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How bad are things really?

One interesting way to understand more about problems in systems is to find something absurd, and analyse it. So here’s something absurd.

It’s nearing the end of January. Tax return time for many. We know where to go, of course: Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. So try this:

http://hmrc.gov.uk

Oh dear.*

Things really are quite bad, aren’t they? It seems that no one ever predicted the bizarre scenario that a user might just be tempted to omit the increasingly-redundant ‘www’.

Quarterly, I do a VAT return. Despite knowing in my mind that the URL will fail, my fingers always forget. I have just a few moments of ????? then a little !!!!! and off I go. Putting in the www, and going on to what is actually a reasonably well-designed transaction.

No one dies. I waste a few seconds. I think it’s absurd. And life goes on.

But let’s stop and have a look at this in more detail. Technically, how long would the system reconfiguration take to make sure that a user – rash or wild enough to omit the www – still got where they needed to go?

A few seconds? A few minutes? No more than that, surely.

So that puts this issue (which has been known about for YEARS) firmly in the ‘absurd’ category. I remember it being discussed (along with potential hack workarounds) in March 2009 at the Rewired State Hack Day – although I can’t find a record there that anything came of this.

Why then, if there’s no technical impediment of any substance, are we still faced with this absurdity?

Although I’ve worked on various things with HMRC in the past, I’ve never found out the answer, so from here onwards is largely my speculation – but I hope it illustrates a few more general points about change. Particularly change as it relates to the mega-engines of UK government technology.

You need two ingredients for this change to happen, in the simplest analysis. You need:

- someone to be responsible for it happening, and

- a mechanism to put the change into practice.

Either of these fail, and you’re stuck with your absurdity. It may be that there is no one (of any seniority) who actually has as their formal role (that’s the one that performance will be measured against, typically) to ensure that top-level usability like this works. A big system like the HMRC website will have a zillion worker ants around it, many with very clear responsibilities for a particular piece of functionality. But something as obvious as the URL? You never know – there might not be. [Correction on this point very welcome indeed, by the way. If it's you, shout.]

So let’s assume (and it remains an assumption) that such a person exists. How is the change then made? In my experience that’s when things can get really nasty. Changes go into a queue. There’s always changes required to a system, large and small, planned and unplanned. There’s rarely sufficient budget and resource available to do everything when it might ideally be implemented. So things get prioritised.

It may be that this little configuration change to fix the URL is sitting in the bowels of HMRC, somewhere in one of these queues. I bloody well hope it is, by the way. But prioritisation is a funny business, and it is not inconceivable that this will never be deemed important enough (relative to other priorities) to be fixed. It may even be kicked into the long grass of “don’t touch until we do our next wholesale infrastructure/estate refresh in 20xx…”.

So, I hear you say, you being a rational, external, and FFS-roll-your-sleeves-up-and-fix-it type. Can’t we just get in there and do it ourselves? Can’t we buck this crazy system for the sake of something that will take no time at all and avoid MILLIONS of ????? -> !!!!! moments?

And that’s the real kick in the teeth. Because when we did all that clever procuring and contracting for the squillion-pound systems underpinning the website (and a lot else to boot), we made absolutely sure that it had Rules. Tight rules that were all about predictability, resource planning and keeping control. And those Rules dictate that under no circumstances will short-cuts be taken. These would take us into Unknown Territory, which might have Risks that could Jeopardise Things and lead to Terrible Consequences (and would have the Lawyers in and Feasting Merrily for some time from large Tubs of Blame).

I say ‘we’ above, because we need a certain amount of honesty about why we chose to do things this way. And that was about managing risks and costs. Viewed from that angle, it makes it very rational indeed to build Rules in this way.

Except when you need a small change doing which would make your very expensive system look immediately very much less absurd.

Go on, prove me wrong, HMRC. Pop a comment on here to pop my speculative bubble, and let us know who is responsible for this bit of user experience. Even better, let me wake up tomorrow, head to the #ukgc10 barcamp and have the massed hordes of government geek types admire the egg dripping off my chin because you flicked the switch that sorted it out.

Because I’d rather look stupid than persist with this sort of absurdity.

*You may find on some system/browser combinations, that there’s no error. You’ve been baled out by idiot-proof software that’s checked the www… version before giving up the ghost. And you’re wondering what the hell this post is about. Lucky you. But for millions of browsers, including mine here tonight on January 22 2010, it’s a big #fail.

—————–

Update: a quick suggestion from @nevali via Twitter – “you need a third ingredient: somebody who knows what the change actually means and is. this is usually most problematic”. Yes. I’d assumed that to be rolled into the responsible owner role, but it may not be. Point very well made.

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9 Responses

  1. William says:

    Fails for me too.

    The devil might advocate a line of “they’re too busy sorting out big things to deal with these small things”

    But I tend to think that the inability to sort out these small things points to a much greater inability to sort out big things. Because big improvements come when you make lots of mall improvements with no great fuss.

    Underlying problems are:
    - inflexibility of outsourced countracts
    - still general inability to see things from customer’s point of view at any stage

  2. Mo says:

    One of my roles is to host websites for a living.

    Some of our clients (and curiously, they are some of the smallest ones, not the the major corporations whose names I won’t disclose but I can guarantee you will have heard of them) insist on running their own DNS. Despite the fact that pointing a domain at our DNS servers doesn’t prevent them from pointing them somewhere else [without our involvement] at a later date, they still feel that running their own DNS is some sort of safety-net.

    Except they screw it up. Every single time. They don’t actually know what any of it means, so even if we find the person responsible for it to as them to fix it, they don’t actually see that there’s a problem in the first place, nor why they should alter something which has always worked fine in the past (as far as they know), and anyway, they don’t know what it is you’re asking them to do and what negative effects it might have—somebody needs to perform a proper analysis and that’s costly and time-consuming.

    And those are the small clients. The big ones usually ask us to buy a domain for them, look after it from end to end and send them the invoice each year. The smart big sprawling organisations delegate. The likes of Capita, who take on these projects, are experts on nothing beyond consultancy and project management: it’s like going to a supermarket instead of a master pastrychef. Sure, they have resources and a specific skillset, but for almost everything, it’s incomplete. The problem is that, because the Government doesn’t have the skills in-house, it outsources to people like this, because these are the only people large enough to be deemed “worthy” of building a website for a government department.

  3. Feargal Hogan says:

    I agree with Mo. Its a lack of skills within the decision makers of the host organisation, in this case HMRC. As soon as someone in there understands the problem, and that the fix would take 2 minutes, it will be done. But no one in there understands the problem.

  4. Graham says:

    You know what the problem is? The problem is that “www.” is the sign of modernity. “www.” is the “@” of the web – something that can be latched on to as a form of brand, something that screams “we have made it on to the Internet of the Fyoootarrrr”. Fortunately for e-mail, it’s hard to miss out the “@”.

    “www.” succeeds where http://ftp., gopher., and ns. all fail. Geeks see the Internet as a hierarchy – services like the web are attached to domain names which are attached to organisations, companies and individuals, but we fill the gap in between “www.” and our browser.

    Non-geeks are picking up the pieces of what DNS is – they don’t see hierarchies, they see 1-to-1 matches between “label X” and a virtual object. Someone’s e-mail is one string and one string only – “person@example.com” – so why should “www.example.com” be the same webpage as “example.com”? Doesn’t that lead to confusion and questions about whether you need to add the “www.” or not? The branding is a legacy.

    OK, that’s a lot of focus on 4 characters, but totally agree with you that someone needs to fill the space for usability of all technology. We need to realise technology is not a brand, but a tool. We need arguments for why this kind of user-unfriendliness and unjoined-up thinking is bad for productivity and risk management. Not because they’re annoying, but because it’s a symbol of how much we understand the technology we’re pimping and relying on so much.

  5. Graham says:

    BTW, not to keep banging on about domains specifically, but this is a really good related read on the COI blog:

    http://coi.gov.uk/blogs/digigov/2010/01/avoiding-sub-domains-in-web-addresses/

    Glad someone out there is really thinking about these things.

  6. @nevali does make a good point, but I reckon its a bit more complicated than that. There are so many different barriers you might come up against.

    Knowledge – as @nevali suggested, finding somebody who knows what the change actually means is problematic. Its not just a public sector issue – I’ve come across a huge number of commercial/personal websites that have identical issues. Generally people in charge of managing domains don’t understand the fundamentals of DNS – so they don’t realise that you need an A record for both the domain root and for the www (not totally accurate I know, but for the purposes of this comment it’ll do).

    Change Control – otherwise known as ridiculous bureaucracy to ensure that any changes will not break anything. A DNS change like this is probably seen as too risky (due to lack of understanding).

    Priority – as you mentioned, it is probably sat in someone’s queue to be dealt with. People are still getting to the site, so I imagine it isn’t seen as important.

    Suppliers – some DNS services make it easy to change these things, others are much more difficult (I recently had to deal with one by sending a fax!). Even after you take that into account, chances are the supplier suffers from all of the above problems as well. Recently I requested an old supplier alter the DNS records for a legacy domain name – they only changed it for the www, not the root. This has happened on more than one occasion.

    From a technical point of view (and my own personal opinion) there is no reasonable reason for http://hmrc.gov.uk to not work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out like that in reality.

  7. [...] I am not alone in these thoughts. And other people have been annoyed enough to think about a solution for routing round the damage, though there is no sign that it progressed beyond the original idea. But the time has surely come just to make this right. Comment (RSS)  |  Trackback [...]

  8. James says:

    There is one technical argument, maybe, for not having an A record in the DNS for “hmrc.gov.uk” — but it’s not a great one.

    In days of yore, some badly set up mail servers wouldn’t necessarily look for an MX record first, but would go straight to the A record if it was present. If you point an A record for the domain at your web server, you get rogue mailservers banging on the door trying/failing to deliver mail. This may be irritating, or problematic, depending on the situation — and if you’re the tax office, probably the latter.

    I suspect these badly configured mail servers have all been dead for 10 or more years, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were still people out there setting up DNS zones who still consider this an issue, and leave out the A record for the bare domain to protect against lost mail.

  9. […] like. Try it yourself, now. Really, go and do it a few times. You can either do it via hmrc.gov.uk (just my little joke) or at the Gateway’s own site. They both work the same […]

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