7 March 2011
As I was getting money out of a cash machine, I saw a proud boast in the window of the bank, highlighting one of the commitments in their customer charter:
We will aim to serve the majority of customers within 5 minutes in our branches
Pause, if you will, to savour that masterpiece of wording. Their intention, which they may or not achieve, is to serve a majority of their customers, a group into which you may or may not fall, within five minutes.
At an overall level, that is testable: counting average queuing times is relatively straightforward, though on a strict (if somewhat unlikely) interpretation, almost half their customers could have been waiting for much longer than five minutes, and the target could still have been achieved. But for any individual customer, it is not: is my ten minute wait a sign that the commitment has been broken or an expected outlier? There is no way of telling.
To their credit, the bank concerned does a pretty good job of being transparent about how they are doing, even though slightly oddly, the ‘goals’ which add up to this particular commitment don’t seem to allow them (or us) to know whether or not they are actually delivering their promise or to know what level of improvement there has been – if any – since the commitment was made. But they are willing to be at least a bit self-critical, which is usually a promising sign:
In November we measured queue times in our 300 busiest branches. 75% of customers were served within 5 minutes and the average waiting time was 4 minutes. We know, however, that there are times and places where customers have waited longer and we have much more to work on.
My point though is not to point the finger at the bank concerned. Rather, it is to observe that it is difficult to be clear about the nature of a customer service standard, and harder still to be clear about appropriate values for any measure chosen. That that is true in retail banking, which has not had a reputation for delivering the acme of customer service in recent years, is perhaps no great surprise. But if it is hard there, how much harder is it for public services, where the value of good service can be harder to pin down.
So there are probably lessons here in both directions. The fact that a large bank is struggling to make sense of, still less achieve, the apparently simple ambition of having short queues in its branches should help public sector managers, often of much more complicated and variable services recognise the scale of their challenge and the difficulties inherent in meeting it. And perhaps too, it should help private sector managers appreciate that however hard it is for them to get this right, theirs is the easier task.
5 March 2011
When it comes to innovation, the customer is rarely right. At least, they’re rarely right about what they want next.
5 March 2011
Real understanding lies in finding simplifications that bring order to disparate facts.
People in the middle of events often know less about them than those watching from the outside, which is why interviews with senior business figures inform us about what these people think rather than what is happening.
28 February 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Why I don’t believe in conspiracy theories | Flip Chart Fairy Tales No-one is in control of the world. The most governments can hope for is to control some parts of it for some of the time. The same is true for leaders of large organisations. Kings, presidents, prime ministers and chief executives spend much of their time trying to make sense of what is going around them while trying to reassure people that they are in control. Running a conspiracy would be way beyond them.Conspiracy theories are rather like impossible structures; they entertain us and feed our imaginations but they would be impossible to construct and maintain in real-life. The world is a messy and chaotic place. It’s fun to imagine a group of people manipulating events behind the scenes but the truth is that no-one, anywhere in the world, is that good.
- Dispelling myths and stereotypes about public sector workers | Cabinet Office I cannot think of a single skill that one needs in the private sector that people don’t develop in spades in the public sector.
Operational management? What about running a prison of sex offenders. Technology skills? Nothing comes close to the scale and complexity of the tax and benefit systems. Commercial skills? Have you ever let a contract for a science facility that accelerates electrons to near light speed? Customer relations? We serve everyone from the young and old, rich and poor, ill and healthy. Turnarounds? A failing company is one thing, a failing secondary school on a sink estate is quite another. Mergers and acquisitions? Try taking over a collapsing bank in a weekend. Human Resources? Just imagine what is involved in sending civilians to Helmand province. Security? I’d have to shoot you if I told you what our security services do on a daily basis, but, trust me, we are lucky to have them. Public relations? Well, we are always in the Thick of It!
- What government IT can learn from cycling in London | Blog Agile turns the traditional logic on its head. Rather than specifying detailed requirements in advance you let specifications evolve over time. Functionality is built in from day one, with users involved continuously rather than during a ‘test’ phase at the end. Flexibility is valued over following a predetermined plan. It’s the IT equivalent of cycling with your eyes wide open, and being fully prepared to change direction when necessary. Wise advice for cyclists and chief information officers alike.
- Cloudsourcing « The Great E-mancipator G-Cloud gives government the opportunity to dictate standards, quality and support to a level that the current regime of ‘divide and rule’ by suppliers has never permitted. It starts to give government IT the upper hand for once, so I can see why some won’t suppliers like it, but as to willy-nilly data-sharing –I don’t think so!
- US Congressional Report Challenges Open Government: It Was About Time Opening up government data isn’t a substitute for opening up government. Recycling my bike won’t save the planet. But it’s a whole lot better than keeping it shut up under the house where no one can use it.
- Indifferent government is so last decade | Helpful Technology Indifferent sites don’t much care what you do. They’ve put the information (or consultation, or campaign message) out there. The rest is up to you. Some people take it, most people leave it. It’s not the website’s fault if you don’t like the message. [...]The web is a communication medium, to persuade and influence, or even just to help people scan, prioritise and complete their tasks quickly. Indifferent design, as a symptom of indifferent public services online, is so last decade.
- The Department of ‘No’ – The Privacy, Identity & Consent Blog This means that incidents will always happen. This may be because security controls are judged to be disproportionately expensive (for example, spending many millions of pounds on security to protect assets worth only some thousands of pounds); because individuals failed to comply with the instructions given to them (for example, downloading unprotected files on to a memory stick to take home, then losing that memory stick); because the system is attacked by a capable and dedicated enemy (for example, an authorised user taking copies of MP’s expense claims); or because of a ‘zero day’ exploit (for example, a hacker breaking into a system using a weakness that was previously unknown to the security officer).Whatever the cause, security incidents will always occur, and the public sector culture is to look for someone to blame – remember how the HMRC incident was almost immediately blamed upon a ‘junior clerical officer’ before it was revealed that systemic failures were at the root of the problem? Security officers are rightly fearful of being blamed for incidents, and in the absence of someone who will act as an advocate for them when things go wrong, they are forced to fall back on the only safe path available to them, which is to say ‘no’ when the business wants to do anything which might carry an associated security risk. The likelihood of the current information assurance community being willing to support the government’s cloud computing ambitions seems slim indeed.As a result, most public servants view information assurance as an obstacle, not an asset. Because of poor leadership, excessive bureaucracy, and a culture of unnecessary secrecy, public authorities are unable to obtain cost-effective information security controls. The current infrastructure will neither permit nor support the new commitment to respecting personal data, making government data available, or protecting data that needs to be kept secret.
- Schneier on Security: Societal Security Humans have a natural propensity to trust non-kin, even strangers. We do it so often, so naturally, that we don’t even realize how remarkable it is. But except for a few simplistic counterexamples, it’s unique among life on this planet. Because we are intelligently calculating and value reciprocity (that is, fairness), we know that humans will be honest and nice: not for any immediate personal gain, but because that’s how they are. We also know that doesn’t work perfectly; most people will be dishonest some of the time, and some people will be dishonest most of the time. How does society — the honest majority — prevent the dishonest minority from taking over, or ruining society for everyone? How is the dishonest minority kept in check? The answer is security — in particular, something I’m calling societal security.
25 February 2011
The best service is the one which disappears.
Alan Mather has written an interesting piece about whether government is still doing too much of its own IT. His interest is not in the possibility of further outsourcing, but in letting third parties incorporate services which also provide value to government. He is on to something important, and I think it may be even more important than he suggests.
His first example is the tax disc. As he rightly points out, the issue here is not how good the existing online service is, but why that service needs to exist at all. I have long been of the view that the most obviously efficient way of ensuring that vehicles were insured, safe, and taxed would be to require insurance companies to add the amount due to the premiums they are collecting anyway. But what makes that interesting is the glue that hold the tax disc service together in the first place: it is an unlikely, and I suspect largely unforeseen, consequence of a European Directive on motor insurance, and the database insurers set up to comply with it.
So in a sense, the issue is less that the government allowed other people to develop IT for it as that advantage can be taken of other people developing capabilities for reasons of their own. This is not a new phenomenon: companies have invoicing systems or cash registers, which as a by-product can collect and account for VAT. They have payrolls which as a by-product collect and account for income tax and national insurance contributions. In both cases this removes any requirement for those ultimately paying the taxes to transact directly with government at the point of payment, and as a result renders the process much less visible than it would otherwise be.
That may have an interesting political consequence. Paying tax is a much more overt and much more immediately painful process for people who are self-employed or run small businesses than it is for employed earners, and that may have some affect on perceptions of the value of tax and of government more generally – a useful reminder that service delivery is not a neutral and politically agnostic activity.
The idea of the vanishing service sites not need to stop there. I was involved with the online change of address notification pilots ten years ago, where we took a very deliberate decision not to create the service ourselves. Nobody moves house for government purposes in isolation, and there is clear advantage in providing a service which can cover a full range of needs in one place. So the government service was still there, but hidden behind other providers whose primary focus was elsewhere.
So the interesting question becomes whether there are other things government can get done more effectively by disappearing. That is not, in this context about outsourcing or privatisation. There is a place for that argument, but this is not it. The answer must surely be that more things could be done more smartly by aligning them with other activities done for other purposes. A list of specific services beyond those already identified might not be very long, but the real power of this idea may lie at a different level again. The change of address example points the way. Rather than thinking of services which can be piggy-backed on other activities, perhaps we should think of the information driving those services as the real opportunity. The information I have about myself is not information I hold, by and large, because government wants it, it is information which describes and shapes my life. Managing that information, rather than managing fragments of it scattered across government databases could be the real opportunity here – which by yet another route gets us back to volunteered personal information. And that’s interesting not just in its own right, but because it’s not where I had expected to end up when I started writing this post.
23 February 2011
Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat – what will make people happy – is to ask them. And for years and years and years and years, Ragu and Prego would have focus groups, and they would sit all you people down, and they would say, “What do you want in a spaghetti sauce? Tell us what you want in a spaghetti sauce.” And for all those years – 20, 30 years – through all those focus group sessions, no one ever said they wanted extra chunky. Even though at least a third of them, deep in their hearts, actually did.
Update: Nigel Bell cogently observes:
He is, of course, spot on. Sauce manufacturers are not univeral service providers. That makes the public sector service designer’s life more difficult, though it does not change the basic power of the perception that we are none of us even experts on our own preferences.
15 February 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Sphereless: Hackers, transparency, and the zen of failure But for the hacker, the truth is only what is created -not what is undisputed. Hackers fork code, create new communities, start new websites, run unconferences. If "truth" exists, then it is what emerges, not what is discovered, or what remains.
- Can the public sector bridge the gap between expectations and delivery? | Flip Chart Fairy Tales Environmental campaigners would like us to get rid of our cars and use bikes and public transport instead. This is unlikely to happen because we have built our society around the car. Many of us work far from our homes, often on industrial estates or business parks that are poorly served by public transport. The railways that might once have served them were torn up years ago. Our cities are designed on the assumption that most people have cars.
In a similar way, we have also built our lives around the welfare state. Our long-hours, dual income, two-hour commuting, mortgaged-to-the-hilt society is dependent on the existence of good public services. We can only maintain our lifestyles if someone else organises the education of our children, looks after our old people, clears up our rubbish, fixes our roads and keeps our parks tidy. As more of us find ourselves with both children and elderly relatives, our dependence on these services will only increase.
- Communication Nation: The connected company Historically, we have thought of companies as machines, and we have designed them like we design machines. A machine typically has the following characteristics:
1. It’s designed to be controlled by a driver or operator.
2. It needs to be maintained, and when it breaks down, you fix it.
3. A machine pretty much works in the same way for the life of the machine. Eventually, things change, or the machine wears out, and you need to build or buy a new machine. [...]
So what happens if we rethink the modern company, if we stop thinking of it as a machine and start thinking of it as a complex, growing system? What happens if we think of it less like a machine and more like an organism? Or even better, what if we compared the company with other large, complex human systems, like, for example, the city?
- government.direct | The National Archives
- Create the Space to Innovate » Blog Archive » Why hierarchies kill innovation If we change our minds – and really do want more innovation in our businesses and governments, we need to evolve beyond the chicken. We need to focus on the merit of ideas, not who they came from. We need to give everyone room to think broadly about the big problems. We need to nurture the unrealistic, naïve and irritatingly- challenging confidence of those who come into organisations with fresh eyes. We need to value the wisdom and insight of those with experience by listening to their ideas properly. Above all, we need to kill the hierarchy before it kills innovation.
- CASE STUDY: ‘I’m showing two colleagues Twitter. They say they don’t get it…’ « The Dan Slee Blog I was sat with two people who don’t get Twitter.
Instead of explaining, I asked Twitter a question. It’s sometimes amazing the response you get.
- Scripting News: They zig when they should zag News is now an environment, not a publication. It lives and breathes. That's what the news orgs still haven't been willing to embrace.
- On £585 favicons… – Harry Metcalfe There’s a huge difference between making a favicon and making one for a big organisation, with lots of people who need to give input and approval. There’s a huge difference between making an informational website that you think is good, and making one for an entire country, maintained by an entire government. There’s a huge difference between your website and your Government’s website: because in any activity, time and cost increase with the number of people who are involved.
- Using Social Media to Gain Situational Awareness — It’s Time To Question Assumptions « idisaster 2.0 Citizens in impacted areas don’t just receive information, but increasingly, they send out bits of data about what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling through these platforms. These data, if aggregated, can contribute to overall situational awareness. We are really beginning to understand Brian Humphrey of LAFD’s phrase “every citizen is a sensor”, a take on the phrase every soldier is a sensor.
- Why are public sector efficiency savings so hard? (Part 3) | Flip Chart Fairy Tales But pretending that cost reduction is easy flies in the face of all the evidence. Improving productivity in any organisation is hard work. In the public sector it is made additionally hard by all the forces ranged against it. If we continue to discuss public sector cost reduction in an ‘as-if world’ we will get nowhere. If we act as if we can solve the problem by outsourcing back office services, as if people who have never downsized an organisation can learn to do it overnight, as if we can just make people work harder, as if getting a few private sector trouble-shooters in will slash costs or as if a huge re-organisation and a change in the way things are bought and paid for will make things cheaper, then public sector reform programmes will stall. No matter how hard you try to ignore it, reality, with all its messy complexity, eventually bites.
- Why are public sector efficiency savings so hard? (Part 2 – The organisations) | Flip Chart Fairy Tales None of this is to say that public sector organisations can’t be made more efficient; they can. People have done it. It’s just much more difficult than those who have not tried to do it realise. Unless you have tried to get your head around arcane processes, or pored over spreadsheets trying to work out where the hell your costs are going, or explained a new way of working for the umpteenth time to a sea of blank faces, it’s difficult to understand the eye-watering effort involved in making even minor efficiency savings.
14 February 2011
As you triple the number of employees, their productivity drops by half.*
That arresting fact is the starting point for a superb blog post by Dave Gray on the connected company, in which he explores the question of why companies appear to get less productive as they get bigger, while cities get more productive.
Historically, we have thought of companies as machines, and we have designed them like we design machines. A machine typically has the following characteristics:
- It’s designed to be controlled by a driver or operator.
- It needs to be maintained, and when it breaks down, you fix it.
- A machine pretty much works in the same way for the life of the machine. Eventually, things change, or the machine wears out, and you need to build or buy a new machine.
[...] And we tend to design companies the way we design machines: We need the company to perform a certain function, so we design and build it to perform that function. Over time, things change. The company grows beyond a certain point. New systems are needed. Customers want different products and services, so we need to redesign and rebuild the machine, or buy a new one, to serve the new functions.
This kind of rebuilding goes by many names, including re-organization, reengineering, right-sizing, flattening and so on. The problem with this kind of thinking is that the nature of a machine is to remain static, while the nature of a company is to grow.
The fundamental problem, Gray argues, is that companies get too big to be self-managing, and thereafter consume every increasing resources in the ever growing complexity of control. That makes them too rigid to adapt and develop and so to stay in line with their changing environment. “So what happens”, he asks,
if we rethink the modern company, if we stop thinking of it as a machine and start thinking of it as a complex, growing system? What happens if we think of it less like a machine and more like an organism? Or even better, what if we compared the company with other large, complex human systems, like, for example, the city?
Cities, of course, are not managed or controlled by anybody. Bits of them are – the provision of utilities, aspects of the transport system, the location and logistics of Tesco, Starbucks and every other chain – but in most cases that control is partial and in all cases it is separate from every other component. Looked at from the calm and rational world of organisational design, cities simply shouldn’t work. And yet they do.
More than that, it seems that they get more productive as they grow, rather than less. Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist attempting to apply mathematical rigour to the understanding of cities is the subject of a recent article in the New York Times:
According to the data, whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.”
It is a big, though tempting, jump to assume that if only companies were more like cities, everything would work better. It’s a jump Geoffrey West seems willing to make, for him the strength of cities is precisely that they are unmanageable:
Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
It is of course quite a stretch from there to suggest that companies would work better if they were more like cities. That’s for two rather different reasons. The first is definitional: if a company were that much more like a city, we probably wouldn’t call it a company at all, it would be much closer to being an emergent property of a particular set of conditions. Silicon Valley is everybody’s favourite example of that; Silicon Roundabout works on a much smaller scale, but there is considerable scepticism about the likely success of even the lightest form of directed growth, and even if it proves successful, the thing which emerges will not be a big company. The second is that cities can grow and work like cities in part because companies behave like companies. The fact that cities may work because they are chaotic at the macro level does not in itself mean that they will work if they are chaotic at the micro level.
But even if the city isn’t quite the right paradigm, it is clear that avoiding the diseconomies of large size would be a good thing. Dave Gray’s argument is that we will do better to switch the metaphor, from building a machine to nurturing an ecosystem:
Although we tend to design companies like machines, we instinctively and intuitively understand that companies are not made of cogs, levers and gears. In the end, they are made out of people. For top management, it would be wonderful if we could put our business strategy into the machine, push a button and wait for the results. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to put your strategy into people if you want to get results.
And today, thanks to social technologies, we finally have the tools to manage companies like the complex organisms they are. Social Business Design is design for companies that are made out of people. It’s design for complexity, for productivity, and for longevity. It’s not design by division but design by connection.
To design the connected company we must focus on the company as a complex ecosystem, a set of connections and potential connections, a decentralized organism that has eyes and ears everywhere that people touch the company, whether they are employees, partners, customers or suppliers.
That, for Gray, indicates a series of characteristics, including loose internal connections balanced by a strong culture, characteristics which, as it happens, also seem to characterise long-lived companies.
What though might any of this mean for government?
Governments are no more companies than they are cities, but they are large complex organisations, and they are overwhelmingly built and managed in the machine paradigm, despite the fact that the machine doesn’t quite work as intended. Shifting to a model where the design metaphor is organism not machine, and where design is expressed as connections rather than as structure feels like an attractive and powerful approach. As so often with this kind of thinking, though, the hard question is not so much what would we like it to look like, as how might we get there from here. Precisely because the machinery of government is stable and long lived (over a wide range, though very brittle beyond that range), new structures of government will not tend to arise, phoenix like, from the ashes of their predecessors. The landscape of companies changes because, over relatively short periods, the companies populating the landscape change. The landscape of government stays the same in large part because many of its component organisations stay the same.†
If better results do come from having smaller pieces more loosely coupled, then creating that ecosystem will have to be an explicit goal for government, because it can’t so readily happen as a result of speciation (and even in the private sector, speciation, as opposed to the births and deaths of individual companies, seems to be a slow and erratic process). The big society though not, as far as I know, thought about and presented in these terms, could be seen as an attempt to move government in that direction, but does not in itself create the more connected ecosystem Gray is advocating.
When companies make cities, the results tend to be artificial and rigid – places such as Saltaire, pictured above, or Port Sunlight have characteristics of company structures as well as city structures. They were built for a specific purpose, and struggled to find a more general one once that purpose had been lost. Whitehall doesn’t look quite like that. But if it can’t find ways of adapting and evolving, perhaps one day it will.
*That apparently holds true for the S&P 500 in the US and for the FTSE-100 in the UK. In both cases, there are challenges to the methodology in the comments, so to be treated as a starting point for reflection rather than indisputable fact.
†That may look like a contradiction of my own earlier argument that Whitehall departments merge and re-form with bewildering rapidity, but I am not sure that the parallel is as close as it may appear – and in any case, M&A is not the same as new company formation.
11 February 2011
From the random juxtaposition of things in a feed reader come two posts, one human and passionate, the other dry and analytical, each illuminating the other.
Here first is Julian Sanchez writing about The Trouble With “Balance” Metaphors:
Legal scholar Dan Solove, for instance, argues forcefully that “privacy” is not a monolithic value defined by any singular essence, but a cluster concept defined instead by overlapping family resemblances. (The classic example from Wittgenstein is the idea of a “game,” instances of which range from football to chess to Myst to the unstructured pretend-play of Cops and Robbers.) In Solove’s schema, privacy encompasses an array of quite different interests: Colloquially speaking, we recognize that one’s privacy may be violated by physical intrusion on the seclusion of the home, by the disclosure of sensitive or embarrassing personal facts, by the denial of autonomy to make intimate medical or sexual decisions, by the mere knowledge that one’s actions (even one’s “public” actions) are being systematically monitored and recorded, by having one’s image (again, even an ordinary photograph snapped on a public street) plastered on billboards and television without one’s consent. The point is not, of course, that the law should forbid all these things; merely that we find it perfectly intelligible to describe each as, in some sense, an incursion on privacy.
I do not live in the public limelight, nor do I actively court the media circus. I do not consider myself to be fair game. I am a private citizen and have rights as such not to have my life plastered across the tabloids. If however I had done something that merited press intrusion (murder, fame, terrorism, espionage etc) then I would consider myself to be “fair game”… however merely owning a blog and Twitter account, being an active user of Social Media does not make one “fair game”. Publishing on the internet/social media platforms is not the same as being published in the national press.
So two views collide. The law does not forbid reference – even critical and distorted reference – to material which has been freely published and is available to all who choose to see it. But that sense of what is legally permissible does not align with what many instinctively feel about their relationship with social media, that despite its technical openness it retains some form of social privacy. Sanchez’ point, though, is an important one: there is an essential difference between saying that the Daily Mail should not have published and that it should not be allowed to publish, or should be punished for having published. But more important in this context is that argument in reverse: the fact that something is legal does not make it right.
7 February 2011
“Why”, asked the visiting official from Singapore, “do civil servants have to fill in tax returns?”
He was genuinely puzzled. It was 2000, and the world of e-government was still in its infancy, though more advanced in Singapore than most places. His thought was simple. The government pays its staff in the first place, why should each one of them have to report something the government already knows?
Leaving aside all the complexities of other kinds of income, the question is worth some thought. Would that be a good idea, and if not, why not?
This is an example of a broader question. Nobody likes endlessly repeating themselves. Lots of people get mildly – or even severely – spooked by seeing data supplied in one context popping up in another. The traditional way of doing things was always to ask for everything from scratch. Much of that was practical: it was the only way of getting things done in a primarily paper-based work process. Some of it was doctrinal: the thought that it was important for the customer to provide information, even if the organisation to which they were providing it already held it and could link it to the new requirement, as a way of underlining the customer’s responsibility for it to be correct.
That attitude is still very prevalent, though less absolute than the version held by some until a few years ago. I vividly remember the shock and incredulity on the faces of a line of civil servants at the merest suggestion that information they controlled might be used to make a related transaction simpler, but that was many years ago, and I don’t think their successors would have anything like the same attitude now. Describing it as doctrinal may now be too strong but even if it is not doctrinal, it is deeply rooted habit, and that can be no less strong an influence. In much more recent conversations, I have come across an assumption that the right approach is to collect information from customers and then check it against what is known (or believed to be known), rather than using information already held, updating and correcting as necessary.
That second approach does, of course, raise interesting questions of its own. If you told me your address last year, how likely is it that it will be the same this year? What if you told me ten years ago? How do those probabilities change change according to your age? Or your postcode? At what point, if any, do I want to verify this information? When might I want to verify it again? What if there are two systems holding different addresses?
That last issue can all too readily spiral into self-propagating error. The parliamentary ombudsman has recently reported on just such a case:
We found that once an inputting error had been made, an individual’s personal data could be changed across the network of computer systems used by the bodies involved without the individual’s knowledge or consent; and the network of computer systems could not then always locate the source of any errors made. The lack of provision for users to identify retrospectively and rectify human errors which occur from time to time, as in this case, caused the Ombudsman concern.
Part of what went horribly wrong there might be usefully thought about in terms of the buffers and leeway I talked about in my last post – this case escalated out of control because nobody could or would intervene to fix it.
So there is a need to find a way of creating a buffer which prevents erroneous data circulating uncontrolled and unchecked. Volunteered personal information may well prove to be an important element of the solution, though it doesn’t in itself solve the problem that information once captured and held on a service provider’s database is likely to decay into inaccuracy.
We also need to distinguish between different types of data. I am expert in knowing where I currently live, but there are circumstances in which there are incentives to dissimulate. I am expert in how much I earn, but not necessarily in the precise amount of last year’s taxable income. So there are tensions. Things joined together can keep information aligned and up to date. But those same systems can use those same links to propagate errors. If we hold the information already, we can minimise the data collection burden for new and changed services, but we may miss an opportunity to correct and update what is thought to be known.
In a perfect world, perhaps the best government service would be no service and government could become increasingly invisible. In the present imperfect world, data needs to be checked and challenged. Perhaps there is some merit in civil servants doing tax returns after all.