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.”

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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.


Policing

September 2, 2012

Policing is a public service that doesn’t often get viewed as a system or as a system of parts in the same way that health or government are. That was until Simon Guilfoyle, John Seddon and others looked at it. Simon is a serving officer with an interest in systems thinking and I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by him earlier this year at a NET2 meeting. Following the meeting he kindly forwarded me a recent paper he’d had published entitled “On target? – Public Sector Performance Management: Recurrent Themes, Consequences and Questions“, Policing (2012).

As the paper’s title infers it puts policing performance management into the same context as the rest of the public sector with all the bad practices that are frequently pointed out there. In line with the theme of this blog there is the notion that public satisfaction rates are a potential indicator, although some refining may be required to gain understanding in context i.e. cold feedback won’t do on its own. The paper also warns of the likely effect of  gaming when employing emotive targets, something that Simon went into some detail in during his presentation.

In this context John Seddon is just starting his “The Evidence Tour” and launching the second volume of “Delivering Public Services That Work”. The presentations are free and I recommend those involved in public services give him a listen and ask questions. With the introduction of elected police commissioners later this year the whole matter of police performance targets is likely to take on added weight as pre and post election gaming occurs.


Listen to customers not big data

August 28, 2012

A report from The Register  on 22 August 2012 covers one of the Directors of the dominant telco in Australia stating that “Insights won’t come from data, they’ll come from observation”, in other words which business processes the customers complain about offer more direction than sifting about in the data. Michael Ossipoff, the Director of Capability and Innovation [sic] at Telstra, does however not rule out big data, wanting to have his cake and eat it, but does also report that over 70% of their support calls are the result of customer expectations being incorrectly set.

Having read me quoting the mantra to listen to customers for many years, this approach will come as nothing new to readers of this blog but what it does provide is further evidence that the private sector has been doing it, so government needs to stopping flushing money down the drain on big data projects and instead ensure the mechanisms are in place to capture citizen feedback at the point of service delivery.


Open data is a means

August 25, 2012

My thanks to digiphile for Tweeting about this blog posting from Ovum entitled ‘The landscape around open data and Gov 2.0 starts to take shape’. Without digging into the actual Ovum report there are some good points made in the blog post, primarily that moving to government-as-a-platform is more about culture than technology, but unlike Ovum I am less optimistic about the ability for government to make this leap within a time frame where the technology is current – I expect we’ll be talking about Gov 5.0 or 6.0 by the time the culture has started to adapt. The report importantly states that “Open data is a means, not an end”, and hence the title of this post.

All is not rosy in the report, it does list some of the “major obstacles, flaws and characteristics” that are masked by the excitement around the topic. These include spin and propaganda, privacy breaches, the challenges inherent within unstructured data and digitizing from hard-copy records, along with the “build it and they will come” mentality that wasted so much money in e-government. Some lessons might be learned from the years spent by the Latter Day Saints and genealogists attempting to get family history data online – chunks of it are still flawed due to transcription errors, crass assumptions are frequently made by users that result in them jumping to entirely unscientific conclusions from the flimsiest links between datasets and there is a great reliance on validity checks being made by those who might have some connection with the data.

Whilst the report concludes that there is no obvious answer to whether a  market is available around Gov 2.0 and open data, it still manages to remain optimistic – which as industry consultants I expect Ovum to do – they still have to make a living. However, I envisage this will remain the long hard road that e-government has been, full of potholes, wrong turnings and dead ends and in the end I question the value that the average citizen get out of it?


Performance standards

August 16, 2012

Professor Colin Talbot of Manchester University published a White Paper on the 9 August entitled ‘Standards for Public Performance Monitoring’. (9 pages, open format). Whilst there is nothing new in expecting government to be open and transparent, this paper does at least lay out a path where by employing a standard format, all government agencies when presenting data to government, the citizen or auditors would be making sure that it was able to be examined in parallel with previous and future submissions.

As Professor Talbot has stated about government claims of efficiency savings, they need to be proved that we are talking about ‘efficiency’ and not a temporary dumping of staff so appear so (or other similar manoeuvre carried out as a revenue saving). A key paragraph for me appears on page 2 –

“One other notable feature of these periodic efficiency and/or performance initiatives has been the lack of learning, of accumulated knowledge, from one campaign to the next. Although we have learnt a great deal about how to measure performance, efficiency and productivity of public activities in the past four decades, far too little of this knowledge has been properly codified or is systematically used. There seems to be all too frequently a “reinventing of wheels” each time a new initiative emerges.”

As usual, politics manifests itself by an unwillingness to learn from government to government, as if one dares to appear to be acknowledging some good work was delivered. Personal and party politics will always get in the way of delivering any true efficiencies, since they will be subject to an ideological-based policy barrier.


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.