Good progress

May 6, 2012

It has recently been down to UK Member of Parliament Michael Dugher to try and determine the state of the G-Cloud and Greening Government IT Strategy. In an a list of questions and (sort of) answers published in Hansard that will have amused journalists by their vacuity, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude effectively responds by saying that all will be revealed in the near future in the annual reports. I do know that the Green IT Strategy was in preparation when I was last in conference with the Green Development Unit in March 2012, but the bigger wait is for the ICT Strategy annual report itself.

The major revelation from the questioning was that, at a cost of £4.93 Million the G-Cloud is expected to save an estimated £340 million, which is amazing! I wonder if this saving includes that from the Public Sector Network (PSN) or is it purely from the cloud? Over what period will that saving be made – five years, ten years, twenty years? However when Mr Dugher asked Mr Maude about the number of data centres government maintained in May 2010, March 2011, September 2011 and March 2012, all Mr Maude could say was that “In February 2012, Cabinet Office collected baseline information on the number of data centres maintained by Departments in order to progress commitments to consolidate and rationalise data centres to help save energy and costs in line with Government ICT Strategy. This information will be published alongside ICT Strategy annual update report, due shortly. Information on the number of data centres across Government prior to this February 2012 is not available.” However, back in May 2011 some figures were provided by Cabinet Office to the Public Administration Committee dated 30 March 2011 in a written answer stating “A survey commissioned by CIO Council during June 2010 identified 220 Data Centres across Central Government”, which I suspect was an underestimate since I clearly remember someone, possibly Andrew Stott, quoting a figure nearer 400 to the Local CIO Council a couple of  years ago.

When Michael Dugher asks the Minister for the Cabinet Office what progress he has made on the implementation of G-Cloud computing, the response is a resounding “The G-Cloud programme is making good progress”. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know…


Open the data, Maude

April 3, 2012

In an interview in Computer Weekly dated 20-26 March 2012, Francis Maude the Minister for the Cabinet Office takes hubris and hyperbole to new levels when he compares the generation of ‘open data’ with the use of raw materials during the industrial revolution. This is an extension to the regular comparison between the development of the Internet and movable type. The connection between either is far from direct – both (printing and the industrial revolution) had dependencies upon scientific development and both had effects upon the economic and social well-being of many people in the world.

Open data may have some benefits in awareness raising but it will be far from revolutionary!


Government Data Service Launch

December 8, 2011

The UK Government Data Service was launched in front of a small but auspicious gathering of around 100 people including the GDS staff crowding the doors to the office, at Aviation House, London on 8 December 2011. At 11:05 Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service, introduced Francis Maude MP, the Cabinet Office Minister. Mr Maude described the long way we had come from the days when providing PDF’s of forms online for signature and posting was classed as e-government. However, he said, we were now in a difficult financial position and government service delivery should be digital where they are capable of being done in such a way, as outlined in the Martha Lane-Fox Digital-by-Default report. He also stated that it will be a difficult decision to turn off conventional services, so the digital ones have to be better and cheaper. There will also be much inertia and resistance to be combatted and It was also necessary to design services from the citizen’s point-of-view, which was being done with Universal Credit.

Ryan Battles then followed on to describe the development of Directgov, from its original launch in 2004 to its current status with a satisfaction level of over 70% and receiving feedback in the form of over 40,000 comments per month, which were also being used by the Beta.gov team to assist in the new site. Tom Loosemore took over to announce that Beta.gov would launch early in 2012 but they wouldn’t be turning off anything yet. It would be small, simpler, cheaper and better than Directgov and covered in ‘calls to action’. They’d accepted that Google was the ‘home page’ of the majority of users i.e. how they got to subsidiary pages on any site. The Beta.gov designer is also working with the Universal Credit team to ensure they both used the ‘global experience language’, i.e. a consistent use of language and presentation of e-services across government.

Neil Williams, a Product Manager, came up to amplify the corporate platform aimed at saying there were five or so Departments involved in the Beta, and these were employing the intuitive new publishing tool to assist devolution of content management. Chris Chant, as Executive Director of Directgov is responsible for the GDS IT, took the platform next and described the rationalisation that had taken place in establishing the new service in a new building. The network was largely wireless, the computers were laptops (the presentations were on a MacBook), people used Google Apps unless security at IL2 was required when they used Office Libre. There was no telephone network, all staff were on mobiles. The only wired network was for communications at IL3. He stated that security had been dealt with last. A saving of 80% was stated. This was ‘Martini IT’ – “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”.

Peter Herlihy next described the e-petitions solution that had been developed in eight weeks from a standing start. There had been 25,000 petitions, 3 million signatures, six of the petitions had passed the 100,000 mark necessary to be raised in Parliament and action was being taken on them. The cost was now less than one pence per transaction per year and would halve in year two. Allon Lister then described the work being done with the Office of Public Guardians where a paper-heavy approach was being replaced by a digital-by-default one. Alice Newton described the development of the Tech City app(lication) that had been created for an area of London with a concentration of new media companies.

Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, described how the building’s origins as a church would hopefully bring the team the divine inspiration needed to do the job. He accepted that the car tax system and some local government are the best but that a combination of new technology would make public service easier and better. Martha Lane-Fox followed Ian by describing the move from a digital entrepreneur to being UK digital champion but with the expectation that the improvement to government digital services would assist the target to increase computer usage for 2012. In fact the team at the GDS have agreed to be out of the office three days per week in 2012 to work with colleagues across the country, such as those at the DWP in Warrington. Martha expressed her view that the Internet is one of the strongest levers for social change, and that it is important that we focus on people – “lives can be changed”.

The room then broke up into three groups for presentations on different aspects. I chose to hear the transition team describe how they captured feedback and used this to improve the way Directgov and Beta.gov were presented. An example was how some people paying for a passport complained that they weren’t sure who cheques were made payable to, this resulted in a change to wording and presentation, and a further change to tabular presentation after later feedback. Similarly interventions were made after comments were found on Twitter by staff, these prompted changes to the pages they had created during the national strike. A major focus had been on making the pages viewable on smartphones when an increasing number were identified as being used to access Directgov, and now 9% of Directgov is viewed on mobile devices (largely iPhone and Android).

Colleagues at the GDS and Cabinet Office are to be congratulated for this massive culture change in a few months. I wait to see it permeate the rest of government (local and central).

PS and there was no mention of avoidable contact (NI14) anywhere


Pan-European Egovernment

November 23, 2011

Yet again the cry goes up from the EC (in the form of the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes)  that virtual barriers are creating problems where physical barriers have already been taken away. In a press release of her speech to the eGovernment 6th Ministerial eGovernment Conference, 17 November 2011, attended by our own Francis Maude MP, she states that “National eGovernment systems have developed in isolation, creating new digital borders where physical ones have long since disappeared. Fragmenting the EU rather than unifying it.To give an example, students have the legal right to enrol at any university across the EU. But often they cannot do so online, because national electronic ID systems are not recognised abroad. Even though paper ID would be. Isn’t that crazy?”

According to Potsdam Egovernment Competence Centre, reporting on the speech, the UK is involved in two of the projects. “The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is involved in the Spocs project, which intends to make cross-border business administration easier. The project aims to overcome difficulties associated with licence and permit applications from one European country to another, by providing an online ‘single-point-of-contact’ for administrative functions.” Also “The UK Department of Health (DoH) is involved in the epSOS project, a European electronic healthcare record interoperability project. The DoH has attracted criticism from a number of government bodies over its handling of UK electronic patient record contracts.” The reporter also stated that “the UK government is involved in creating a single government website for citizen interactions. The Cabinet Office stopped monitoring feedback on the Alpha.gov.uk pilot project in August, with an admission that it had no clear picture of who might use a single government website.”

If the Spocs project is the same one as that relating to the EU Services Directive it was a nightmare for English local government which had spent ten years implementing its own forms and payments solutions to find they had to either replace them or pay to interface to a poorly implemented central government solution.  My main concern is how many other EU countries have actually put in such an application, other than the UK.

In my experience the speech is a dozen or more years too late…Perhaps this had been better stated at the Ministerial eGovernment Conference in Lisbon in 1998 rather than them kicking off all the competition regarding setting national targets as they did?


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 ICT Strategy

April 3, 2011

At long last, it’s here, they got it out just before the end of March, all 25 pages! As Francis Maude stated at the PASC, it is lapidary; employing some single long words when a much shorter one might do. Have a dictionary to hand!

The promise of ‘assisted digital services’ in section 45, fits in with my own, long argued, one of mediated service delivery. It may be interesting to see who will comprise the “network of ‘assisted digital’ service providers, such as Post Offices, UK online centres and other local service providers”, when many such places have closed or are on their way, due to the cuts?

Paragraph 47 is similarly intriguing when it states “the Government is committed to providing 21st-century identity assurance methods and is engaging with the private sector on this”, this is presumably a replacement for the DWP-managed Government Gateway?

Paragraph 49 also makes some big promises when stating “the Government will use technology to break down barriers and engage with citizens and businesses, bringing innovation to the way in which policy is formulated and delivered”.

The document ignores local delivery of service (of which local government is estimated to provide around 70%) with the exception of the diagram on page 25, the last one, where local government appears ‘beyond the pale’, which I hope isn’t the sentiment. If they can introduce paragraph 12 ” Government will ensure that technology requirements are considered earlier in the policy-making process”, this might finally stop the reoccurrence of those issues around ‘new conditionality‘ that have been discussed here before, and has expanded services so well.

There is a dependency within the document upon a number of other strategies awaiting publication, including the green one, one on capabilities and a Cloud Computing Strategy. Although the Public Sector Network appears to be a given, if a private sector one. How the government PSN will align with the local government ones being delivered and planned remains to be seen?

There is also a lot of talk of Skunkworks, which with its capital ‘S’, I thought was a registered trade mark? However, there still remain the siloed government departments that will have to be dragged into the new ways of delivering services.

As usual, a good in parts document, ignoring some important stuff that needs considering whilst stating in a few words matters that will require major cultural and technical upheaval. At least it was a short read!