Like a Virgin

December 22, 2012

I’ve been a Virgin mobile phone customer for years. Not out of amazing loyalty but for the fact that for my basic usage they provide the service at a reasonable cost and when I’ve considered the alternatives there were no major benefits. What does annoy me is that when I want to use their online service to check on things I inevitably get the message “Oops! You weren’t expecting that? Neither were we.” but after some many times I am now expecting it. It crops up when I try to log in, when I want to look at other pages, but all I’m offered is ringing a call centre to carry out what should have taken a minute of my time and will now take ten!

This I believe is what will become of “digital by default” in many cases. One would expect that given the years I’ve been using the site, Virgin would have sorted out these glitches but currently it’s worse than ever. I presume they’re laying off staff like everyone else and by the time the next round of cuts by central government have really impacted on local government, IT support will be a nominal service with the few remaining techies rattling around the empty town halls. Central government has always been somewhat bloated, so it will take a bit longer to hit home there and really affect Ministers but eventually there will be no-one to fix the web site and when the number is rung, no-one there either…

On that cheerful note – Season’s greetings and best wishes for the New Year…

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Quoting the obvious

October 28, 2012

It’s probably a decade since I first had anything to do with Agilisys but it was interesting to see that they are still around, and apparently thriving, although the management team seems to have largely changed. What was obvious was that even at the launch of their new platform, Agilisys Digital, the employment of a Google guru doesn’t always work when Joel Lohrey, Industry Head of Education, Government and Non-Profit at Google, comes along and states the obvious. The launch and presentation are picked up in Digital by Default News where Lohrey ‘reveals’ his hints to councils:

  • Focus on the user
  • Use analytics to determine what point online drops off to offline
  • Make it mobile
  • Innovate discretely
  • Fix My Street (and a US equivalent) are good examples

I wasn’t present and Lohrey may have picked up on this but focusing on the user and the analytics are only of value if one acts upon what one learns and these actions become the discrete innovations. Why I am gobsmacked is because I wonder if this is all the great god Google can teach us? I do hope not. I realise councils cannot and should not carry out some of the optimizing and juggling that Google is apparently capable of and have to play a clean game, but there must be some real lessons?


Irish eyes on the USA?

October 24, 2012

Public Affairs Ireland in a post by Garrett Fennell entitled “Rolling out eGovernment US style – are there lessons for Ireland?” encourages the Irish government to look to examples in the USA for their approach to e-government. One expression that is used, and is new to me, is the opportunity for e-government to be everyday government rather than electronic government, this is also in contrast to the ‘digital be default’ regime in that users pay a ‘efficiency fee’ to use the faster, electronic services – it does introduce two tiers of service but is obviously better than making all citizens pay for digital, and apparently 27 states are using this self-funding model where the private sector do the work for the fee.

Fennell looks at a range of options from Code for America to some of the transparency initiatives that are going on. He does however conclude that “Of course one aspect that is common between Ireland and the US is the digital divide and the need to ensure that service provision is not focused only at sectors of society that have means or capacity to access and navigate the web, whether through Smartphones or otherwise”, along with acknowledging the need for high-speed broadband if they are to be universal.


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.


Data matching

November 13, 2011

I’ve written about the inherent difficulties in identifying individuals or even individual properties from a practitioner perspective across multiple UK government computer systems before. Having been involved in the National Land & Property Gazetteer (NLPG) exercise from the outset I am aware that even with a standard for recognising, labelling and addressing static structures such as houses there are issues that can take a long time to settle. When we are considering trying to fix individuals, without the benefit of an identity card or similar compulsory marking system, this is going to be very hard – and the LLPG/NLPG saga has been going on for more than a decade and still isn’t perfect!

There is a vision within UK central government to move to a system of individual electoral registration. Currently one individual with a property is expected to take responsiblity for ensuring that all those eligible to vote within those premises are put on the Electoral Register, a very people-intensive process where forms are delivered to every known residence within each local authority area. These are then repeatedly chased for completion as a part of ensuring that the Register is up-to-date.

On 4 November 2011 the UK Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee issued its Tenth Report on the topic of  Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration. A number of conclusions are reported and amongst these were ‘Data matching can only be a success if local authorities are provided with the information they need in a timely and helpful way’. However, the general approach towards any sort of compulsion with regards to registering remains highly relaxed.

Whilst various legal requirements are in place for local authorities to hold address data, these still lack a level of consistency across the approaches, which all adds to the cost of managing computer systems and their interfaces. It had been hoped that the requirement for one LLPG would standardise this, however whilst legislation requires systems to hold addresses for Council Tax, Business Rates (NNDR), Elections, Environmental Health, Social Services etc etc these are all likely to be provided by different software companies, and whilst the Unique Property Reference Number may provide a link between them, once they are all matched, doing that work in the first place requires effort that cannot be afforded in these hard times. This all complicated by the base legislation where different individuals and different addresses have potentially different status within their respective laws.

This will be further confused by the divergent projects across government relying upon individual identity management with little apparent programme management to ensure they don’t do their own thing. The anti-ID card lobby have little to fear whilst personal identity applications will continue to breed and the £10 million promised by Francis Maude will not go far.