Hearing loop?

June 16, 2012

A new report from the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) examines Central government’s communication and engagement with local government  (PDF, 44 pages, 500 Kb) and concludes that central government needs to have better engagement with local government, particularly when further services are devolved. On page 4 the paper issues a warning “We have said to Parliament that we will expand gradually our programme of value-for-money examinations to consider local government more explicitly”, so a much-needed panoptic view of local government should eventually happen. As the report states on page 6 “insufficient engagement with fire and rescue authorities was one factor that led to a major project to replace control rooms being cancelled in 2010. The project did not have the support of the majority of the end-users essential to its success, which wasted a minimum of £469 million”, similar events should not recur!

As has been stated on this blog, and is stated on page 7 of the report “government departments focus on particular policies, whereas with over 1,300 statutory duties local government has wider responsibility across policies that affect their communities”, politicians and staff in central government frequently forget the scale of local government and hence the need to deal in a different manner than they would in their own departments and also on page 7 that “work across government has demonstrated that not consulting delivery partners early brings a high risk of waste and optimism bias that can result in programme failure”. In fact it has and does result in failure and waste!

In terms of recommendations, many would be solved by central government having better intranets or a good intranet – do they even have such a thing. If one is to share institutional data across the greatest volume of people what better means is there? Another proposal is for the DCLG to work closer with other government departments when dealing with local government, which is a pretty sound idea – it worked pretty well for the Local CIO Council.

In the list of local authorities on page 12, the study manages to ignore the small but democratically important town and parish councils, which are largely elected and have an important role in representing communities. They also have to be consulted by higher tier authorities on matters such as planning. It does, however, manager to emphasise that districts are not subservient to counties, similarly this applies to town and parish councils.

The effect of staff changes in central government are highlighted and I for one recall the nuisance value that the regular changes of government  and departmental CIO have had on communication when one incumbent hade gone to the trouble of establishing a communication channel through the Local CIO Council and others saw it as a lesser priority! The frequent ‘game play’ of senior civil servants and relocation of them to other jobs is similarly unhelpful for continuity!

A key example in the report is on page 19 as “the prospective change to Council Tax Benefit in April 2013 [case study]. Practical issues that were considered to require greater clarity included coherence between Council Tax Benefit and Universal Credit, time to effect changes to IT and business process, and managing the overall impact on existing benefit recipients.” Again, this has been mentioned on this blog before and no doubt we will see the results of any communication, or otherwise, when the changes occur!

This report is short and concise enough for it to be compulsory reading for Ministers and Department heads in government. I hope it is effective in changing their ways, and potentially could save a small fortune along with a lot of embarrassment in the future. However, if government departments are failing in consultation with the tiers of governance nearest the citizen, how does consultation with the citizen stand up to review? Well done to the NAO on this occasion, an ever bigger task awaits!


Implementing transparency

April 29, 2012

Hot on the heels of the post by Andrea di Maio comes a UK National Audit Office (NAO) report entitled ‘Implementing Transparency’ (PDF, 44 pages 0.8 Mb). Given the recent OGP meeting in Brasilia mentioned by Andrea and attended by the UK government and the post “What is ‘open government’“, the report makes interesting reading, since the criticisms are largely replicated in the report.

Typically it picks out that only in 7% of cases is the UK data presented using open standards from World Wide Web consortium, to enable linking e.g. rdf, whilst the largest chunk uses CSV. Two important comments are:

“2.14 The Cabinet Office did not engage with the public to establish demand for the standard data releases outlined in the Prime Minister’s letters, but did consult with developers and industry to identify the additional releases announced in the Autumn Statement 20116 (see paragraph 4.1).

2.15 None of the departments reported significant spontaneous public demand for the standard dataset releases.”

But we then get onto cost-benefit analysis, where the report states that:

“2.21 Although the Government has wide-ranging objectives for transparency, few attempts have yet been made to monitor emerging benefits.”

Local government is not ignored either and a part of the report commencing on page 26 covers what the NAO have discovered from their research of council websites, and there appear to be a number of gaps, although work on LG Inform is expected to help fill some of them, although with 750 metrics to be filled in when it’s planned to go live in September 2012, I don’t imagine everyone who has to supply the data will be so delighted.

In conclusion, I think government needs to look seriously at the report and attempt to answer the questions posed. As occurred with e-government we don’t want excessive sums of money and a great deal of effort wasted chasing something that is not going to benefit the public. I know the claim was used for e-government that it provided traction but we apparently no longer have the cash for further indulgences.

Six months on…

December 22, 2011

Haven’t the National Audit Office been busy! First this December we had the review of UK Government web sites and now a progress check on the IT Strategy. The report ‘Implementing the Government ICT Strategy: six-month review of progress’ was published on the 21 December 2011.  The Strategy was actually published at the end of March 2011, so they had a few weeks to review and write-up.

The report states, on the good side, that a number of individuals had been appointed to lead on the Strategy but I wonder how many have lasted the six months? One area the PASC was critical of was the regular redistribution of senior civil servants before projects were finished, but this time a number would appeared to have retired (i.e. gone to work in private industry).

One of the areas picked up on by the report is that there is still no way of measuring the changes – this potentially relates to my previous argument regarding channel shift but there has been enough talk in government about benefit realisation in recent years for it to be put firmly into practice – but this would require less movement of the pieces around the chess board for some consistency to occur. The report also picks up on a lack of human resources to implement the Strategy, which again requires some planning and managing to take place. There also appears to be a lack of clarity about how and when different departments will implement the Strategy – I’ve seen some efforts taking place over the Green ICT element, but that is but one of the four sub-strategies recently published.

At least it is being reviewed – I just home the next one is published shortly after the first anniversary!


December 18, 2011

Appearing coincidentally near the launch of the UK Government Data Service is the release of a report from the National Audit Office on the topic of ‘Digital Britain One: Shared infrastructure and services for government online’. The report is essentially a review of the three key government websites – Directgov, Business.gov and Government Gateway. It’s also at a time when local government is anxiously waiting to see what proposals for a citizen authentication application are going to be made, given that identity cards were thrown out after a substantial expenditure.

The report accepts that user experience of Government Gateway damaged Directgov, which is no surprise. I can’t see anybody voluntarily using the Gateway, it’s so complex – it was also incredibly flakey before a large amount of cash paid for replacement hardware. The report also identifies the absence of feedback data from the Gateway, although sufficient comes through Directgov to bring out the issues. The report also identifies the number of government websites closed since 2006 but no-one is still quite sure how many actually existed or how many new ones have sneakily made their way into existence avoiding the command.

The report also confirms that statement made at the GDS launch that customer satisfaction with Directgov was increasing but unfortunately we are still not clear how this is impacting channel shift. As has been repeatedly stated on this blog, and by my academic work – along with feedback ACROSS ALL CHANNELS, usage figures ACROSS ALL CHANNELS are a necessity to identify shift. I commended the GDS team for finally responding to and using feedback from site users to improve it, but we are unaware, apart from an increase in satisfaction, of who is shifting away from conventional channels. Whist user satisfaction is increasing with Directgov it is noted in the report that there is a decrease in stakeholder satisfaction, along with that for Business.gov – this might be resolved by Beta.gov and the new tools being implemented, but I would suggest it is worth investigating.

Importantly the report concludes by stating that:

  • website rationalisation has been driven by policy rather than business case (nothing unusual here, it being politics)
  • evaluation mechanisms that are accurate and involve costs and benefits should be inherent in the GDS
  • it should be ensured that the GDS has authority across all digital channels
  • there should be a federated approach to identity assurance

Given the learning of the last decade in local government this is no surprise to us in that community. However I would go much further. There needs to be a government-wide channel strategy to ensure channel shift. Given the recent admission that there are different requirements for security across departments (shouldn’t that be services?). Given that Departments have heavily invested in and outsourced services across more expensive channels that will never fit with Beta.gov or a government-wide solution, this is all a bit of a game. In fact, this report might have had greater effect if it considered access to all or a range of government services and then identified the diversity. Have you tried contacting the HMRC electronically or had to deal with their identity assurance?

As with local government, central government should be focussing on the heavily used services, where the users can most easily be transferred online to the benefit of ALL.

Better late than never…

February 20, 2011

The National Audit Office has recently (17 February 2011) published a “Cross-government and public administration Information and Communications Technology in government. Landscape Review“, which it claims “looks at how government uses Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to deliver public services. The review, the purpose of which is to inform the debate about government’s new use of ICT, gives an overview of existing uses, as well as initiatives and changes underway.”

The introduction to the report states that it will “set out what has been achieved in government ICT during the last decade along with those issues that remain to be tackled”. I’ve always said e-government needed a post implementation review and so thought this might finally be it!

Ideally, however,it should have been published well before work commenced on the new government IT strategy which will probably appear in a few weeks, so I’m not sure how any gaps it shows up can be filled if the two reports aren’t better synchronised?

Unfortunately, what is says on the tin is not quite what one find’s when you open it! It appears to be some kind of mind-dump of everything anyone knew had gone wrong with central (for that is what it focuses on, along with health) government IT over the past decade, plus some of the structural and policy changes made most recently by the new regime. Quite a bit is made of ‘professionalism’, which is no bad thing, but it does fail to consider the need to consult users about service delivery, whilst it mentions that a realisation of it entered the government mindset in 2004!

Was someone trying to spend the last of the publications budget before year-end? It’s 48 pages  that could probably have been squeezed onto four A4 sides and delivered as an executive summary. It’s the NAO’s equivalent of Newman’s ‘Apologia’, they’ve not pulled up government IT for the decade or more, so here’s how we’ll do it in future…