1 August 2011
I have read three blog posts in the last few days which together strike me as indicators of a welcome trend.
The first two were both from the new Government Digital Service blog, the first from Mike Bracken on his first few weeks in government as Director of Digital. It’s a very upbeat assessment, but the important (and still remarkable thing) is that it is there at all. The second is from Tom Loosemore, reflecting on the alpha.gov.uk experiment, in which he started by setting out the top ten problems reported by users (and giving quick responses to them), and only then moving on to praise and ideas. Having the self-confidence to be open and balanced like that shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is, and every example helps make it more normal.
The third was very different: an account by Liz Azyan of the importance attached to user testing in the redevelopment of Camden’s website. It is unabashed and powerful argument, reinforced by a very ungovernmental summary, boiling the whole thing down to four speech bubbles. More importantly, it is part of a very conscious strategy of openness. Reading Liz’s post after Mike’s and Tom’s triggered the thought that there is a pattern here which is worth noting and encouraging.
There is more to transparent government than open data. Understanding how things are done and what decisions were made about doing them can be at least as important. That understanding is not easy to acquire from the inside and is harder still to get from the outside. That’s partly because of an inherent limitation of communication, but it is also because history is written by those who write history.
Two years ago, I wrote a taxonomy of government bloggers, partly to make the point that it was heavily skewed to certain groups and roles. With the long hindsight of those two years, it now seems odd not to have had a category of those who were making change happen, and critically who were being open about the change they were part of. There were people among my examples who did that, but that wasn’t quite the reason they were there. I opened the description of my first category, those whose job it is by saying:
There is a vibrant online community among those whose job is to make the government a place of vibrant online communities.
That is still true. The good news is that there are now signs of a vibrant community among those whose job is to change the way government works for the better. The challenge is that that community is still predominantly drawn from those for whom digital is the substance of their work as well as a medium for communicating about it. That may become less important as digital increasingly does become the default, but there is still plenty of scope and much value to be had in widening the voices of government.
29 July 2011
A new e-petitions site for government was launched yesterday. It is clean, simple and elegant, with clear government branding consistent with other cross-government sites. So far so good. But managing a cross government service is a tricky business, for reasons I have explored before. Government is a veneer that sits above departments, and like any veneer, can easily crack if the underlying structure is not firmly held together. If you want to understand why government online services so often feel as though they are not quite all that they could be, this is an example worth reflecting on.
An eager e-petitioner clicks the button to start the process and finds themselves with a simple form to complete. The first task is to give the petition a title. Pretty straightforward. The second is to identify the ‘Department that looks after your issue’. That’s a poser. There is a drop down list. There is a link to a page which explains which department does what. But the list is of ministerial departments and the help page gives little more than mission statements. Many of the bits of government which people have at least some understanding of don’t appear at all – there is no HMRC, no DVLA, no NHS, no Jobcentre Plus. Might a petition be appropriately directed to the Scotland Office, or should it go to the Scottish Government instead?
So I wrote a slightly frustrated tweet:
And got a response I have a degree of sympathy with:
There are parts of any interaction where the user is expert, and there are parts where the provider is expert. One of the keys to good service design is to ensure as far as possible that each does the right bit. Asking petitioners to map petition subjects to government departments fails that test.
So why does it work like that? I have no inside information, so can only guess, but the answer might come from asking what might have to be different to make the problem go away.
At a first glance, there are two basic ways that might be done. The first is to attempt to use the petition itself to answer the question. A little bit of keyword analysis, a touch of natural language processing and the job is done. That would be in the spirit of the approach, and the suggested destination could then be reflected back to the petitioner for a human check. The second would be not to bother at all at this stage: just send them all to somebody whose job it is to do the routing. There is also a third which wouldn’t make it go away, but might reduce its impact, simply to ask the question later and avoid its jarring position between petition title and petition description.
The problem with the first is that it makes a simple thing much more complicated. Essentially, the e-petitions site is a simple web form. That’s a feature, not a limitation: the project was designed from the outset to test and demonstrate an agile approach, where finding ways of making things simple is critical to finding ways of making them happen at all. Adding on the kind of analytical tools to add intelligence to the routing might have slowed things down a bit – but might well have stopped progress altogether.
The problem with the second is that it risks introducing a cascade of consequential problems. There is nobody whose job it is to do this kind of routing, because this kind of routing is not done. So a role would need to be created, made part of a team, attached to an organisation chart, found a desk, found funding – not just for this year but for next year, and the year after that. There is nothing more to that, in a sense, than the issues any project has moving its creation into live running, but in a different way this too might have slowed things to paralysis (though reading the site’s terms and conditions shows pretty clearly, that some of that is needed anyway: if ‘it will usually take up to seven days from the time an e-petition is submitted for it to appear on the website’, the back end is human – and if one of the humans could reflect on the use of ‘usually’ and ‘up to’ in that sentence, the world could easily be made a better place).
All that perhaps boils down to saying that it is is better to have something now rather than something potentially better in a future which may never be reached. That’s not a bad argument, but in this case at least, I think it is wrong.
It is increasingly, and rightly, said (including by me) that there is no such thing as an IT project: there are only business projects with IT components. The corollary of that is that there is no such thing as an IT solution, there are only business solutions supported by IT. A solution is not a solution if it does not support the right overall experience and outcome. The e-petitions site is partly about e-petitions, partly about showing what a skunkworks can do, and partly about pointing to the future of government services. It has done the first two admirably. I am not sure that it has done the third.
Update 30 July
Directgov was launched in April 2004 to allow people to access public services and government information in a single place. We know that people care little about the structures of government and do not want to go searching around the internet so the original aim of Directgov was to join up services online.
Although visually unrelated, the e-petitions site is formally part of Directgov.
19 July 2011
Nudge is not enough to change behaviour on its own. Sometimes you need to bribe and threaten people too.
5 July 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Adrian Short » Blog Archive » Designing with the Delete key Getting rid of all the clutter on your website doesn’t require a great deal of design insight or technical skill. But it needs a lot of discipline. So once a day just delete something that you can live without and you’ll be working towards a faster, cheaper, simpler website with much happier users.
- One Hundred & Forty Characters « Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances. Whereas Facebook seems to allow the user to construct a perceived or projected existence for themselves through the deployment of various convenient aids, Twitter just strips it all away and leaves the user with nothing but the utilitarian tool of 140 characters and the imagination of language. Over a sustained period of time or patch of ground you are always going to betray yourself. By that I mean that you will, layer by layer, reveal who you are and this will continue to be an ongoing and ever revelatory process. Other users will continue to be attracted to that or not, and vice versa. It’s really quite binary, whilst being relentlessly deep and wide, which I like. A lot.
- On the shifting of control of personal data – honestlyreal My point is that strange things will start to happen in terms of operational continuity and completeness. There will be “gaps” in databases, where the personal data holders used to be. Instead of their information, there will be links and interfaces to the data they control for themselves. Will this create all sorts of headaches and risks just by itself? Enough to seriously dampen any service provider’s enthusiasm for adopting volunteered personal information?
- BBC – About the BBC: BBC Online – Putting Quality First First I want to explain what we consider to be a “product”. It’s a self-contained entity within BBC Online, which unites technology and editorial to meet a clearly defined audience need. Each product has a simple and concise proposition that’s easily understood by the audience, is kept up to date, fits the overall strategy for BBC Online and has clear editorial leadership.
- designing online social security for the future | New Technology Observations from a UK perspective (NTOUK) I’ve long believed, based on experience, that if you’re going to get current and future plans to work, you need to understand the past and what has worked previously –and what has failed. And why. Much has been learned over the past 15 years. In looking at where social security is heading over the next few years with the major DWP Universal Credit programme, I first took a brief look back over the past 15 years of trying to use online services to modernise and improve the design and operation of key public services.
- Schneier on Security: Yet Another “People Plug in Strange USB Sticks” Story People get USB sticks all thetime. Theproblem isn’t that people are idiots, that they should know that a USB stick found on the street is automatically bad and a USB stick given away at a trade show is automatically good. The problem is that the OS trusts random USB sticks. The problem is that the OS will automatically run a program that can install malware from a USB stick. The problem is that it isn’t safe to plug a USB stick into a computer. Quit blaming the victim. They’re just trying to get by.
The publication of this post was delayed by the FBI. Not a sentence I ever thought to find myself writing, but these posts are generated from Pinboard bookmarks and the Pinboard server was accidentally impounded by the FBI when they were apparently looking for something else. The cloud is a curious place, where sometimes it rains. My confidence in Pinboard is enhanced rather than diminished though – Maciej Cegłowski did a near perfect job of managing recovery while being open and informative at every step.
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- The importance of being insubordinate | Blog The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation –aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership –can lead to some horrible mistakes.
- Grasp the Intranettle « We Love Local Government I want you to open up a new window or tab and go to your intranet page.Take a look around. Drink in the sights, the attractions, maybe even dive into a new area or two and take a look around and try to find out about something new. [...]
I’m guessing there were some notices from your chief executive, maybe some links to some basic business information and probably something up there talking about the impact of the cuts. If you took the chance to delve below the surface I would put money on the fact that before long you found something very simple which was significantly out of date, wrong or just didn’t make sense.
- niksilver.com » Even government beasts benefit from experience Alpha.gov.uk might be at the far end of the scale from UC in terms of size and complexity, but that’s one core principle that’s important. You change your system by doing work on it, learning, and feeding back into the next phase of doing. And it’s true for the way you work, too: you do something, feed back, and do more — but this time, better. Just because you might be able to improve it doesn’t mean those first steps are fundamentally wrong.
- 30 user experience quotes to warm your soul | Econsultancy “It’s not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and yes, beauty to people’s lives.”
- iMessage, Skype, Google Voice, and the death of the phone number | This is my next… I hate phone numbers. They’re a relic of an outmoded system that both wireless and wireline carriers use to keep people trapped on their services —a false technological prison built of nothing but laziness and hostility to consumers.
- 11 Blogs to Help You Become a User Experience Expert | Resources In today’s web design world, so much emphasis is put on SEO, which forces us to design for machines. Even though this is a necessity for web designers, the focus of a design should be on that of the user – the breathing, typing, mouse clicking kind of user. The user experience (UX) design portion of the website building process is often overlooked, usually due to a lack of knowledge in the area. Luckily, there are UX focused blogs out there that are loaded with info, tips, and insights that can help you in your journey to becoming a user experience expert. Here are 11 of the best.
- Sarah Lay » Blog Archive » CitizenSarah reports So there it is. Six months in the life of this citizen. I’ve come out of it quite disappointed with how poor most online information is and frustrated in attempts to complete digitally because processes just don’t support it. There needs to be a massive change. I don’t think alpha.gov.uk will do it – not because what they’ve showcased so far isn’t great but because however shiny you make the front end if your back office system or process is flawed then it will fail. I don’t think public sector organisations are thinking like this yet, they are still thinking that if they get something, anything, online a magical web monkey will do the rest.
- Seth’s Blog: Share your confusions If you’re building for digital, for a place where you can’t possibly be present to guide or to answer questions, I think it’s vital you have someone who can review your work. Same for instruction manuals, secret ballots and road signs.Not to make suggestions to make it better (what do they know?) but to share their confusions.
I don’t think that’s a phrase, but it should be. Share your confusions is a way of asking someone to dissect your work and point out what’s not totally clear.
- Seth’s Blog: The future of the library Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.Post-Gutenberg, books are finally abundant, hardly scarce, hardly expensive, hardly worth warehousing. Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data.
- Sketching our way to Alpha.gov.uk | Alpha.gov.uk team blog We’re road-testing an approach and, should there be a beta, we’re not going to just sit down and add more stuff to the site. It’s an alpha, and its value lies primarily in what we can learn about our assumptions, approaches, and practice across all our disciplines, and in making sure a beta would be better.
10 June 2011
If it needs a sign, it’s badly designed.
8 June 2011
That’s the problem with being trained to see both sides of an argument, you can see both sides of the argument.
3 June 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- How Alphagov might change UK government for the better – The Dextrous Web Addressing 80% of users’ needs compellingly and ignoring the rest is a sound principle of design, but government can’t do that. So, if we’re to use Apha.gov for the 80% –which we should –we need another solution for the 20% of people who have strange or complicated needs. My solution would be a call centre full of wonderful, informed people who care and can make decisions. But that’s a whole other blog post.
- Jimmy Leach: Is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a brand? I’m not sure that concepts of authority a a couple of rampant mammals around a portcullis is what a brand is made up of. There’s a lot more hinterland to a bran than a logo and a sense of expertise.
- Thinking more about Twitter, Chatter and knowledge worker pheromones – confused of calcutta If everyone tweeted and everything tweeted, soon all would be noise and no signal. As Clay Shirky said, there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure. In other words, information overload is not a production problem but one of consumption.
This is important. Too often, whenever there is a sense of overload, people start trying to filter at the production point. In a publish-subscribe environment, this translates to asking the publisher to take action to solve the problem. My instinct goes completely against this. I think we should always allow publishing to carry on unfettered, unhampered, and that all filtering should take place at the edge, at the subscriber level. There’s something very freedom-of-expression and freedom-of-speech about it. But it goes further: the more we try and concentrate on building filters at publisher level, the more we build systems open to bullying and misuse by creating central bottlenecks. Choke points are dangerous in such environments.
- McKinsey and Co – Simon Caulkin Today’s iconic example of the wrong thing consultancies are doing is the mass production of services. The ubiquitous front- and back-office service design, with its inevitable accompaniments of outsourcing/offshoring, shared services and central call centres for dealing with customers, is pure Fordism, with the assembly line replaced by computers. Despite the IT, such white-collar factories are just as obsolescent as Henry Ford’s auto plants, offering no incentives for system improvement and increasingly alienating customers. The Web 2.0 ‘solutions’ where the ‘leading-edge conventional wisdom’ now resides and to which (no coincidence) the big consultants are now transferring their sales hopes, suffer from exactly the same drawbacks and are no more the ‘answer’ to performance issues than was Web 1.0.
- Product Management and the public sector.. « Digital by Default
- Designing for illiteracy – a mass market accessibility challenge | disambiguity Think about mission critical tasks. Things that, if not done right, could hurt people or have significant negative impact on people or business. Don’t give people a blank box to fill in when you’re designing these tasks. Give options (in words, not icons). Let people recognise and select, don’t make them remember how to spell stuff.
- Agile as the process – Digital Optimist I think of UCD and Agile as working together on a sliding scale. To the left we have the known, where UCD and Agile are in the trenches together solving problems as they go and adding incremental functionality. On the right side of the scale we have UCD and Agile working in a different configuration where Requirements and UCD provide more shape and detail before the development process begins and Agile delivers the output once everyone understands the shape and function of the application. The fact that this doesn’t often occur doesn’t mean it isn’t the right process to follow.
- Opportunities lost – AlphaGov | disambiguity It is certainly true that historically, Agile and UX have had a fairly vexed relationship but these days many practitioners are experienced and adept at including both user research and ux design into the most demanding agile iterations. We have a toolkit of lightweight qualitative research approaches that work beautifully in this kind of fast paced and responsive environment. UX does not have to be a laggard either at the outset or in the throes of an agile project.
- 10 things Alpha.gov.uk gets wrong (Part 2) | Helpful Technology It’s not Alphagov’s fault, of course. But there are limitations on what you can do as a skunkworks team, owning the user experience but not the process which gives rise to it. To deliver on the promise, Alphagov needs to cultivate a sort of orbit of ?product managers who successfully impose great UX on unpleasant reality; part crusader, part human shield around the Alphagov principles.
- Identity Assurance: 18 May 2011: Written answers and statements (TheyWorkForYou.com) Online services have the potential to make life more convenient for service users as well as delivering cost savings. However, currently customers have to enter multiple log-in details and passwords to access different public services, sometimes on the same website. This involves significant duplication, is expensive to operate and is highly inconvenient for users. It acts as a deterrent to people switching to digital channels, hampers the vision of digital being the primary channel for accessing Government information and transactions, and provides an opportunity for fraudsters.
- Economies of scale There is an alternative. Short contracts provide a natural pressure on service that contracts never can. Instead of choosing a single “best of breed” imagine if they set a quality threshold and a maximum price, but allowed more than one supplier (as Tescos ensures many yoghurts are available) –ensuring the pressure of competition. But I don’t expect any government department to try this more sensible approach any time soon.
- Alphagov in Action « Digital by Default In fact my biggest worry about the project is its sustainability. I think a brilliant ‘demo’ has been built by very talented and experienced team. However they are not a team who are going to stick around for the long haul of turning things into a production service. If things are going to move forward who is going to replace this great team? Is government going to need a proper in-house multi-disciplanary web team (like say the BBC or the Guardian)? If that was to happen given the current limitations on recruitment would you get people of anywhere near the same caliber?