15 March 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
I know that digital inclusion is not a magic bullet but equally I do not believe that digital inclusion is a means of doing the same thing but doing it for less cost. I know that there needs to be a starting point, I do not believe that the coercion of citizens into participating in centralised service delivery is the right one. People have disengaged, they have done so for a reason; they have created networks of support that reflect their beliefs and meet their needs more appropriately. Re-engaging them with a wider community through digital channels alone will not work. By simply constructing a digital facade over the thing from which people disengaged in the first place we will not create an inclusive society.
“You can’t get a job as a stocker at Target right now if you don’t know how to use a mouse and a keyboard,” one interviewee told them, “because they’re only taking applications through their own kiosk that way. And for many entry-level positions you now have to actually e-mail an application to initiate the process. People don’t know how to do that. There’s also a fear factor, and I think people really need to keep that in mind.”
The hard truth: if you allow social networking at work is no longer the issue; how you manage it is.
Complex systems are by definition broken. They will always break and sometimes they will break when everybody did what they are supposed to. Fixing the problem won’t necessarily reduce the risk of another incident.
Legend has it that when Cortes landed in Mexico in the 1500s, he ordered his men to burn the ships that had brought them there to remove the possibility of doing anything other than going forward into the unknown. Marc Andreessen has the same advice for old media companies: “Burn the boats.”
The format is not far from the Socratic classroom, a discussion leader who pulls the interesting bits from the minds of the people in the room, with no sense of one person being a speaker and another being audience. Everyone is both a source and destination of thought.
The format solves the problems of the typical professional conference, the problem of droning self-important speakers who bore the audience and force the good stuff out into the hallway. The first goal of the format is to suck the good stuff back into the room. Everything about the format is designed to eliminate the boring, self-serving droning.
I frequently argue that one reason public servants are so stressed is that they live double lives. They already live in a networked workplace and play by network rules in order to get their job done, however, they are perpetually told they live in a hierarchy and have to pretend they abide by that more traditional rule set. Double lives are always stressful…
‘Someone rang me just to thank me this morning. They didn’t want anything. They just wanted to thank me. I’ve worked here for 8 years and that’s never happened before. I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say.’ Team member, Stroud District Council, quoted in Delivering Public Services that Work
Light Blue Touchpaper » Blog Archive » Evaluating statistical attacks on personal knowledge questions
Combined with previous results on other attack methods, there should be no doubt that personal knowledge questions are no longer viable for email, which has come to play too critical a role in web security.
Any claimant who moves online with their claim and who commits to continuing to transact in this way should be given a £30 online shopping voucher…
For the Government the £15 cost would be substantially less than the savings in staff time and paperwork. For the retailers, they would show their corporate responsibility and open up the online shopping market to a new group of consumers. And for claimants their lives would be easier, they would get a free bag of shopping and by picking up online skills they would improve their employability and access to other services. A scheme like this could realistically aim for 50% of existing claimants and 90% of new claimants to be online within three months.
A couple of years ago we discovered that 70% of forms submitted to our local Jobcentre were being filled in wrongly and rejected. It took up a lot of staff time and meant delays of 6-8 weeks before people started receiving their benefits. People were struggling to fill in the forms correctly because they spoke English as a second language, or struggled with literacy. A simple solution – installing volunteers in the Jobcentre to help people fill in the forms – reduced the rejection rate from 70% to 1%, and waiting times from 8 weeks to 3 days. We calculated it saved over a year of staff time, and the Jobcentre became one of the best performing in the country.
13 March 2010
Try as we might, we just couldn’t make a mortgage application fun, so we made it simple instead.
ING tube advert
12 March 2010
Government is a big and unwieldy beast. Even when it is looking where it is going, it is all too easy for it to step on small creatures and hardly notice the crunch. All too often, it isn’t particularly looking where it is going and can tread on things without malice or intent – but if you are the small creature, the motives of the elephant are hardly your top concern.
Online services are particularly vulnerable to this effect, because anyone can be the Wizard of Oz – projecting something much bigger than the reality. In the very early days of what was then known as e-government, a little startup called Impower decided to offer an online service for buying fishing licences. In the offline world, you had to go to the post office. Impower offered a web form and credit card payment – and then they went to the post office and bought in bulk. Very soon afterwards, the Environment Agency came along with the unbeatable advantage of not having to go to the post office to buy licences from itself – and fishinglicence.co.uk folded soon afterwards. Another example is Entitledto, a small company which runs an online service to calculate entitlement to welfare benefits. As with fishing licences, it provided a public online service before the relevant part of government – in this case DWP. And as with fishing licences, DWP has since chosen to provide its own service. Phil Agulnik, one of the founders of Entitledto, made his feelings on that plain in commenting on the then draft Power of Information Taskforce report:
The benefits calculator website I run, http://www.entitledto.co.uk, is a free site that allows members of the public to calculate the benefits and tax credits they are entitled to. It’s very successful and performs about a million calculations a year. DWP are fully aware of the service and I have tried to engage with them about working together. Nevertheless, they have developed their own benefits adviser service (see http://campaigns.direct.gov.uk/benefitsadviser/). Fortunately it is far more difficult to use than our service and so unlikely to attract many users. However, apart from the resources wasted, it also represents unfair competition which undermines our ability to develop our existing service.
The experience of Patient Opinion is well known. We launched an innovative patient feedback service in January 2006, backed by a robust business model with distributed revenue streams to protect the independence of our service. In June 2007 a competing but more limited service was launched by the Department of Health, funded centrally by the taxpayer. This has adversely affected our ability to innovate and grow, and the rationale for competing in this way has never been explained.
On the face of it, two more villains, or at best two more careless elephants. But it’s not quite that simple. There’s a pretty strong argument for saying that providing information about benefits is a fundamental part of DWP’s responsibilities and that it might reasonably be criticised if it failed to provide that service. But it can also be argued that so long as DWP can satisfy itself that accurate information is available – through Entitledto or any other third party providers – it has no need to provide a competing offer, or indeed should positively not do so. It’s not my purpose here to argue that case one way or the other, it is simply to observe that there are arguments both ways.
Patient Opinion is, I think, in a subtly different position. Its being outside the system is part of what defines its role and the relationship it has with the people whose opinions it presents. But even then it would be odd to argue that it was not part of the role of the NHS to gather feedback from the users of its services. Should it be debarred from doing so because another organisation had begun to provide such a service first? Or more generally, and deliberately to put the question in a more extreme way, does the existence of any third party provider of a service mean that government should be prevented from providing it itself? I am not sure that it can mean that, but I am sure that it would be a tragedy – and worse than a tragedy, a mistake – if Patient Opinion were to be crowded out from what it is doing so well.
MyPolice is an online feedback tool that enables the public and the police to have a conversation. It fosters constructive, collaborative communication between people and the Police forces which serve them.
It is run by two enthusiastic and extraordinarily energetic service designers and it aims to be a kind of Patient Opinion for the police. They have spent months going up and down the country talking to police forces and all sorts of other people to explain and get support for their approach.
My Police, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown quantity. Its website says only, ‘Thank you for visiting My Police. These pages will go live soon.’ but it carries the logo of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. At the end of a long press release published yesterday, they say:
HMIC’s detailed assessments will be publicly available on a new website, MyPolice.org.uk – launching soon.
MyPolice.org.uk is an interactive one-stop-shop that will provide a wealth of facts, figures, grades andassessments of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. Members of the public will be able to see how many officers forces put on community duties, where the money is spent and whether crime and anti-social behaviour are dealt with effectively.
This is, on the face of it, rather odder than the other examples I have discussed here. If HMIC were entirely ignorant of MyPolice that would be a sign of pure elephantine behaviour, with the latter cast as unwitting victim of a greater power. But it is apparent that that is not the case: HMIC is sufficiently well aware of MyPolice to have warned them of the imminent launch of My Police. The problem here is not, as with all the other examples, that both government and non-government provider have decided to provide the same service. It is that government and non-government provider have decided to launch two almost entirely different services but to do so under the same name, and overlapping just enough to maximise confusion.
One generous explanation might be that HMIC have been working on their idea since before MyPolice was visible to them, though the fact that their domain name was registered only last month doesn’t offer obvious support for that theory. That doesn’t leave much beyond having to assume that HMIC were aware of MyPolice, but didn’t stop to think what the impact of their actions might be, or didn’t think they needed to care.
It can be hard being the elephant in these stories. I have had painful and frustrating experiences as the elephant, trying to create an effective partnership with a mouse. Entirely reasonably, that doesn’t make the mouse feel any better, and the mouse still gets the rough end of the deal however benign the intentions of the elephant. I don’t, on the whole, think that government is obliged to leave the field completely clear for others where its own services and information are concerned. But I do think that the asymmetry of power and voice obliges it to take great care where it places its feet.
Comments to the effect that elephants don’t actually trample anything but in fact tread with extraordinary delicacy will be both missing the point and over interpreting the reality of the elephant.
Update: this has since spawned an irregular series of government as elephant posts, which look at various ways in which treading carelessly and ponderously can have undesirable effects.
10 March 2010
The 5th National Digital Inclusion Conference kicks off later this morning – with live video available free (though with all three main party leaders appearing in recordings, some will be more live than others). Their presence – albeit ghostly – is an indicator of how much more visible this has become over the last year, starting with the Digital Britain report and becoming much more visible with the appointment of Martha Lane Fox as digital inclusion champion and Race Online 2012.
A lot of that – for good reason – focuses on who is digitally excluded and what benefits there might be to them as individuals and to society more generally from getting online. But there has been less attention that I am aware of on the question of what counts as being included: at what point can you say that somebody once digitally excluded has switched categories?
That question looks deceptively easy. Somebody without the means or the skills to access the internet is clearly excluded. So somebody with the means and the skills must surely be counted as among the included. But of course it isn’t as simple as that, because neither means nor skills are simple binary states.
A while ago, I was talking to a young man looking for a job, and asked him why he didn’t look online. Because it’s two buses to get to the public library and you only get half an hour, was his reply. Or being in a library myself and watching an older man asking a bit tentatively if he could use one of the computers and being firmly told that he could book a slot for three days time. He turned away looking crestfallen and without making a booking. It didn’t look as though he would be back. Remote, uncertain, and limited access is better than none. But it is hardly inclusion. That’s in part because there is something transformational about the always on internet. The obvious excitement of broadband access is its speed; the more subtle but, I suspect, at least as important difference is that it is always just there. Access two bus rides away is not just less convenient, it is a different kind of experience.
But even once access is established, there are skills and confidence. Surfing web sites or writing an email is not the same as checking a bank balance or booking flight, still less claiming a benefit. Nor is that scale as linear as it might once have appeared: being comfortable with bebo or facebook does not necessarily translate into confidence beyond the hedged garden.
All of that shows that the question of who is digitally included is not as easy as it might first look but treats it as essentially pragmatic. But increasingly the question of digital inclusion is treated not as a practical question but but a moral one: 75% of UK respondents to the BBC survey published this week believe that internet access is a fundamental right, and 87% say that the internet has increased their freedom.
Another piece of research published this week, by the US Social Science Research Council (with a summary at Ars Technica) challenges the idea – for the USA at at least – that there are significant groups excluding themselves by pure lack of interest:
When we began our conversations with non-adopters, we expected to hear with some frequency from people who were not interested in the Internet… But we found no such group, even among respondents with profound histories of marginalization—the homeless, people with long-term disabilities, people recently released from lengthy prison sentences, non-English speakers from new immigrant communities, and residents of a rural community without electricity or running water. No one needed to be convinced of the importance of Internet use or of the value of broadband adoption in the home.
Nor was this view based on abstract ideas:
In most cases, non-adopters talk about the Internet as a concrete, immediate need. Non-adopters increasingly must use the Internet in their interactions with employers, schools, and government, as services move online. When people lack adequate access or the necessary skills to navigate critical services, their experience is not typically one of empowerment but of fear and frustration. For this reason, we talk about “drivers” of adoption—positive and negative—rather than the “value” of the Internet to these communities.
Job searches, education, and interactions with e-government services consistently stood out as the most urgent of these needs, and one or more of these figured in every conversation with non-adopters.
The question of who should be seen – or perhaps more importantly, who sees themselves – as digitally included is critically important. Abstract ambitions will not get translated into reality if we cannot be clear quite what it is we are trying to achieve – and what will count as success.
4 March 2010
A digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government
(h/t Martin Stewart Weeks)
3 March 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
We have created Social Innovator to bring together the people, experience and issues involved in designing, developing and growing new ideas that meet pressing unmet needs.
This material is intended to guide and support the practice of all those who can contribute to this social economy: policy makers who can help to create the right conditions; foundations and philanthropists who can fund and support; social organisations trying to meet needs more effectively; and of course entrepreneurs and innovators themselves.
The good news is all in smartphones, as sales were up a whopping 41.1 percent for the fourth quarter and 23.8 percent overall, according to the latest data from market research firm Gartner. Nokia still commands large but declining chunks of smartphone and overall mobile phone sales, while iPhone and Android devices saw big leaps last year.
Gartner told Ars that Apple doubled its share of the overall market from 1.2 percent in 2008 to 2.1 percent for 2009, though it wasn’t enough to put it in the top five.
Innovation – what prat thought this up? would you take a bullet for your innovation? – John Suffolk – Government CIO
But for people to innovate they need the space to think, to dream, to test ideas, to make mistakes, to be protected, to be trusted. Many processes in a business look to ensure each pound spent is put to good use – how can you tell when you are innovating?
What should a new government do?
At Participle, we believe that public services must provide new ways for people to shape their lives in a more meaningful way. We work with and for the public to make this happen. The current system isn’t working. It is both failing to support people and failing to address the major issues of modern society. This has little to do with money – most of our solutions are cheaper.
Those who have seen our work have asked, what should a new government do to allow these bottom up, low cost approaches to flourish nationally. Here are our 10 points for a Social Renaissance.
A shift in the quality of the public conversation occurs only when we see prisons not just as a way of punishing criminals and assuaging victims but as a vital public service that can benefit us all…
Prisoners want prisons to work, and they usually know what needs to happen inside to help them avoid reoffending outside. From the design of prisons to the content of training and employment programmes, prisoners, like all service users, have the best insights into how services can be modelled to achieve the outcomes we all want.
Bowie then went on to make one of the most perceptive observations anyone’s ever made about our networked world. Music, he said, “is going to become like running water or electricity”. To appreciate the significance of this, remember that he was speaking in 2002, a year after Apple unleashed the iPod on an unsuspecting world. At the time, millions of people were transfixed by the idea that they could carry their entire music collections around with them in a tiny device. But Bowie perceived that this blissful state might just be transitory– that iPod users were, in fact, the audio equivalent of travellers to primitive countries who carry bottled water because public supplies are unreliable or unsafe.
26 February 2010
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a post about the word we should use for the people who use government services. Its opening paragraph was:
There used to be benefit claimants. There used to be passengers. There used to be taxpayers. Now there are customers (and patients, who seem, so far, to have survived the cull).
Now I discover it may be all over for patients too.
Yesterday, Patient Opinion ran a Yorkshire and Humber Event, and triggered a fascinating twitter conversation between Patient Opinion itself, Stephen Collins in Australia and Justin Kerr-Stevens somewhere between the two. The blow by blow exchange – as near as I can reconstruct it – is below the fold, but the essence of it was Stephen’s challenge:
Perhaps the notion of patients as “users” is a telling factor. Are they not *people*?
Well of course they are – we are. And Stephen went on to link to I Am Not a User, a site which proclaims the importance of talking about ‘people’. Its author links in turn to a marvellous polemic by Don Norman:
If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer – you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer – one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user – the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused. [...]
People are rich, complex beings. They use our devices with specific goals, motives, and agendas. Often they work with – or against – others. A label such as customer, consumer or user ignores this rich structure of abilities, motives, and social structures.
It’s a great challenge, but I am not sure whether to accept it. My instincts are against linguistic minimalism. Different words convey different meanings because sometimes there are different things we want to say. Using one word for everything feels as though it must undercut our powers of communication. Describing some people in terms of the thing they are doing or being which distinguish them at that moment from people in general must surely add to understanding rather than detracting from it. But that, of course, presupposes that those distinctions make a difference, and the counter argument must be that, in some important sense, they don’t.
In practical terms, it would take a lot of effort to expunge all those words from our vocabulary and would result in some pretty odd sounding constructions. So it’s not worth doing – and won’t get done – unless there is an overwhelmingly powerful argument for change. I am not yet seeing that argument, so I plan to stick with ‘customers’ for a while longer for the reasons set out in that post two years ago. But perhaps that’s because I am a dinosaur person.
22 February 2010
In the 1970s, there were three changes of government.
In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, there was one.
This is how they did things in 1974 – the combination of constitutional theory, soap opera and gossip column in this account by the prime minister’s private secretary is quite extraordinary. But the two elections of 1974 represented the end of an era in a way which could not have been recognised at the time: the UK has now had thirty years of stable governments (even the whittling away of John Major’s small majority didn’t really change that). Directly and indirectly, that fact has done a great deal to shape political institutions, political processes and, more pertinently to the subject matter of this blog, the ways in which the business of government gets done and the ways in which people interact with government as citizens, participants and customers. It is entirely possible that that environment will continue in the next parliament. It is entirely possible that it won’t.
19 February 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
At 6.25 p.m. the Prime Minister left 10 Downing Street for Buckingham Palace. I went with him; and on the drive we neither of us said a word. There was so much, or nothing, left to say.
People are so busy getting better at fixing problems that they forget the real point, which is to stop doing what causes the problem in the first place.
Improving the speed and quality at which you fix things is a worthwhile objective: that is, if (and only if) things break down less often as a result. So when you look at repair processes, it is more important to look at why things break down, and to prevent them from breaking down, than to focus on getting better at fixing things.
For some time now, we’ve been focused on the customer experience at BT. We looked at the way we dealt with customer requests, how often we delivered what the customer wanted, when the customer wanted it and how the customer wanted it. And we would take a close look at how often we got that right. A very close look. Because it affected what we took home.
With the Obama Administration placing a high priority on the goal of transparency in the federal government these days, blogging has become a dynamic, useful tool for agency officials to communicate thoughts, opinions and information directly to the public. High-ranking federal officials are taking to the web and fueling a communications trend that is rapidly expanding and here to stay. Here are five of the blogs in government that everyone is – or will be – talking about.