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Preaching to the unconverted

I’ve been getting this blogging thing all wrong. Three years of grinding out thoughts about public services and technology, generally pointed towards an audience already versed in the issues, have all been for nothing.

I’ve been missing the real audience. The one that truly needs to understand more about this stuff.

A spirited discussion on Tuesday with a doughty advocate for public transparency convinced me that I need a change of approach.

Our debate arose from his astonishment that it wasn’t possible for “government” to say at any one time how many people it employed. Despite this being an “obvious” factual issue in his eyes, no amount of requests seemed to be able to produce a meaningful answer.

My response “well, it’s not really a meaningful question” – didn’t go down too well. Even having navigated the complexities of what “being employed” might mean, with all its colour and texture of vacant posts, secondments, part-funded posts, long-term absentees and part-timers, I felt there were still problems with the concept of such a broad question.

If asked by an economist with a specialism in operational research or organisational productivity, I could possibly, possibly see some sort of tangible purpose to a question, but more likely a version targeted at a more specific organisation or sector than just “all of government”. Possibly.

I know this is heresy: information should be free, yadayadayada, and the motivation of the questioner unimportant. But open your mind just for a moment to the possibility that context may have some value, in light of what came next in our debate.

The moment when I realised I’d got all my public service technology blogging pointing in completely the wrong direction was when my interlocutor said “you technical guys – you can sort all this out – surely the systems know how many people are on each payroll? Just add them up every night. You could if you wanted to.”

Here was an acclaimed expert in transparency of information, someone who’d spent much of his professional life pursuing the dark corners of government’s secrecy and intransigence. And he thought that a few lines of code and a dictat to “just f-ing report it daily” would meet this requirement.

(A spurious requirement, I’d say, as the journalist asking the question would be likely to write the same story whatever the actual number they got in response to their question. Any Big Number would do the job – and hey, if no meaningful answer came forth, that would be an even better story. “How stupid are they! They don’t even know…” Win, whichever way you look at it.)

I blame the Daily Mail, of course (shorthand for any form of lazy, populist, press). As with most difficult public policy issues, from asylum seekers to disability claimants to identity, there’s always an easy, quick answer that will get heads nodding in the pub and taxi.

But which is almost always utterly, hopelessly, WRONG. Who wouldn’t like an easy answer to a hard question? To avoid any deeper thinking about the subject. Or acknowledgement of history, personal responsibility or sense of others? To gloss past the difficulties that arise when something that looks (from a huge distance) a tiny bit like a simple, familiar, backyard activity is attempted on a scale of tens of millions of people and transactions.

So here’s the plan: a post, or small series of posts, called “The Daily Mail Reader’s Guide to Public Services Technology”.

Taking some of the favourite old chestnuts (Why can’t they count X? Surely if everyone just had one ID number? Why so many different systems essentially doing the same job?) and really, anything else that begins with: “I don’t see why they can’t just…”

And writing them up in language that DM folk may identify with. Analogies from golf clubs, caravan parks, tea shops. You get the drift.

I’ll make a start, but do please add your suggestions here for topics that you’d like to see given the treatment.

You wouldn’t do this to a dog…

Confession: I know rather more about online government transactions as a theoretician than a real user. I don’t actually need or use very many of them myself, in anger. Car tax, obviously. I renew passport and driving licence every few years when they need renewing. I self-assess my taxes annually. I pay quarterly VAT. But that’s about it, really. No benefits. No protracted health or disability transactions. Very ordinary.

I have kids, and I have dogs, though. They both need feeding. The dogs, all the bloody time—with the kids, let’s focus on school meals for the purposes of this post. Coincidentally, my online activities to manage both of these have a very similar frequency—about six times a year. Let’s compare them, and look at the online pet food store first.

How do I know when to pay? Well, when the food bucket looks a bit low. Who do I pay? I always use the same supplier, but strange as it may sound, I have no idea what they’re called. Seriously. I don’t need to. I just search my email for the brand name of the dog food, find any old order email, follow any old link within the email, and I’m there.

Once there, I click on the picture of the food bag, type ‘2’ for two bags, click on the cart, tell them to please use my usual credit card and address, and… that’s it. One minute. Information re-entry: virtually none. Risk of incorrect personal information: none. Time and effort for supplier in doing their bit: twice the square root of f*** all.

Now. Paying for school meals. How do I know when to pay? Oh, easy. I’ll find a small slip in one of the boys’ school bags telling me that the payments are overdue. Not due: overdue. Nice little slip, it is. Mostly handwritten, with their names and other details filled in for me. And two amounts: the “pay immediately” one that ensures they’ll be fed tomorrow, and the “pay rest of half-term” amount. All nicely hand-calculated. And then an invitation* to go online and settle up. [*see update below this post]

Do it online? This can’t be bad, surely? Oh yes it can.

There’s no URL on the slip, but experience tells me that Googling for “surrey school meals” does the job. And here we are at the site. There’s a box for me to fill in a school reference code. I vaguely remember when they introduced this system that they went to great trouble to send out letters with this code. Which we promptly lost. But no matter, because you can just pick the school from the drop-down menu. Well, you have to find the right menu first, of course. Different types of schools have different menus. And there’s no handy scripting that means typing the first letters of the school gets you there faster.

You find the school, and now you enter the children’s names on a blank form. They don’t remember the names from the last transaction. In fact they don’t remember ANYTHING. Then the payment bit. (It’s up to me to put in the amounts myself, by the way, and transcribe them correctly from the slip. And to divide the total on the slip by the number of children to get the right amount per line. Dear Lord Almighty, give me strength.)

Oh dear. It’s the loosest, shabbiest, experience imaginable. It’s like time-travel. Suddenly it’s 1998 all over again and we’re over to RBS WorldPay to “handle the transaction”. That’s it: hands washed. You and your business are nothing to do with us now. Off you go. Tell WorldPay everything about yourself again, from scratch.

And six times a year, I faithfully type out my full credit card details and address, having already repeated the names and school of my children. This is utter rubbish. A classic example of a government transaction that nobody seems to care about. Where even the rational benefits of reducing error and saving someone in the school the trouble of filling in all those little handwritten slips seem to count for absolutely nothing.

Why is it so bad? It’s bad at at least three levels: interaction design, information management, and use of readily-available convenience tools.

Let’s pick these off: the site design is, to my semi-tutored eye, shoddy. It’s packed with text, trying desperately to explain what it’s about, instead of just getting to the money shot: doing the bloody transaction. Note how links like this bend over backwards to tell you the service is there to make life easier and explain in hideous, painful (and unnecessary) detail how every little bit works, but note also what link isn’t on the page–that’s right: the transaction itself. Instead, you’ve got a Contact Centre link where you might expect to see the actual transaction, cueing you to get on the phone and talk to someone. Bonkers! (And drop that school reference code thingy while you’re at it. Unless you know that people have been remembering them, and using them as a matter of course.)

On the information management bit, there’s some strange stuff going on. I can see that someone somewhere is no doubt wary of holding personal data about me on a Council system. That would mean it could be left on a memory stick or CD, to subsequent shame all round. But they must be keeping some kind of personal record: the school are being told that these particular children have been paid for, so to go to these baroque lengths to pretend each time that they’ve never heard of me before is just insane.

I stress that I DO NOT WANT a MyCouncil-type personal online account just to pay for school meals (which is all I do with Surrey online). You don’t have to jump to some vastly over-engineered general solution just to make one particular interaction easier. Really, you don’t. Go back and look at the dogfood store experience again if you don’t believe me. I don’t think I’m also registered with them to receive handy hints on how to compost the resulting dogshit, now am I?

But there are a bunch of opportunities where a bit more intelligent information management design could have been used to make this one easier, less error-prone, more automated and just better.

And lastly, there are simple tools available to do this. Do I really need to enter all that information afresh each time? Do you, Surrey, really need to bang on about how crafty you are in avoiding holding any of my credit card details yourself? (Not that I particularly mind you doing so. Remember, I let some company I don’t even know the name of do this. Out there in the real world.) Have you heard of PayPal, for example? Or Direct Debits? Strangely enough, people who rely on online commerce to make a living have thought of some of these problems before, and built ways around them.

I’m being harsh, I know. Fixing these things would cost money. Not much, but some. And the money to fix them wouldn’t be connected by any easily-identifiable lever to the savings made in the school office. Even trying to define that sort of connection via an internal business case would cost more in consultancy fees than actually implementing a simple site refresh and the addition of better payment functions, I suspect.

So it stays up there—yet another orphaned bastard child of an e-government movement that stubbornly refuses to stop looking utterly crap.

————

Update: 24 October 2012
Scene: The School Office

Yet another slip arrived, this time asking for four quid to be taken in tomorrow morning [yesterday's underlined message].

So I took it in. And said…

PC: Here’s four quid for you. I got your slip yesterday.

School Sec: Thanks

PC: The slip doesn’t mention an online payment option any more.

SS: It hasn’t changed.

PC: Well, it has. It used to say “you can pay online”. Now it doesn’t. We seem to be going backwards.

SS: It hasn’t changed. Anyway, lots of people pay online.

PC: That’s great. But people who are new to the process won’t know about the option. And people like me, who are a bit literal about things, will think you’ve stopped offering the service and that continuing to pay online may end up with their money going into a black hole somewhere. You’ll end up getting more people turning up at this window with four quid, and lots of avoidable checking.

SS: Thank you. [Window starts to slide shut]

PC: You will change the slip then to reinstate the stuff about paying online?

SS: [Thin smile of resistance to change]

[The window closes, firmly]

————

Update: 15 March 2013

Yet another hand-completed slip arrives. Like all the recent ones, it omits any reference to an online payment option. In goes my formal letter of complaint, asking for a written explanation of this strange stance.

Watch this space.

A challenge, before #ukgovit tonight

I know. I’ve gone on about this before. The URL http://hmrc.gov.uk doesn’t work. It’s a very small thing, a very minor impediment to using the site. But for me and probably many others it is a glitch that we trip over again and again when doing routine things like paying our VAT. A few seconds bother, going back to put in the “www”, multiplied by many repetitions, is actually worth fixing.

And it would take moments to fix.

It’s not a big disaster in government technology terms, by any means. But it’s a useful indicator. Of flexibility, of attitude, and dare I say it, of agility.

Here’s an amusing comparison. A few weeks back I was having a look at the great works of one of our big IT supply companies, Cap Gemini. To be precise, at their website’s information about their services to, funnily enough, HMRC. But the link on their site to that content was broken. Didn’t look great. Much like the HMRC URL.

I tweeted about it. They picked it up, just based on the words “Cap Gemini” (good monitoring, there, well done). And within hours they’d fixed it and tweeted me to let me know (good closure, 10/10 all round).

I replied, asking when they’d be so prompt about sorting out the HMRC URL so it didn’t look quite so, well, amateurish, considering all those millions spent on the project. (Especially since they showed alarming eagerness in making sure their own online wares didn’t look shabby.)

They said they’d get back to me.

I’m still waiting.

So, we’ll be hearing about agility tonight, about short, sharp, focused delivery to make things that actually work, at the launch of a new report on the way forward for technology in government.

I’d be a lot more convinced about the substance behind this if, say, by the time I walked into the Institute for Government this afternoon that URL issue had just been fixed.

Go on, rise to the challenge. Make it so. If you can.

(Because if you can’t do a little thing like that..?)

Paul Clarke has done a lot of things over the years, on client and supplier side, where public services meet technology. He’s currently working with dxw.com, who specialise in Agile development. Get in touch if you’d like to know more, at p@ulclarke.com.

——-

Update: 12 July 2011

I’ve just heard, via Twitter, that you might not be able to get any sense out of http://hmrc.gov.uk, but you’ll be fine to use http://hmrc.com. *Face hits palm*

——-

Update: 17 August 2011

STOP THE CLOCK!

Or TEAR UP THE CALENDAR, more like…

It’s done. It redirects. Now–time for that FOI on how much it all cost, hehehe.

(Would I be so cruel?)

Wake up Wikipedia – it’s NOW

I am probably at the bottom end of the interest scale for World Cup matters. But I do try and spot an opportunity to make people’s lives easier, if it can be done with little effort.

I also do the odd Wikipedia edit – nothing serious, mainly adding a few photos here and there. So when I spotted the question “what’s the hashtag for the World Cup?” a few times, I thought I’d try something, mainly by way of experiment.

Bringing the worlds of reference orthodoxy and real-time together, by adding a line to the Wikipedia World Cup page: “The tag[defined] in most active use to identify content and discussion about the tournament on Twitter[defined] is #wc2010.”

It lasted 9 minutes. Then removed as being ‘unencyclopedic’. Yes. I understand what that means, and have no gripe with the Wikipedian who wielded the axe. But it raises an interesting question of policy – as real-time information becomes more than a nice-to-have and moves, through expectation, to necessity. Should Wikipedia change its stance in areas like this? Or will its insistence on citation standards for everything begin to erode its relevance in the long term?

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