Same old story

October 25, 2010

Mark Ballard blogging on ComputerWeekly.com following the Comprehensive Spending Review announces it as the death-knell of transformational and e-government, along with a comparison of the Blair Modernising Government programme and all it failed to deliver. In many ways I tend to agree and have blogged about the programme’s demise here before.

However, if project management has taught me one thing, it’s the need for a post-implementation review, and I would hope for an overall one to assess the programme. When did this occur? I’m afraid in the world of politically inspired initiatives they never happen, Ministers move on, people move on and the game continues, for as Ballard  notes “after all the Conservative hoopla about an end to Soviet-era IT projects, the Chancellor promised £2bn for the DWP to create a system of Universal Credit“. Has anybody ever basically assessed the difference between “rates”, “community charge (poll tax)” and  “council tax”, and whether the billions spent on them made life any better? Similarly the benefits systems that have to be applied to compensate for those that can’t pay?

Much of this type of bureaucracy revolves around what Paul Henman labelled the “New Conditionality” and whilst the technically challenged politicians may not recognise it, they are exploiting technology to the extreme to deliver their policies, which are so complex, the systems are unlikely to ever work without massive human intervention and great cost!

Whilst “New Labour” with its “Modernising Government” and e-government programmes largely carried on from its predecessors in control, this time the political will has overridden any rationality. Savings will be made, money will be wasted and thousands, in the wrong place and time, will lose their jobs.

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Don’t forget to vote for the Great E-mancipator

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Digitising the Job Centre Plus

August 24, 2010

From Loughborough University via the Department of Work & Pensions comes a report regarding what that government department might need to consider when applying e-government to the Job Centre Plus channel, which “provides services that support people of working age from welfare into work, and helps employers to fill their vacancies”.

The report entitled “RR 679 Literature review to inform the future digitisation of Jobcentre Plus service delivery” by Grahame Whitfield, Kim Perren, David Stuart and Michael Norris is an excellent piece of work towards applying e-government to the range of government service users, over and above those it focuses on. The conclusions include examining digital exclusion due to availability, cost and competence to which the researchers conclude “the evidence strongly suggests that public services should embrace the notion that they cannot – indeed should not – try to do everything themselves. Making data available to external organisations could result in the production of a wide range of innovative applications, services and resources that would be unlikely to be developed in-house. These could augment any provision Jobcentre Plus makes itself.”

The researchers also advise  that “a key means of ensuring successful delivery is for public services to have a clear understanding of how their online and digital communications link with other means of contact (telephone follow-up, letter, face-to-face meeting) and of how these linkages are explained and managed.”

Importantly the report acknowledges that “if government services prioritize digital channels as a mode of engaging in dialogue with users about their services, the voices of the digitally excluded may not be heard.” The report also raises public concerns about data security but accepts that this requires government involvement.

In respect to my own research this document accepts that “the international evidence in respect of e-Government and ‘leading edge’ organisations strongly suggests that if online public services are to be successful, this kind of cultural shift – to having a detailed and ongoing understanding of the needs and preference of customers at the heart of the way in which services are planned and delivered – is essential.” It also encourages the access to data by external stakeholders and developers (as mentioned above), which contrasts the contrasts around security – a solution to which is required.

One final conclusion is the need for government to accept the need for service development to be in a “perpetual beta” state, in other words one of continual development. This reflects my own proposal for employing user feedback to improve and develop the end-to-end service.

Again, some ten years or more on from when e-government started, this report is better late than never! Implementation will be another matter.


The technicist manifesto

July 15, 2010

The 12 July 2010, with a bit of a fanfare at 10 Downing Street, saw the launch of  ‘Manifesto for a Networked Nation’, the current output of Martha Lane-Fox’s Race Online 2012.

Initial thoughts are that although the pdf is only 2Mb, the maps on its central pages may make many a printer unhappy, as may the variety of colours and sizes of fonts affect anybody lacking a taste for concrete poetry. I’m also concerned that a document claiming support for accessibility and inclusivity (sections 9.1 and 9.2) dares use such a mix colour and seriffed fonts as to be almost psychedelic. On top of the visual abuse, I could also challenge some of the English language abuse within the text, but I’m off to a bad start already…

OK, my sympathies are with the intent of the report and getting more people online. However, whilst getting them to use government services online may save government some money and buying  goods may save the user some money, along with demonstrating the skills they’ve developed, what are the benefits?

The Internet has massive benefits as a medium of communications, I rarely get a pen out and write a letter these day, when a quick email suffices. Information (of all sorts, including the bad, sad and dangerous to know) is at my fingertips. However, I would anticipate that it’s still may not be everybody’s garden of earthly delight and some will always need a mediated guide through some of its hazards. The dangers of phishing, viruses and incorrect information are probably far too advanced for many potential users, as can be seen by the numbers caught out in the assorted scams that plague netizens.

I would also question at a time of cuts, redundancies and uncertainty how MLF expects local authorities, charities and others to now launch out and support a government initiative when they are struggling with maintaining services? OK, we believe from Socitm research that 80% of councils restrict their employees’ access to the Internet but someone needs to convince them this is not risking the other pieces of government guidance such as child protection and access to the government secure intranet (the document has frequent mentions of the DWP – home of Government Connect!)

Now for another moan. In large print the report on page 14 states, talking about the Internet, that “it was an Oxford graduate who created this significant invention”. I presume this refers to Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the World Wide Web, whilst I was always under the impression that we could blame the Internet on Vint Cerf, a graduate of Stanford. I wonder if the information was sourced upon some of the dodgy data on the Internet?

To broaden the thinking and possibly add some robustness to the debate, I’d like to present a couple of quotations –

In an interview Oscar A. Ornati, Professor of Manpower Management at New York University (quoted in Deming 1986, p.198) states that:

“We have forgotten that the function of government is more equity oriented than efficiency oriented. The notion that we must be “efficient” in the same way in both sectors is fallacious. For government, efficiency must be subsumed to equity. If we do not keep equity in the forefront of the public sector, we will destroy our society. It is unfortunate that we tend to lavish so much praise on management specialists who laud the techniques of private sector management in the public sector.”

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the Crisis, M.I.T. Press.

 In a joint Parliamentary and industry report, EURIM (2008, p.2) confirms this:

“It is too crude an approach to seek savings simply by replacing face-to-face services with Internet access to services that might engage more time-poor citizens. Many of those in most need (at least 20% of the overall population and a majority of the elderly) are physically unable to use a conventional screen and keyboard, even if they wished to.”

EURIM (2008) “How to Achieve Citizen-Centric Service Delivery: Let the People Speak.” EURIM Transformational Government Dialogues 8, http://www.eurim.org.uk/activities/dialogues/TGD_IntegratedReport.pdf.


Jobcentre +

November 15, 2009

Hot off the press (10 November 2009) from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) comes “A qualitative study of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with Jobcentre Plus” by Dr Alex Nunn, Fiona Walton and Sukvinder Jassi from the Policy Research Institute at Leeds Metropolitan University.

At 152 pages its a lengthy read but a very comprehensive and worthwhile study. Some of the conclusions could be considered to be common sense but its nice to see well evidenced qualitative research supporting them, such as on page 74 – “The website was not used by many respondents because they did not have internet access or computer literacy. The dissatisfaction experienced with this channel was contributed to by the lack of online experience and computer skills.”

Similarly, on page 84, it presented a  conclusion that “customers feeling that they cannot access the information that they need through the website, resulting in them using another channel.”

From a researcher’s view, two of the “considerations for future research”  jump out. These are (from p.103):

  • “the importance of disagregating satisfaction with intended and unintended consequences of service provision, to isolate what elements of satisfaction are related to the means of service delivery rather than contextual or policy/legislative dynamics;”
  • “the importance of assessing customer satisfaction with provider services on longitudinal and comparitive basis.”

Interesting stuff!


Good complaint handling

April 19, 2009

A report in the Register claims that the  Dept of Work and Pensions isn’t working but the noticeable point is the good practice that the DWP is referred to by the Ombudsman, which is the ‘Principles of Good Complaint Handling’ on the Ombudsmans own site.

Among the points in the principles are:

• Including complaint management as an integral part of service design.

• Focusing on the outcomes for the complainant and the public body.

• Dealing with complainants promptly and sensitively, bearing in mind their individual circumstances.

• Listening to complainants to understand the complaint and the outcome they are seeking.

• Responding flexibly, including co-ordinating responses with any other bodies involved in the same complaint, where appropriate.

• Publishing service standards for handling complaints.

• Providing honest, evidence-based explanations and giving reasons for decisions.

• Keeping full and accurate records.

• Ensuring that decisions are proportionate, appropriate and fair.

• Acting fairly towards staff complained about as well as towards complainants.

• Acknowledging mistakes and apologising where appropriate.

• Providing prompt, appropriate and proportionate remedies.

• Using all feedback and the lessons learnt from complaints to improve service design and delivery.

• Having systems in place to record, analyse and report on the learning from complaints.

• Regularly reviewing the lessons to be learnt from complaints.

• Where appropriate, telling the complainant about the lessons learnt and changes made to services, guidance or policy.

These Principles are not a checklist to be applied mechanically. Public bodies should use their judgment in applying them to produce reasonable, fair and proportionate results in all the circumstances of the case. The Ombudsman will adopt a similar approach when considering the standard of complaint handling by public bodies in her jurisdiction.