haven’t worked and explaining why, but is as appropriate to those working in ICT, policy or politics as directly in the environment.

If nothing else and even if they can’t be bothered to read the 357 pages of the book I would ask those considering any project to make a note of the four ‘rules of thumb’ stated in the Conclusion on page 345 – take small steps, favour reversibility, plan on surprises and plan on human inventiveness.


The vital need of criticism

October 4, 2012

I am currently reading the new edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary recently published by New York Review Books. On page 133 Serge, when considering the state of the Russian revolution in 1920 as an active worker within it, states the following:

“A revolution seems monolithic only from a distance; close up it can be compared to a torrent that violently sweeps along both the best and the worst at the same time, and necessarily carries along some real counterrevolutionary currents. It is constrained to pick up the worn weapons of the old regime, and these arms are double-edged. In order to be properly served, it has to be put on guard against its own abuses, its own excesses, its own crimes, its own moments of reaction. It has a vital need of criticism, therefore, of an opposition and of the civic courage of those who are carrying it out.

This acceptance of active criticism and opposition so contrary to the Bolshevik Party and such similar regimes is in some ways surprising given that the revolution in Russia was defending itself on many sides from the rest of the world, but that was Serge. In the same way Socrates went about challenging Greek authority as the social gadfly many years before. Being able to accept criticism and opposition, and deal with it constructively is what differentiates democrats from those politicians claiming to be and those standing themselves on ideological plinths need to be ready for the fall that will inevitably come, when their ideas are proved flawed.

As this blog approaches its fifth anniversary I am contemplating reducing the frequency of posts here and broadening my blogging to a new one including more posts and pictures about environmental and other matters. In the years I have been actively involved in electronic service delivery I have seen some improvements, perhaps not as fast or dynamic, as I would have desired. At the same time the neoliberal management that has been in place remains probably strangling any opportunity to really develop new governance. Having watched from the sideline for six months after hanging up my spurs as a local government IT manager, I am quite enjoying taking a more active role as a volunteer in aspects of the community that appeal to me – assisting people with disabilities, doing more practcal environmental work, along with studying change from a sociological, philosophical and psychotherapeutic view. Hence at some stage in the near future this blog may wither gracefully and a new one be added with that broader vision.

Please stay for the moment, but watch out for an additional but more varied blog that may slowly replace it…


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.


Universal Chaos

September 22, 2012

I would heartily recommend everyone to read the uncorrected House of Commons Oral Evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on Universal Credit on Monday 17 September 2012 by Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, if only to read how politicians can avoid giving a straight answer to some very straight questions (and get away with it)! Glenda Jackson can also be read playing a splendid role questionning the two aforementioned Tory apologists, along with Dame Anne Begg (who according to this week’s New Statesman had to put up with Iain Duncan Smith leaning obliviously on the back of her wheelchair in the Commons bar recently).

For local authorities there is no good news as the answers received by Ms Jackson reveal and they now appear to be ‘charitable organisations’:

“Q216 Glenda Jackson: Will the funding be there to assist local authorities?

Lord Freud: Clearly, it is premature to say exactly what kind of funding is required.

Q217 Glenda Jackson: We know the cuts they are having to carry.

Lord Freud: We have got funds to introduce Universal Credit.  We are not concerned about who undertakes particular endeavours, and we can pay that on a neutral basis, so, in the sense that, yes, we do have funding for it.

Q218 Chair: My understanding was that a large chunk of the £2 billion-or £3 billion; there seemed to be some argument in the debate last Tuesday-that was set aside to help introduce Universal Credit would go on transitional protection for those whose income would lose out, rather than in the mechanics of it.

Mr Duncan Smith: The mechanics are part of all of that.  The whole point that we have been talking about is getting people online.  All those processes are part of what we have to do.  We are discussing with local government about how that lies and where that sits.  There are other charitable organisations we are talking to.”

And then it gets worse –

“Lord Freud: No. Let me just go through that. What we are transferring to local authorities is a whole range of responsibilities, where they can make better judgments on their local requirements: elements of the Social Fund; the decisions on DHPs, which are very substantial-next year, when you add them all up, DHPs are £165 million; and decisions on direct payments.

Q227 Chair: That just confuses the landscape. The whole point of Universal Credit, and the reason that you get people like me saying that in principle this was a good idea was it was meant to be that single working-age benefit for those who were on means-tested benefit.

Lord Freud: And it is.

Chair: But it is not.

Lord Freud: It is.

Q228 Chair: It was going to be, but then council tax went off to the local authority and the Social Fund went off-”

And shortly after that they give up on that strand…but so it goes on, and on. I’m not sure I’m much clearer about what’s happening with UC, so I look forward to the edited (‘corrected’) highlights in due course from the Committee and congratulate the members of it again on some thorough questioning.


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.