Zombie press notices: not quite alive, but not dead enough yet

This is how news travels in the new world.  Except it doesn’t because those whose job is to help it travel seem to do the opposite.  A bit on the broken process first, then a few thoughts on the elusive information.

Let’s start with the indispensible Public Sector Blogs.  Or rather not, since it is one of those sites whose very purpose is to be consumed as a feed.  Anyway Andrew Lewin had spotted an interesting sounding report on public understanding of the availability of online government  services.  What he had actually seen and linked to was a short article about the report in Computing.  That gave a bit more information, though not much more.  What it didn’t do was provide any kind of link to the report itself.  The only clue was was a quotation attributed to the chief executive of Parity which apparently commissioned the research.  So off to the Parity website where, to be fair, there is a reasonably prominent link on the homepage to their press notice announcing the results.  But the text of the press notice is just that:  there is not a single link to anything, including, bizarrely, to the report which is the subject of the press notice.  The trail has gone cold.  Except that a few clicks away on the Parity site, there the report is in all its glory.

Parity tells us that

We are passionate about our commitment to providing high quality business solutions to our clients and take a collaborative approach in helping our clients use technology as an enabler to realise the potential for their organisation.   Our in-depth experience of Collaborative Information Management, coupled with Web 2.0, helps our customer harness the power of information across both organisational and geographic boundaries.

So why have they made it so hard to find something which only exists so that they can get publicity for it and through it for themselves?  There’s no way of knowing, but it’s hard to escape the thought that they have failed to escape from the idea that press notices are pieces of paper sent to professional journalist.  For self-professed experts on Web 2.0, that’s more than a little strange.

To be fair to Parity, it was at least easy to get hold of the report once I had tracked it down, in notable contrast to the mad obstacles put in place by the Guardian, Kable and Oracle to make it as difficult as possible to get a report which I was only looking for because they had sent me an email offering me a copy.

So after all that, was the game worth the candle?  The answer is a bit mixed:  there is some interesting data, but the report seems to have been written by somebody who doesn’t understand how government works, so some of it needs to be interpreted with caution.  So the report records that 14% of the sample completed tax returns online, without recognising that relatively few people need to complete tax returns at all and that in fact 67% of returns were filed online in the last tax year.  More generally, there is a degree of confusion between services which are used either relatively frequently and by lots of people and those less frequently used and by fewer people.  There is also some confusion about available channels:  for television licences and council tax payments, the three channels they talk about (telephone, in-person, online) miss out the most important one of all, the non-channel.  The use of direct debit means that large numbers of people never need to interact with those services at all after the initial set up – I would simply be confused if asked to choose between preferences which took no account of that.

Their data on how the use of government online services is changing is more interesting.  48% say that they use government online services a lot more than they did three years ago, and a further 33% say they use them a little more than three years ago.  Those are promising sounding numbers, particularly as that’s been more a period of growth and consolidation  than a significant increase in the breadth of the services on offer (no doubt an over-hasty generalisation if ever there was one.

All in all, though, a bit of a frustrating experience.  Somewhere in here there is some potentially interesting material struggling to break free.  But the difficulty of getting to the report in the first place is matched by the difficulty of getting hard information out of the report once found.  Which is a shame.