Keep it stupid, simple

January 17, 2012

Whilst they may not be able to do much about it, at least some of the politicians in the UK have realised what a complex system we have around the claiming of various benefits. The conclusions from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published on the 12 January 2012, recognize the pickle we have got ourselves into:

  • No single body is responsible for coordinating means testing across government
  • At present there is no clear picture of how the entire benefit system affects claimants’ incentives to work
  • Departments do not understand the impact of administering more means-tested benefits locally
  • The benefit system is difficult to understand and places a high burden on claimants
  • administrative costs of means-tested benefits vary so significantly
  • Real-time information systems will be difficult to implement

So, if we have got an unmanageable set of legislation that makes life difficult and expensive for all levels of public service, who is going to sort it out? This self-induced complexity has been frequently discussed here, especially around the ‘New Conditionality’ covered by Paul Henman in Governing electronically – we make processes and systems complex because we believe that ICT will sort it all out for us – it may, but at an enormous cost, especially if the systems are outsourced or poorly designed. Let’s keep it simple or pay the stupid price!

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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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A facelift for the pig

September 12, 2010

E-government will now be accepted by many as having provided “lipstick on the pig” (a favourite expression of mine indicating that whist you can apply lipstick to the pig, it still remained a pig), in other words sticking a web front-end on many government services has still left the applications and processes limping along in a back-office somewhere, without process or regulatory improvement.

However, the new 69 page report from the so-called Network for the Post-Bureaucratic* Age (nPBA) entitled “Better for Less – How to make Government IT deliver savings” is much more of an encouragement for a face-lift for the pig, and a cheap one at that! I’d mentioned another paper from Liam Maxwell in July 2009,where I  supported some of the proposals and  suggested that it might indicate a future government’s policy and similarly this document, in my opinion, is just as good again (in parts).

The paper has many good points, but despite Mr Maxwell’s exposure to local government ICT, this strategy still falls down where e-government did 13 years ago. A pig is still a pig, despite lipstick or facelift and the nominal attack on bureaucracy is not necessarily a good idea, as McSweeney explains in the paper* on the post-bureaucratic age. It’s the wasteful parts of service processes that need sorting out, and they are frequently as a result of legislation or central government demands.

As described by Paul Henman in his analysis of “New Conditionality”, ICT has facilitated complex and frequent changes to legislation and regulation, these in turn add to the complexity of the ICT solutions and the cycle continues ad infinitum developing the complexity of government ICT. This is where the change needs to occur – simpler regulation and legislation.

Rather than auditing ICT, what we need in reality is a proposal, by some authors with an understanding of what makes good services delivered by central and local government, of how we audit end-to-end government services and in the process identify areas of true regulated bureaucracy that can be removed. Further, any attempts at rationalization should account for multi-channel service delivery. Many of the applications in the “new conditional” world link together and off onto web sites or corporate applications, this could provide some of the open data desirable for the commonweal, which whilst not of general interest will still have value to the local community.

Further, in a couple of instances, Mr Maxwell examines and compares the costs of ICT in local and central government, which can be a very misleading practice. Even with the amount of regulation, financial accounting in government is a dark art with the use of on-costs and recharges varying from authority to authority to the extent that costing for IT services is not straightforward and one can easily be comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps, another area to standardize?

*If anyone wants to know what “post-bureacracy” is,  there’s  an excellent critique of the Cameronesque “post-bureaucratic age” concept in a recent revision of an earlier academic paper by Brendan McSweeney entitled “Is a post-bureaucratic age possible?” As a summary, Mc Sweeney states “as a reaction against the authoritarianism of the previous UK government’s (New Labour’s) neo-conservatism, David Camerson’s sentiment is a welcome one, but as a programme for comprehensive transformation it is not achievable.” Which I’d say applies to the nPBA’s report also.


Governing electronically

July 13, 2010

I met Dr Paul Henman at ECEG 2009 where we were both delivering presentations. At the time Paul mentioned he had a book due for publication, so having heard his presentation and finding the subject matter dear to my researching heart, I ordered a copy through my university library as soon as it was published. It finally arrived at the start of June!

The book is entitled Governing Electronically: E-government and the reconfiguration of public administration, policy and power and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It’s priced at £57.50 for 288 pages, so I recommend ordering through a library, as I did!

If you look at Paul’s link you’ll realise that he is Australian and so the case studies employed in the book are around Australian government. Paul is also a sociologist and a teacher of social policy but has degrees in mathematics and computer science, so not the average sociologist and can cover the broader topic with more than sufficient understanding.

The paper Paul presented at ECEG 2009 was entitled “The Contribution of e-Government to the “New Conditionality” in Social Policy” and this book is a broader exploration of the topic. Conditionality is a concept from international aid where aid is supplied to a government subject to that government changing its policies or instituting reforms. In the “new conditionality” it can be seen as requiring a change in conduct and this can be applied to individual citizens and their families, as well as whole countries.

One of the many interesting issues raised is how technology has facilitated frequent and rapid changes in government policy, along with increasing the volume of primary legislation, all only deliverable thanks to the power of computers.

Henman also observes that rather than moving users from the old channels to the new ones, the total numbers of contacts have actually increased, facilitated by the ease of contact provided by the contact centers, web sites and other media.

In considering the role of conditionality and politics one wonders what role technology might play in the new UK government. Are they truly going to back away from the social control provided by technology and ‘big government’, when the new conditionality permits such centralised power? Can we see a slimmer legal framework supported by less technology, and obviously costing much less? I’m not sure, but time will tell…

Coincidentally I’ve been asked to join the committee for ECEG 2011, which is at the University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia. There is a call for papers on the website.