When did local government IT become the aircraft carrier

December 11, 2013

The analogy is often used of certain large bodies being like the aircraft carrier that needs substantial time and space to complete a change of direction. Two years ago when attending the launch of the Government Digital Service  (GDS) I had been most insistent that they adopted the good practice that was available in local government at that time, for given the conditions local government IT was playing under, with frequent changes of legislation and guidance from government most local authorities had, with their IT departments, maintained a focus on the citizen.

Observing from afar over Twitter the recent SocITM 2013 conference I could only observe that with the ascendance of the GDS, roles had been reversed and local government IT in the form of lots of boats like some Dunkirk rescue mission all strung together was having a great deal of trouble manoeuvring, whilst GDS had become the agile one.

This is obviously not a full and fair comparison between all local and central government as the on-going failures by the Department of Work and Pensions to implement Universal Credit in a timely manner confirms, and also that some local authorities have done great things, whilst some have largely disappeared.

The question is how does one turn around that string of little boats (they are in comparison to central government). Some people observing suggested joining a many together and then one would the budgets and labour force, but would one have the management? That is the tricky part – local authority senior management and the elected members have always wanted to steer their own boats however small and insignificant they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but change is needed.  This is what I thought was going to come out of SocITM nearly two years ago as I took my redundancy, but it does not appear to have happened. I may have missed something but the fact that Mike Bracken of the GDS is still offering this week to work with local government, as I heard him say he would two years ago tells me something different.

Local government has had to cope with drastic cuts, redundancies and reorganisations galore since I left, but the bigger vision of turning the aircraft carrier seems to have remained a futile hope as budgets shrink further and staff disappear.

Please tell me it’s not true?

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My identity

November 14, 2012

UKAuthority.com states that four potential providers of identity service to the UK Department of Work and Pensions have been chosen in ID Providers chosen for Universal Credit. I wonder why they then list seven: Post Office, Cassidian, Digidentity, Experian, Ingeus, Mydex, and Verizon, or are some of them working together? It’s good that Mydex have a foot in the door, along with our own dear Post Office, but why oh why have we got Experian again. I’ve communicated my own experience with Experian in an earlier blog post, and they are about as user friendly as having a red-hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine.

Speaking out of office and ear-shot with some DWP staff recently I was concerned  that they can only see a future where their entire job is automated, which is how they interpret the government vision. The command and control hierarchy makes those HR-ish noises that they are considerate employers, whilst waiting in the wings to make them redundant. They saw no young people in their ranks, they are also encouraged to see career progression where there isn’t any in reality. I imagine the DWP sees them transferring TUPE-less to the ranks of automata that appear to answer the telephone at Experian. They were intelligent hard-working people and I feel sorry for what they have to put up with.

The recent Independent on Sunday report raising issues with the rollout of Universal Credit quoted a government IT adviser as saying that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary “has been hypnotised by promises of what an online system can deliver. Warnings were given to him more than a year ago. They were ignored.” This follows a history of such ICT hubris from politicians, which was a side conclusion of my doctoral dissertation, but whilst consuming millions of taxpayers money fails to fill promises for the plain simple fact that government and its policies is much more complex than ICT is capable of.


Good practice?

March 18, 2012

A very recent publication from the UK Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) is In-House Research paper No. 8 entitled ‘Not just another website: Review of “50 Plus Works” Good-practice guide and toolkit’. This highly interesting for me since I am both 50+ and looking for work, so I was hoping to find this exercise doubly beneficial. 50PlusWorks is a relatively new website to assist those over 50 in finding work. The DWP have obviously made a slippery move here since government departments are supposed to be reducing the number of sites, and they’ve got away with this by having it done by The Age & Employment Network (TAEN) and being co-financed by the European Social Fund. However since it frequently links back to DirectGov, my question would be why not improve that?

I’m a strong believer in that if a web site is to be good enough for the citizen, the advisors themselves should be able to use it either to mediate for a face-to-face visitor, or for one telephoning in. The comments made to the researchers emphasise what is presumably wrong with the DWP and other government web sites.i.e. “it’s pretty much a one stop shop. There is nothing else as good out there.”, “the lack of photographs meant that it was possible to access information speedily”, “was seen as easier to operate than other websites”

The coalition clampdown on publicity was acknowledged as hampering the promotion of the site but I question the rationale. The reason for the site is apparently to assist, by mediation, the older person looking for work – there will many instances where this will still be appropriate whether a person is 49 or 60, so this approach might have been better employed in improving DirectGov or beta.gov.


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.


Tell us how

November 10, 2011

As promised in the Open Public Services White Paper, Francis Maude has launched the Tell Us How website for public sector workers to tell their bosses how services can be improved. One has to register on the site and the home page of the site is the registration page, why isn’t actually very inviting, but the thought’s there. However if one tries to use your personal email address you are rejected with “To register for this site, you must use your Departmental email address”, which gives the impression that like much of central government it appears to be focused around the civil service. However, the Cabinet Office launch page welcomes “All public sector workers, from nurses, to those working in job centres, local Government, or vital back office functions”, so not quite sure… – It also then appeared to reject my valid local government email address, but it hadn’t as I soon found a ‘welcome’ email with my password in my work inbox.

A bit of stray code also appears on the site more than a fortnight after it went live “<!–[endif]–><!–[if !ppt]–><!–[endif]–>” above the conditions one has to agree to when signing on –

“We welcome all your suggestions on this site, but ask you to please bear in mind our guidelines when submitting ideas and commenting.

Guidelines

Ideas will remain on the site as long as they:

• are clearly an attempt to present a genuine idea to reduce burden in the public sector

•• respect other people. Comments should not be malicious or offensive in nature, and should not constitute or include a personal attack on a person’s character

• don’t incite hatred on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality or other personal characteristic

•• don’t include swearing, hate-speech or obscenity

•• don’t reveal personal details, such as private addresses, phone numbers, email addresses or other online contact details

••don’t break the law – this includes libel, condoning illegal activity, and breaking copyright

••are reasonably concise, and don’t constitute spamming of the site

••don’t impersonate or falsely claim to represent a person or organisation

••are in English – unfortunately, we do not currently have the resource to moderate comments in other languages

••are on-topic. Please don’t post messages that are unrelated to this site

If you are aged 16 or under, please get your parent/guardian’s permission before submitting an idea or commenting. Users without this consent are not allowed to participate or provide us with personal information.

The site moderators reserve the right to remove any ideas or comments that do not abide by these guidelines.”

I liked the one about being aged under 16. I wonder how many children are employed in government service? Is this a new cost saving scheme?

Good try guys and gals – anyone test it on the public sector first?

As of 9 November 2011 the site claims that there have been 775 registrations and 189 ideas, so get them coming in and start voting! However it wouldn’t appear to be something developed in the skunkworks, more a case of employing a known US tool, in this case Spigit, already used by some government entities in the US, along with the DWP in the UK.

I watch with interest…


Government productivity

August 16, 2011

An interesting piece from the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) Public Policy Group entitled “Why Does Government Productivity Fail to Grow? New public Management and UK social security“. The piece is most interesting in that it is heavily critical of productivity at the UK Department of Work & Pensions (DWP). This is even more interesting when it is likely that the DWP will be taking on the new Universal Credit system, removing the current processing of Housing Benefits from local government.

Due to constant pressures from auditors, central government performance indicators and funding constraints the local government systems have become as efficient as possible given the constant changes imposed upon them and upon the system from central government. For it now to be transferred to a government department, that has clearly failed to get its own house in order, is likely to be a disaster. The paper even describes the HMRC as more efficient, when this blog and Parliament were criticising it very recently!

Whilst the convergence of benefits is obviously a good idea, perhaps questions need to be raised as to where, when and how it can be done most efficiently, if we are not to be left in a worse situation than the one we currently have!


What? More PASC

April 1, 2011

The concluding hearing from the UK PASC on 29th March 2011 heard evidence from the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer, Efficiency and Reform Group, Cabinet Office. The hearing lasted over 90 minutes and Ian Watmore pulled no punches about his previous employers, the Labour administration. His parting words from that job have already been reported here, along with other evidence given by Socitm and those behind the recent Institute for Government report ‘System Error’.

Unlike the Socitm evidence, the video is complete. In fact it starts with a minute or two of everyone entering the room and even the call of ‘order, order’! It is also occurring on the day of the official publication of the long-awaited Government ICT Strategy, so is appropriate and a certain amount of the evidence reflects that publication.  Initially Francis Maude expands a few vocabularies by describing the 25-page report as having a ‘lapidary’ style of writing, meaning that it is so short and sweet it could be carved in stone! Mr Maude also emphasises early on that whilst ICT is an enabler, the necessary cultural change requires a change in behaviours, and that is what is needed in government. The evidence also promotes the need for delivery to be considered when policy is formulated, since the claimed ICT failures were less a problem with the technology than failures project management and in the delivery of overly complex policies.

One concerning statement is that according to the Minister there is a project on identity assurance underway. Since considerable money has been and is being spent on the Government Gateway, which is rather unpopular but lives within the DWP, I suggest that since a number of large government departments employ it, along with a few local authorities, some thought is given to that, prior to pulling the Gateway’s plug.