This blog has not had a substantive post for quite a while. There’s no particular reason for that, other than that I find that the longer I haven’t written something here, the harder it feels to write anything, so the longer the gap keeps growing. So this is to break the cycle and blow the dust off, with some substance to follow soon. There’s a post coming up which was 95% written two months ago, after that I will discover if I can remember how to string two sentences together.
This blog has gone away to where, on past experience, 2G connections can be obtained by leaning perilously out of a window and 3G connections by the simple expedient of driving 12 miles to a conveniently positioned supermarket car park. Digital exclusion can take many forms and is not always involuntary.
Bruce Schneier applies consistent good sense to questions of security, on line and off, both through his blog and his book. The trouble is that there is lots of good stuff, but it’s hard to find scattered across several years of blogging. Now he has done a Q&A with readers of Freakonomics, which is both good in its own right and, as a by-product, acts as a useful index to some of his key thoughts.
Twenty slides om screen for twenty seconds each. Total duration six minutes and forty seconds. The end.
That’s the principle of Pecha Kucha, which started in Tokyo four years ago. To put it another way, at a normal speaking speed, that’s a thousand words with twenty illustrations. Lists of bullet points are out. Complex detail is out. Unrehearsed meandering is pitilessly visible.
It’s more important to deliver the right presentation than to be forced into rigid compliance with an arbitrary set of constraints, but as a way of forcing a focus on both the substance and the style of a core message, it has some very clear power.
The image comes from Presentation Zen, who links to a piece by Daniel Pink, who summarises it another way:
The result, in the hands of masters of the form, combines business
meeting and poetry slam to transform corporate cliché into surprisingly
compelling beat-the-clock performance art.
Once upon a time, smaller employers (which was most of them) sent the tax and NICs they had deducted on behalf of their employees to what was then still quaintly known as the Inland Revenue. They wrote a cheque for the amount due and put the cheque in an envelope (kindly supplied by the very helpful revenue people), together with a payslip to ensure that the money was credited to the right account. The payslips came once a year in a yellow book – and seemed to be known as The Yellow Book.
Sometimes, no payment might be due. The system could cope with that within the standard process – the payslip simply recorded no payment and was sent off as normal (a cheque for no money did not seem to be required).
Then things began to change. Smaller companies could use internet banking to make payments electronically, and the still very helpful Revenue provided helpful reference numbers to make that possible. And so the little yellow book, like its little red predecessor, fell victim to the passing of an era.
But there was a problem. It is not possible to send a payment of nothing through the banking system, so what had become the standard process could no longer handle the exception process. In the early years of the wild electronic frontier, it didn’t seem that anybody had thought this through – all you could do was not pay, and then resist the temptation to be irritated by the snarky note that came upbraiding you for having failed to make a payment which wasn’t due. Later (I think – certainly much later in my knowledge), a phone number was provided through which it was possible to tell the Revenue that you weren’t going to give them any money. That was more cumbersome, and jarred with the core process rather than complementing it – and it certainly didn’t have the pleasing zen-like quality which went with sending nothing through the post.
The obvious missing tool was the ability to provide a simple online notification that no payment was due. It took a while, but without any fanfare (and so without my being sure quite when) it has surfaced on the HMRC website. The really striking thing about it is the level of security: there isn’t any. That’s entirely sensible – it’s really quite hard to imagine why anybody should seek fraudulently to represent the absence of a debt, except just possibly those running the business, who would have secured access anyway. Sadly, that level of sensible and pragmatic risk assessment is nowhere near as universal as it should be.
There is something of wider importance lurking behind all this. Graceful exception handling is in some ways made harder by making the core process self-service. It is often argued, for some good reasons, that the attempt to bring the exceptions into the core system is a big driver of cost and complexity, resulting in greater cost, slower delivery and greater risk. A good solution is to find something simple and helpful which, critically, goes with the grain of the core process approach, rather than jarring with it. It has taken a while, but on this small issue, HMRC seem to have done just that.
The Guardian reports today:
High street banks have delayed the introduction of a new payments clearance system that would reduce the time it takes to move money between accounts from days to seconds.
The Office of Fair Trading and the Treasury had put pressure on the banks to replace existing three-day payment clearing, which dates back to the Victorian era, with electronic age speed. But the banks – which earn interest from customers’ cash while it is stuck between accounts – said yesterday that the scheme was delayed by six months.
Apacs, which represents the banks, promised in December 2005 that the faster payments service would go live in November this year. But Apacs said yesterday that while the main infrastructure was working, the trials between banks and between each bank and the centre were more time consuming and more complicated than anticipated.
The faster payments service was originally due to cost the banks £50m to £65m including distributing millions of hand held “chip and pin at home” machines to ensure online account holders could authenticate transactions. Now it is expected to cost substantially more.
Which is, of course, not a government IT disaster at all. In fact, there is nothing in the article which suggests any kind of disaster, though no doubt it’s a story Apacs would prefer not to have to see.
Seven years ago, Intelligent Finance was going to be the trendy new online version of the Halifax – and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. That was a tad embarrassing, since the advertising campaign was already underway. It finally creaked into life five months late. But some Inland Revenue people were understandably irritated that it was planned system downtime for their new online tax filing service which got coverage in the news pages rather than in the business section.
Two or three years after that, I remember watching Peter Gershon lambasting a conference load of IT company executives with data showing that IT projects were generally late, over budget, and under specification – with little difference between those in the private and public sector.
Government IT disasters continue to be a problem. But government IT problems still seem more readily to be disasters.
The art of marketing is not finding more money to do more marketing.
It’s figuring out how to tell a story that spreads with the resources
Big companies, and particularly big technology companies, seem to like to sponsor conferences and think tank events. That buys them not just the use of their logo and a warm sense of public spiritedness but also, usually, a speaking slot. Invariably that slot is positioned as though the sponsor’s representative had earned their place on the same basis as other speakers. And invariably, the sponsor speaker uses the opportunity to inflict as much damage to their brand reputation as they can manage.
That is partly because they seem almost always to be less articulate by an order of magnitude or two than other speakers and generally greyer in all possible dimensions. More importantly, though, they rarely make any attempt to blend in. At an event on innovation, they don’t send an innovator, they send a sales account director. At an event on customer service, they don’t send a customer service obsessive, they send a sales account director. And so on. This is doubly strange, since most of these organisations do possess innovators and customer service obsessives – but they are talked about rather than being there to do the talking.
And on the basis of this morning’s experience which prompted this post, if they attempt more they achieve less. Today’s sponsor not only provided a grey speaker, but also a self-congratulatory little booklet, in which this rather splendid logic bomb caught my eye:
While a degree of time lag between the development of a disruptive technology and its emergence in the public sector is inevitable, [sponsor who will get no puff from me] believes that in some cases this lag time can be removed.
Release 1.-94.-3 of the CLC-INTERCAL compiler (for the INTERCAL programming language) was released on 1 April, a date which simultaneously is and is not significant, and in being either significant or insignificant thereby exemplifies (or doesn’t) the approach INTERCAL takes.
INTERCAL is the acronym for Computer Programming Language with No Readily Pronounceable Acronym, which is probably its best feature of all.
(via Charlie Stross)