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?

Local Government Digital Service

November 18, 2012

In September 2012 I wrote about the Local Government Data Service but since then we’ve seen the publication of the central government Government Digital Strategy, and yet again questions have been asked about why local government hasn’t one or doesn’t get a mention. My riposte is that local government was doing this before the GDS, and it was largely set out in the Socitm publication Planing the Flag. Meanwhile Socitm has published a briefing entitled “The new Government Digital Strategy: what should local public services take from it?”

Whilst the Socitm briefing is largely a promotion for its website take-up and channel benchmarking services, all that is required by any local authority is to actively gather feedback from its service users about the different channels on offer and to use this to improve them. If this makes possible a shift to channels that are truly cheaper to deliver by web or telephone all well and good. I am, of course, ignoring the ‘digital by default’ diktat within the central strategy. In national terms this means the sharing of best practice amongst local authorities and a lot of cooperation by suppliers in helping to improve delivery, not just raking in short-term profits. This is where open source and open data come in – if the commercial applications use apps that can be cross-fertilised with others and the data can be similarly exposed (securely) across applications the benefits to both councils and citizens will soon become general.

Whilst the Cabinet Office report admits that “most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS”, instead of ignoring local government and starving it of resources, central government needs to cooperate properly and assist in making these changes real. So whilst I congratulate the GDS on producing its strategy I will observe whether it gets the rest of central government to cooperate, and whether it actually cooperates with those areas where “most public services are provided”. I’d also appreciate it if there were fewer questions about why local government isn’t do the GDS thing, and a greater appreciation of the fact that it was there first, just with much less of a marketing team…

Simple things?

September 29, 2012

The new report by the Policy Exchange entitled “Simple Things, Done Well: Making practical progress on digital engagement and inclusion” offers no real new ideas apart from someone paying for a massed hoard of ‘digital advocates’ to convert those currently not using the internet to being users. A lot of the report focuses upon NEET’s or those over 65 but this still misses the point that many of those not doing it don’t want to do it, or are physically or intellectually constrained from being able to do so.

The recent interviews with government ministers over Universal Credit reported in Universal Chaos demonstrate that they are equally so far out-of-touch with the real world of ordinary people with disabilities, learning difficulties, age-related impairments, along with the poorly educated (for whatever reason) that they don’t understand that whilst some will have a sophisticated telephone or even a computer they are not going to use it to contact AUTHORITY, when they would rather have the trust of physical or verbal contact when dealing with IT (AUTHORITY not information technology).

In many cases, and I can speak from experience, people with learning difficulties or other disabilities have a wide range of challenges to deal with when using computers – sometimes its basic literacy, sometimes it’s the subtleties of meaning involved, that someone with Aspergers or on the autistic spectrum just won’t get. However simple Iain Duncan-Smith and his colleagues at the Government Digital Service think they can make these things, they’re going to have to cater for an awfully wide range of users.

On top of this, a lot of these advocates already exist, and do the work for free, or for little credit. Across the organisations working with people with disabilities I know this happens in many cases already, but it’s not a quick training course where people are self-reliant after a few hours, it’s sometimes long-term support – hence why I say there is nothing new in this document and to some extent it misses out on existing models of experience. The social model of disability is little appreciated by those in power, and in many cases they continue to reinforce it due to a lack of experience of real-life, this also applies to unemployment and poverty.

You may call these things simple if you have the benefit of a good education and physical and mental well-being, without those things and financial stability, ‘simple things’ can become very challenging. As to being ‘well done’ – if it’s all to save money that’s not going to be the case.

Is data.gov.uk transparent?

June 26, 2012

A recent posting on the W3C egovernment discussion group was on the topic of IT procurement for eGov/transparency case studies and one of the members revealed that a project she was working on at the moment, involved mapping, with documentation (as documentary evidence), for each eGovernment initiative, how the IT resources were obtained. However when she “consulted the UK government last year, including issuing FOI requests, about the procurement, of CKAN for example, particularly wanted to learn what was the original spec /requirements for CKAN, and what kind of funding was granted, based on what agreement/tender. however, [she] was unable to access any document available, including no contract between the UK government and OKFn for the development of CKAN, although there is some evidence of moneys having been exchanged between the UK Government and OKFn for the purpose of funding CKAN development. ”

She then asked “Does anyone have any info?”

I suggested that “One would hope PDM could extract the information from the CKAN’s mouth itself – http://data.gov.uk/dataset/public-sector-procurement-spend” and suggested Paola look there…

However, Paola’s response was “I was not capable to answer the questions using the website http://data.gov.uk/. It looks to me that the website is designed especially to avoid making transparent  the information they are looking for (for example show me the contract between a and b, or how was decision x achieved?) This is what I mean that a service should be designed/driven with usage in mind, and not just stick the word usage as a popular trendy label ‘ (for example, to answer specific questions such as ‘what contractual agreement drives the development of an open data platform such as CKAN?) But if you can drill further with a better understanding of the data.gov platform, please assist! its possible that I am missing something”.

So if the technically proficient are having problems extracting procurement information from the UK government, why are there still claims to be open, transparent etc?

The ongoing conversation is on the W3C site. Can anybody help Paola? Is this transparency or not?

Parlour games

December 7, 2011

According to a report in UKAuthority dated 2 December 2011, Mike Bracken, the Head of the Government Digital Service in the UK (note – the website is on WordPress), speaking at the Socitm 2011 Conference in Birmingham, stated that e-government efforts in the past have been plagued by rivalry between local and central government. I would dispute that since it was primarily ruined by central government establishing unreachable targets at the outset and dabbling in local government business to the extent that the views of the citizen were largely ignored! The government also encouraged rivalry between councils by using targets and monitoring them annually and publicly.

I am pleased to report that, in contrast, he does announce the dawn of a new era of cooperation between local and central government, particularly to develop techniques for measuring the usability of online transactions. However,  few years ago, as a part of my academic research I concluded that one of the best mechanisms for doing this was to collate user feedback across all channels to direct changes in the way services are presented. The Company table V9 of commercial applications that use something along these lines to help web managers, customer service managers and others to focus on the customer has been available since then.

I know a number of councils, including my own that use such applications to improve their service delivery, not just online but face-to-face and over the ‘phone. So we have the applications, now all we need is the political will to use what is already available, without turning to the usual big suppliers to central government to re-invent them and put the prices up!