12 November 2007
In September this year, the BBC reports that text messages were being sent in the UK at the rate of a bit over a billion a week. That means that as many text messages are now being sent every week as in the whole of 1999.
Text messaging remains an interesting example of discontinuous change. Even over a much shorter period, one of the top texting days of 2005, A-level results day with 99.5 million sent, is way below the current daily average of 173 million.
Perhaps we will all look back in another year or two or five and find that slightly odd – in the same way that the rise and fall of the fax machine is beginning to feel like ancient history – because twitter, or pownce or jaiku will have taken that market over. Or perhaps the direction will have changed again.
Genealogy and e-government have long had an unfortunate relationship with each other in the UK. The great triumph of putting the 1901 census online in January 2002 was followed within three hours by demand overwhelming capacity and within five days by its being withdrawn altogether for a bit of a rethink – a pause which in the event ran until the following November. Or as the NAO put it a couple of years later:
The service was designed to provide access to 1 million users, with a peak of 1.2 million users, in a 24 hour period. However, by midday on 2 January 2002, 1.2 million users per hour were attempting to access the site from locations across the world. Between 2 and 6 January 2002, the site continued to experience 1.2 million users per hour, overwhelming the site. On 7 January 2002, the Public Record Office and its contractor, QinetiQ, agreed to close the site to general Internet access to allow QinetiQ to undertake a technical investigation. The website was released to the public on a limited basis on 6 August 2002 and was made fully available to the public on 21 November 2002, since when it has operated effectively.
Now the next row has broken out over the withdrawal of access to paper records of births, marriages and deaths last month, slightly anticipating the online availability of those records which has slipped from "early 2008" to "mid-2009". I have no knowledge of what lies behind all this, but on the face of it the gap is an unfortunate one. There was a lot of talk in late 2001 that the then imminent 1901 census site might work as an encouragement to people to be interested in online government services more generally, even though nobody knew then (and I am not sure that anybody knows now) whether cross-selling in that way was feasible, still less how we might set about doing it.
I doubt that there are any such wider repercussions from this latest issue, even though it does allow the further reinforcement of the idea that all government IT projects invariably fail. It is also a very public service response: the hiatus is acceptable because there are no competitive consequences because, in turn, there is no alternative source of supply.
Online genealogy is worth thinking about for more positive reasons as well, though. Genealogy overall is said to be among the most popular hobbies (though on a quick search I couldn’t find any data on that), and a lot of it now done online. It seems a fair bet that this is one of the relatively few areas where over 50s are disproportionately highly represented, so prompting a couple of interesting questions.
In what other areas of activity do people use government records (albeit indirectly) for fun? What other government or quasi-government service might be imagined to have any influence on people’s propensity to get online or do different kinds of things online? What opportunities (if any) might that create for service development more generally?
But there’s no getting away from the fact that channel shift is difficult without a channel to shift to.
6 November 2007
The idea of employee of the month is pretty well known – though I suspect more often found in the US than in the UK, and it’s often something to do with giving extraordinary customer service. But that’s still a very supplier-based view of what is going on. Now the Selling Sherpa reports on the splendid idea of a customer of the month:
On the counter near the register was a prominent frame with a
picture of one of their regular patrons noting his selection as
“Customer of the Month”. I was impressed by this and wondered how one
achieves such an honor.
I asked the barista about the selection criteria and she informed me that it’s a group decision by all who work there.
Seth Godin observes that:
The hardest part is getting over the fear that you’ll alienate all your
other great customers. Give it a try, it’s probably worth the risk.
Which is a good cue for returning to the hoary question of what ‘customer’ means for public services. Is this a way of forcing staff to be attentive to customers? Of encouraging customers to come back for more? Of telling customers that some ways of behaving and interacting are better than others? What might our staff – and our customers – do differently if they thought their picture might be in a place of honour in a tax office or a GP’s surgery?
Or have we just slid beyond the point where the metaphor of public service user as customer is useful?
4 November 2007
If an employer wants to employ a foreign worker – one from outside the EEA – they need a work permit. And the ever-helpful Home Office is on hand to ease their way through the process. In most cases it is the employer, not the prospective employee who has to make the application – which seems to be designed to test (a) whether there is a real employer (b) whether there is a real job and (c) whether there is a real reason why the job can’t be given to someone who already has the right to work here.
There is a ‘Working in the UK’ website which takes us to a generous 24 page PDF of guidance for filling in the form. “If you have not applied for a work permit in the past five years”, they tell us, “you should send as much recent information as possible to establish that you are a UK-based employer, and that you are capable of offering a genuine vacancy.”
- evidence of registration with HM Revenue & Customs to pay PAYE and National Insurance
- a copy of your Certificate of Employers Liability Insurance
- VAT returns
- most recent company accounts, audited if possible
- a copy of the landlord’s signed lease of premises, or rental or purchase agreement
- company incorporation, fire, or food hygiene certificates or other registration or licensing documents
- utility bills
- business plans
- balance sheets
- contracts detailing your business
- for IT and hotel and catering establishments, floor plans.
And those are just the general requirements. Some of the more specific ones shift from the merely intrusive into the downright bizarre: if you are recruiting hotel workers, the Home Office requires you to send in a copy of your wine list as an aid to their decision making process.
There are two more interesting features of this list, though. The first is just how many things on it come from other bits of government. The second is how much of it doesn’t exist any more.
The first is pretty obvious – and extends not just to VAT returns and company incorporation but also covers company accounts (deposited at Companies House). It would be the work of moments to check the relevant databases, and should be far more secure and reliable than any dog-eared photocopies I might send in. But of course the obvious is not obvious at all. I don’t suppose for a moment that there are mechanisms for allowing Home Office people to check Companies House data, still less HMRC’s. The default mechanism for joining up government is still to expect service users to do all the joining up which may be required, with no help whatsoever from the bit of government making the demands.
The second is more encouraging in some ways, but makes it even more urgent to overcome the first. To meet the first requirement on the list, “employers need to provide either their P35 or a copy of their HM Revenue and Customs internet account book”. Fair enough. Except that I don’t have a paper P35 any more, I have been doing that online for years. I have no idea what an “internet account book” might be, though I suspect it might have been some variant of “payment account book” before a spell checker got hold of it – and I haven’t had one of those for even longer. I don’t have any paper VAT returns either.
In fact, come to think of it, a triumph of online service delivery which I had not spotted until writing that last paragraph is that none of the routine paper forms which used to go to various bits of government have to go on paper any more, except the annual accounts, which are a slightly different animal.
Of course I can print off various web pages which are the equivalents of all those paper forms – but that makes the process even more insane. The flow becomes: government database -> web browser -> printer -> post -> clerical handling -> government database. Government database -> government database might be just a bit more efficient.
The penny has dropped at DVLA that the MOT certificate is no longer a certificate in any meaningful sense, it’s a receipt: the real value, and the thing which needs to be secured is the database entry. That news clearly hasn’t reached into the Border and Immigration Agency. I have a web page with my P35 on it – and could change it to say anything I wanted it to before printing it, with absolutely no way of telling from the printed version that I had done so – except, of course, by checking the PAYE database from which it was generated, which is where we came in.
Security-by-letterhead was fairly robust when printing was hard, and faking a letterhead was real work. Today it’s easy, but people – especially people who grew up under the older paradigm — don’t act as
if it is. They would if they thought about it, but most of the time our security runs on intuition and not on explicit thought.
This kind of thing bites us all the time. Mother’s maiden name is no longer a good password. An impressive-looking storefront on the Internet is not the same as an impressive-looking storefront in the
real world. The headers on an e-mail are not a good authenticator of its origin. It’s an effect of technology moving faster than our ability to develop a good intuition about that technology.
3 November 2007
Substituting telephones for paper has gone quite a long way for incoming customer contact. There are many services where it is possible – and often easier – to ring up than to write or to go there, wherever ‘there’ might be.
Substituting phones for outgoing contact is much less advanced. Buff envelopes remain the characteristic and caricature of bureaucracy. That’s partly because it it genuinely more complicated – providing a joined-up service requires much deeper integration than is needed for handling incoming contact – and partly because the problems of security and verification are seen as harder to manage.
But behind all that sit two more customer-focused questions:
- who has what kinds of phone?
- what do they want to use them for?
And, perhaps even more important, two enormous and usually unspoken assumption
- any given channel has to be able to do everything for everybody
- if you send somebody a letter, they get it
Richard Allan has recently come at this by challenging that last assumption
I live in a house with 7 flats. Each morning a large bundle of post comes through the door that we sort into pigeon holes. It seems like at least once a week there is a letter in there that should have gone to another address, so presumably something that should have come here goes astray with the same frequency. We have also experienced letters arriving with postmarks from weeks or even months before.
His proposed solution is to use SMS either to alert people to the arrival of a a letter or, better still, to displace the letter altogether. There’s good reason to think that ‘I didn’t get the letter’ is an explanation or an excuse (and it can be very hard to tell which) deployed in quite a range of situations. But that takes us back to the first two questions – are the people with a high propensity not to get (or to read, or to react to…) letters the same as the people who might find it easier to deal with text messages?
We can start with the latest Communication Markets Survey from Ofcom. Digging down into the detail, we find that the number of households with mobile phones has overtaken the number with landlines. But that doesn’t mean a great deal: 84% of households have both fixed and mobile, while 9% have mobile only and 7% have fixed only – and just 1% have neither. Two tables later, Ofcom reports that there is a socio-economic skew behind those figures: only 5% of ABC1 households are mobile only, but 15% of C2DEs.
There’s nothing conclusive in that, other that at least in aggregate, there is no self-evident issue of social exclusion(though there may be more buried by the fact that both the Ofcom and the Eurobarometer data seems all to be about households rather than individuals). What it doesn’t readily do, is help understand where the quickest wins may be. My strong suspicion is that having got over the basic hurdle of having the means to access a service through a particular channel, the characteristics of who will want to use it and how will be considerably more subtle than the broad measures of age and income which are as far as the quantitative analysis seems able to take us. As Richard Allan concludes,
The joy of a multi-channel world built around a good register of communications preferences is that we can all have our preferred methods. The current state of the art is deficient in many services in not having the capability to allow those of us who want to use cheaper electronic means to do so at all.
But the question of who has what preferences matters – and matters quite a lot, not just at the simple retail level of which of us does in fact have a particular preference for a particular channel in particular circumstances. The costs of adding an SMS channel may be low, but they are not zero. Like all such costs, they would be ideally be covered two ways: from enhanced customer value and enhanced operational efficiency. So then the questions are not just who might have a preference for being communicated with one way rather than another, but which particular steps of which particular processes are likely to work better for which customers to generate how much value for the customer and provider.
So there is a very practical issue of user preferences and behaviour – best understood by getting out and doing it. But there is then a deeper question of how to change the underlying processes to support the qualities of the new channel rather than the old one, a bigger and harder job altogether.
29 October 2007
Michael Wesch, who produced the Information R/evolution featured in the last post, first came to widespread fame (well, four million views on YouTube, which isn’t far short of the same thing) with The Machine is Us/ing Us.
This one does Web 2.0 in under five minutes. Some of the examples assume a basic knowledge of geekness, but the rollercoaster ride gets across some important messages.
28 October 2007
The more stuff there is, the harder it is to find.
David Weinberger, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto and author of the best one phrase description of the internet, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, has turned his attention to the question of how best to organise information unconstrained by physical storage.
The short version of his solution is not to organise it all – because Everything is Miscellaneous. Supermarkets have to be organised because everything has to be somewhere – and while a few things may be in more than one somewhere, the overwhelming majority of things is in a single somewhere, with that somewhere determined by what kind of thing it is. Milk is near cream; bananas are near apples; pork is near beef; beer is near nappies. Well, maybe not the last one, which is something of an urban legend, though like all the best legends, with a grounding in truth.
Similarly, libraries are organised, almost invariably, thematically – not just to be able to find a specific book again (though that is obviously pretty important), but the more easily to be able to find things like it. All such classifications are inherently arbitrary (which doesn’t stop at least some of them being useful), if not always quite as gloriously arbitrary as the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.
Everything is Miscellaneous is about how that whole approach to sorting things, built up over centuries, collapses in a world where anything can be next to anything else without duplicating physical storage. It is also about the problem that, if anything can be anywhere, things can be hard to find. The solution to that is not to invent yet another single top-down categorisation, somehow better than all the others – partly because it won’t be, and partly because if even if it were nobody would make the necessary investment in classification.
One way of dealing with that is to have lots of ways of classifying things. Pandora, a wonderful service for playing music which is like other music you like (but from which everybody outside the US is banned), uses almost 400 attributes in its analysis to determine ways in which a given piece of music is like another one, ranging from syncopation to G-funk synth line. Another is to let the classification emerge. If thousands of people classify pictures on Flickr, an approach to searching based on keywords will emerge. If millions of people make links between web pages, relationships will emerge – and the founders of Google will get rich.
Weinberger writes well, and the book is a good read. But it’s even quicker and easier to watch it instead. There is a brilliant five minute video on YouTube which explains the whole thing – Information R/evolution.
As for HD30.2 .W4516 2007, that’s the Library of Congress classification for Everything is Miscellaneous – the classification of a book about the death of classification.
25 October 2007
Some of the smart people in the provisional wing of Cisco have been developing the idea of the "connected republic" for a couple of years – applying the power of networks not just to how public services get delivered, but also to how government works.
Now they have launched the Connected Republic 2.0 – both as a white paper and as an online community. Both are well worth looking at, and although the blog and the forum are in their very early days, the quality of the people involved pretty much guarantees that they will be worth following.
There is just one small oddity. The two leading lights, Paul Johnston and Martin Stewart-Weeks are, respectively, British and Australian (though Martin may still be claiming to be from Yorkshire). That makes both of them subjects of the Crown – though perhaps they felt that Connected Monarchy didn’t have quite the same ring to it – even with 2.0 (or should it be II) tagged on the end.
25 October 2007
Michael Cross of the Guardian sees some signs that e-government might be “entering bureaucracy’s DNA”. Leaving aside the oddity of the metaphor, this is clearly intended to be a positive comment – Cross is observing a move away from simply replicating offline experiences online and towards changing – or abolishing – the underlying process.
So far, so good. But Cross sees two reasons for scepticism. The first, and to my mind less interesting, is the current reputation of the NHS IT programme. The second is “the running sore of digital exclusion:”
Transforming bureaucracy to make electronic transactions the streamlined norm condemns those without e-access and e-competencies to a second class service. That can only lead to a further spiral of exclusion…
This is a mainstream issue. If e-transformation of public services misses out 14 million people, neither the chancellor nor anyone else in public service can claim to be meeting the aspirations of the British people.
This seems seriously misguided to me, for three important reasons.
The first is that it assumes that digital exclusion is something static and irreducible. Of course right now digital exclusion is a problem. But it’s less of a problem now than it was five years ago, and it’s more of a problem than it will be in five years from now. There is a clear parallel with telephony: it’s not so long ago that people worried about “telephony exclusion”. Change has come partly because phones are cheaper and easier to get hold of, but partly because the idea of a phone has broadened to include things which weren’t even imagined then, notably pre-pay mobiles. It’s pretty clear that the same effects will continue in other electronic channels, with consequences which are clear in direction if uncertain in precise form.
Whatever the trend, though, nobody is pretending that 14 million people are suddenly going to go out and buy iphones. That brings us to the second reason why Cross has got it wrong – and it’s worth repeating the key sentence:
Transforming bureaucracy to make electronic transactions the streamlined norm condemns those without e-access and e-competencies to a second class service.
No it doesn’t. Or, more accurately, no it doesn’t have to. I almost never go to my bank any more. That doesn’t mean the bank branches with human beings in them don’t exist any more for those who want them. It does mean that queuing up to cash a cheque on a Friday afternoon is an experience which ended a generation ago. If we strip out the routine transactions by people whose increasing preference is to use a self-service approach, people “without e-access and e-competencies” may get a different kind of first class service from staff who are able to focus on their needs.
That in turn links to the third reason. Cross still seems stuck in the mindset of eGovernment 1.0 where the only thing which changes is that glossy web forms are stuck on top of broken processes. That’s particularly strange, since the first part of his column is all about the move away from that approach, which he is quite right to see as an important one. One critical consequence is that staff providing services over the phone and face to face end up with better tools too – which can be (and probably should be) versions of the same tools which the online self-servers are using. And better tools allow them to give better service to the offline customers, precisely because the service has been improved for the online customers.
The final implied conclusion is that it is illegitimate to improve services for some people because other people don’t get the same benefit. It seems to me that improving the service in one way for some people, and using that as a means of improving the service in a different way for different people is not only legitimate, but highly desirable.
Of course the counter charge might be that this is all Panglossian optimism, and that the temptation to lure as many as possible into online self-service, to maximise short term efficiency savings, and not to invest any of them in improving the offline experience will prove irresistible to public service providers. Perhaps. But that’s exactly the point: the choice is a political and social one, not a technical one. The relationship between “e-transformation” and digital exclusion will be the one we collectively choose it to be. The argument that e-transformation “can only lead to a further spiral of
exclusion” doesn’t stand up.
12 October 2007
A new joined up front end has been launched to bring together sources of government and other financial support for people in need. Just not by the government.
Turn2us says that it is
a new charity launching a groundbreaking online service to help the millions of people in need in the UK.
For the first time, people can access information on all benefits and grants available to them from both statutory and voluntary organisations, at no cost, through turn2us.
In many cases, applications for support can be made directly from the website and we’ll keep people informed by email or sending a text to their mobile phone.
The site includes a benefit calculator, which is clearly a white label version of the Entitledto service that has been around for a number of years now. The rest of the site provides links to various voluntary organisations. There isn’t any obvious integration between the two halves, but it’s a brave attempt to recognise that when people have a need for financial support, fragmentation of potential supply is not helpful and the source of the support is less important than getting it.
It’s a bit disappointing to see so clearly well intentioned a site falling victim to boiler plate wording in their terms and conditions. It requires users to consent to losing European data protection standards and it purports to prohibit deep linking – and you have to read two and a half thousand words of legalese to discover that or anything else. Given the nature of the site and its intended audience both content and style seem deeply inappropriate – but all too typical of putting defensiveness ahead of customers and their needs.