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Bad beyond compare

A policy so incredibly inhuman that it stops you in your tracks.

How could this ever have been dreamed up? Who thought this would ever be acceptable? How on earth did a blank-faced politician manage to express it in cold, bare words?

This was pretty much my reaction (and that of many, I know) to this story about cancer patients on chemotherapy being forced into more stringent checking of their eligility for sickness benefits.

Particularly that last question: how on earth was such barbarity actually expressed?

That press release from Macmillan, linking to a petition, was getting a LOT of attention.

So I had a search around for some wider perspectives. And found…well, not much more, really.

A few blog posts are springing up to denounce its atrocity, but there’s precious little in terms of any deeper analysis of this policy. Or, reading in more detail, not policy, but something that is being “consulted on” and “could”…

OK, so it’s a “could” story. I approach anything containing the phrase “that could” in its first two lines with a bit of caution. (And then look for a range of robust, related sources.) Generally, “it could” = “it might, but it probably won’t, though WHOAH LOOK AT THIS HEADLINE”.

Make no mistake: I am hugely supportive of the aims of those campaigning for better treatment for people in such a terrible position. I completely understand Macmillan’s wish to remove even the burden of testing from a whole swathe of people in an enormously challenging personal situation.

But I can also at least appreciate the existence of an argument that says: if some people are on a particular drug regime, but are symptom-free or want to work, should they automatically be signed up to receive benefits?

Contemplating the fact that any issue involving a large number of people involves tricky edge-cases (and false positives and negatives) doesn’t automatically make me a card-carrying Tory benefit slasher, m’kay? (And I honestly don’t need a ton of comments in testimony to how grim chemo is; believe me, I’ve been pretty close to it myself in the last two years.)

But what I’m really interested in is the rational debate here. With both sides putting forth their attempts at cogent argument, the better to inform us all of what’s really going on.

So what did the government actually say? In its response there are references to the prior involvement of Macmillan in this review. Involvement which clearly did not end well. Here are the relevant paragraphs from that PDF:

31. Professor Harrington asked Macmillan Cancer Support…to assess whether there were improvements that could be made to the provisions for people who were undergoing treatment for cancer. During July 2011, the Department received evidence from Macmillan which was endorsed by Professor Harrington.
32. The Department accepts the evidence presented by Macmillan that the effects of oral chemotherapy can be as debilitating as other types of chemotherapy.
The evidence also shows that certain types of radiotherapy and in particular of combined chemo-irradiation can be equally debilitating. As a result of the
evidence supplied by Macmillan, the Department has developed detailed proposals for changing the way we assess individuals being treated for cancer.
33. If introduced, these proposals would increase the number of individuals being treated for cancer going into the Support Group. They would also reduce the
number of face-to-face assessments for people being treated for cancer as most assessments could be done on a paper basis, based on evidence presented by a GP or treating healthcare professional.
34. We had hoped to introduce these proposals in April 2012. However, following detailed discussions with Macmillan, we have been unable to secure their
support to our proposals which were based on their evidence.
35. As a result, the Department now intends to seek a wider range of views on the proposed changes through an informal consultation. We wish to gather views
of interested stakeholders, including individuals affected by cancer, their families and carers, employers, healthcare practitioners and cancer specialists
as well as other representative groups. We will launch this consultation during December 2011.

This needs some decoding, clearly. Perhaps Macmillan put forward their evidence about effects, along with their proposal for a block exemption from any ESA assessment, and this latter part was rejected? One has to read between the lines, though. And “going into the Support Group [undefined]”? I mean, it sounds nice, but does it mean “added to the numbers of those needing to be formally assessed”? I guess it does. But should any reader have to guess? UPDATE (1544 121206) Support Group as defined here is actually jargon for where you get put when you’ve been assessed as eligible for benefit, and are NOT required to work (but can if you want to). Which, taken as read (and how else should one take it?) makes this all even more puzzling.

So there a few language games being played here, and perhaps more to the story than meets the eye. You’ll note the Macmillan press release opens with the careful wording: “…Department of Work and Pensions decision to propose changes”. The word “decision” echoes more loudly than “propose”, of course.

DWP hasn’t made a decision. It has made proposals. See what they did there?

But this post is not about the arguments for and against the policy, merely to acknowledge that they probably both exist (whether they’re particularly strong, or not).

This is an observation on communications.

If someone, especially someone approaching or undergoing chemotherapy (or close to someone who is), sees this press release, there’ll be some FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt). That’s probably part of its intention. The piece is getting its points in quickly to influence a debate that’s about to take place in this consultation period. That’s what good lobbying and campaigning does. And more power to it.

But when you see FUD, maybe you want to see a broader perspective to reassure you. FUD is great for campaigning, but it has its downsides.

Will you find anything on the DWP or Department of Health websites by way of response that people might actually understand? Anything other than more impenetrable PDFs?

I can’t.

So the government are clearly losing the heart-and-minds battle on this one already. Losing? They’ve already lost. They didn’t even show up for the game.

And what were the government so keen on abolishing, almost as their first act after the election?

All those unnecessary communications posts.

Oh, how my heart bleeds for them.

midata: revolution or enigma?

No technology contracts bigger than £100m.

Bye-bye proprietary software monopolies–hello Open alternatives.

An avalanche of government data to generate new business opportunities and pump billions into the economy.

Fast broadband for (almost) all.

Agility, everywhere–no more risk-averse, unchangeable systems–instead, a commitment to diversity and experimentation.

Reskilling in-house tech teams, reducing dependence on external suppliers with vested interests.

And after years of false dawns, services actually joined up around–and designed for–their users.

There’s not a lot not to like, really. Is there?

Just before the election we heard a torrent of such promises. Watching the gathered geeks and entrepreneurs around me at the launch of the Conservative Technology Manifesto last March I could see tongues virtually hanging out. We weren’t just being offered the keys to the sweetshop–Francis Maude and Jeremy Hunt were pretty much proposing ripping its doors off.

How much of these sweeties have actually been delivered post-election is a story for another day (ah, the shackles of that Coalition Agreement, I’m sure…).

But over recent weeks and months we’ve seen glimpses of another what’s-not-to-like initiative. And now it’s been launched.

Midata.

[Ok, try this link. I was making a dodgy CMS point with the first one, that Google (and BIS site search!) gave me…]

So here comes the grumpy blogger to get all picky with what on the face of it is a risk-free, consumer-enriching move willingly volunteered by industry, facilitated by government, to make real people’s lives easier at no cost. (Coz there’s loads of those.)

Well, not so much of the picky, really–just an interest in shining a light into some of the corners of this debate. Because corners and angles there most certainly are.

The first thing to get to grips with is that there seem to be two big agendas wrapped up together here.

Both can be connected to the words “me” and “data”. But they seem to be quite different in their nature and purpose. That’s always a recipe for confusion if not properly unpacked. So let’s see what we have.

Agenda 1: better information for consumers

We have a consumer empowerment angle here, clearly. “Giving people back their data” is billed as putting the customer back in control when forming or reviewing a relationship with a vendor. For some services, especially things like utilities and telecomms, the case is very tangibly made.

We generate a lot of data in consuming the service. Understanding our consumption patterns in detail would help us when making future choices about service provider, as we’d be able to match the terms that were on offer with what we actually needed.

So far so good.

This also extends to things like preference data: as we go about buying things (and even just looking at them) we generate a cloud of information about our preferences, choices, needs and their timing. This has a value–how much, nobody really knows, though there are some florid estimates–to marketeers, and could drive better deals and more targeted, less intrusive advertising.

Agenda 2: proving your identity online

The moment we started to move transactions away from being with someone you knew personally in your village, we increased the complexity of how you prove things: who you are, can you pay, entitlement-by-residence and so on. Online, it’s pretty horrible, and attempts at building something that’s simultaneously secure and usable by normal people have foundered.

(There is more elsewhere on this blog about these issues–otherwise this post would be very long.)

Suffice to say that the current approach (which actually looks pretty promising) is that of “federated identity assurance”. Not trying to create one massive database of people information against which things can be checked, but to use information sourced from a number of existing trusted relationships, in combination, to give sufficient assurance of identity.

Which means that both these agendas are the same, doesn’t it? They both involve consumers getting their hands on personal data that’s previously been locked up in companies.

Well, actually, I don’t think it does.

Why not?

A definition of “personal data” is harder to pin down than might seem initially apparent [more here]. Lots of things that don’t look that personal by themselves (points on a map, equipment serial numbers etc.) take on a whole new power when linked to an individual.

There’s the obvious “personal facts” stuff, of course: name, address, account number etc. which usually (but not always) identify an individual.

Then there’s operational data, made much of by midata: what we’ve used, what we’re interested in, what service choices we made etc.

Releasing structured chunks of this latter type could well meet Agenda 1’s objectives. And there are design choices to be made here which will have a big impact on risk and privacy.

Would it be sufficient to get a log of mobile calls by time band and number type, for example, rather than a detailed list of numbers actually called, and precisely when they were made? The former could well be enough to allow a better contract to be found: the latter would be a potential privacy nightmare, not just for the caller, but also whom they called, if it were mislaid.

My point being that meeting a consumer empowerment agenda requires the “giving back” of information with certain characteristics–i.e. tailored to fit the way that consumer services are packaged.

But the giving back of information to help confirm an identity relationship–Agenda 2–seems to me to be a very different beast.

Because I thought the whole concept of using a number of different identity providers was that you asked them to pass confirmations of trust around–not the actual personal data itself? So one might ask a bank to confirm electronically that some submitted data matched a record that they held, but that’s not the same as handing the requestor (or indeed the individual) chunks of personal data.

So I fear that in an attempt “not to go into too much detail” we’ve got a conflation of two separate, interesting, important issues under the midata flag.

One can always argue that “it’s the principle that counts–we should establish that first, then let the clever people get on with the solutions”. Well, yes. Ok.

We did that with electronic patient records, with Post Office smartcards, with national identity cards and registers… At some point we do need a public airing of the underlying principles in a greater level of detail than the initial press release. And before a major delivery programme has been commissioned, I’d suggest.

Other than this “issue overlap” there are a few other points that strike me about midata. There is this underlying sentiment that consumers have a right to “their data”. But what is it that actually makes a particular piece of data “theirs”?

Information about usage is a hybrid of personal facts (e.g. who is the account holder?) and operational information as a consequence of service use. How far does it extend? Basic consumption patterns? Probably yes. Detailed, time-stamped records of every purchase and all parties involved? Hmm. Maybe. Serial numbers and last maintenance dates of the precise routers and masts that were used to deliver a phone call? Well, now you’re being silly, Paul.

Yes, I am, of course. But I’m trying to illustrate that the translation of this “right to data” into reality involves more than just signing a memorandum of understanding. Update: there’s a more detailed post about “Whose data is it anyway?” here now.

And then there’s the cost angle. Even if we assume that the addition of a simple bit of code will suddenly enable service providers to spit out raw chunks of data onto the Internet (aka the “it can’t be that hard to get their systems to…” fallacy argument) the midata announcement is already talking about a greater degree of sophistication: particularly the bit about “access, retrieve and store their data securely”. Who’s going to pay for that?

And do we have robust evidence that there is interest and demand for this type of data release, other than from the vociferous lobbyists with their eyes on constructing a wealth of new “personal data store” opportunities?

It’s great to see entrepreneurial spirit flourishing, but how much is this about solving real consumer problems, and how much about playing yet more variations on the “consumer as product” theme–you tell us about your interests, and we’ll give you better deals (but only as a share of what we’re really making by selling that information to other vendors).

The argument that better information increases customer choice, and therefore power, is of course another “what’s-not-to-like”. But if you take a step back, and look at the implied problem that “people don’t know which is the best deal as they’re all so complicated and people don’t really know what they use anyway…”

…would you put your energy into releasing chunks of data to help make a better match with a complicated tariff, or would you have another look at the issue of tariffs in general, and simplify them? Yes, both represent some form of intervention, and I can see the political attractiveness of the former, as (especially under a voluntary scheme like midata) it plays down the regulatory role in favour of cheerful vendors all quite happy to be a lot more transparent with their/your operational information. But one wonders just how sustainable this level of voluntary cooperation would actually be in the longer term in highly competitive markets…

That’s a bit like imagining a set of doors with fantastically complicated locks, and giving people the right to have equally complicated keys cut–rather than pushing for simpler locks in the first place.

So, a lot of questions remain. Conceptually, midata isn’t something that could or should be objected to. And this post is not written to criticise, but to suggest a few areas that need more detail and analysis.

When we see press releases that let fly with cool talk of data, empowerment and choice we should be getting a lot more eager to ask the next level of questions. What does this really mean? How will it work in practice? And what might some of the broader economic, competitive, social and privacy implications be?

Until we do, we’ll be dazzled by press releases and then a bit disappointed when delivery swings into action. And it’s usually too late by then to do much about it.

The most expensive basic office PC in the world

The Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has just published its report on the state of government IT.

It’s not a pretty story. It’s a long, messy, complicated one.

But in such stories we, the simple readers, look for things we can identify with. Costs that might mean something to us in our version of the real world, where we don’t try to process 10,000 claims a week, or track case histories numbered in millions a year.

Costs like the cost of a PC. A computer. The box on your desk.

And there’s a surprising figure quoted in that BBC report. Can it really be that a single office computer can cost £3,500? Read that again. £3,500.

No. Of course not. And it almost certainly doesn’t.

Charges made for desktop computing in the public sector are invariably composed of an element for the hardware, plus a rather greater element to cover installation, support… in fact quite a bit more. IT managers (disclosure: I used to be one in the public sector) can play quite a few tunes on this figure; using it to cover centralised development work, packages of software and all manner of other “hidden” costs.

But from a government with an avowed commitment to be the most transparent and accountable in the world we see a reluctance to disclose any of the detail behind that £3,500 figure. (Actually, according to this piece, it’s not “up to £3,500″–it’s actually higher!)

Why should the cost of what is essentially a commodity component of a hardware/services package not be openly disclosed? I can only think that it must be because it is not a very nice answer. I can think of no other reason.

I mean, it couldn’t be because at no point during the procurement process did anyone think to check, or pin down, unsexy old commodity costs like that, surely?

You could argue that this figure looks absurd (it does). And that any reporting of it should sensibly clarify that it doesn’t tell the full story. That was certainly my first reaction.

But on reflection–given this intentional avoidance of transparency, even under Freedom of Information requests, let alone the spontaneous publishing of the detail that we were promised–I suspect the Cabinet Office, to name but one department, rather deserves to look a bit absurd.

Figures please.

Broken journey

I’ve seen an awful lot of online government, of one form or another. Consultations, information, tools, maps, communities…and transactions. Transactions really are the very bugger to get right, aren’t they? You wouldn’t think it was that hard to do the basic capture and interchange of information, would you? That there could be so many places to trip up: from daft processes, to forms-turned-into-websites, to mismatched authentication in relation to actual risk, to dreadful, dreadful interaction design.

But there are. And today’s was a gem. Not so much for what it showed about the actual online transaction (which had its issues). But for staggering failures of design around that little thing called a “customer journey”.

It may be a bit of jargon, but the “journey” concept is important. And it’s not just the bit from “land on the right webpage” to “transaction completed”. It’s way broader than that. Or it should be. From the first awareness that something has to be done (or even including general awareness before that point) right the way through the transaction, and on beyond the point of confirmation and into the territory of follow-up action and support. The whole thing. Across all the channels that might play a part (de-jargoning: channels are the types of communication that people can use: typically web, post, telephone, face-to-face and through an intermediary).

So let’s look at how badly this one failed.

A form landed through the post a couple of weeks ago. I need to update the photo on my driving licence. Fair enough. What’s in my wallet has diverged from reality a fair bit in nearly ten years (and I used a five-year-old passport pic even back then).

The form was interesting: I had a couple of options to update the photo. In person in a post office (where they’d even be able to take my picture for me), or by post. There was a covering letter on the form that even went to the trouble of telling me where my two nearest post offices were that could do the photo service bit. Nice, I thought. Very nice. A personalised touch on a standard form. Liking this.

But I griped when I read more closely. The photo replacement would cost £20. Fair enough, I supposed there’s some admin involved, and £2 a year doesn’t seem outrageous (though I guess a fair few people would find £20 hard to find out of the blue). And that photo service at the post office? Well, that would cost something too. But it was just left as “An additional fee…”–weird, I thought. Why not just print the amount? Was it £5, or £50? How was I supposed to make a sensible decision about posting or post-officing without knowing the facts? The £20 fee was printed: how very strange just to leave the other one to be a surprise when arriving at the counter?

Another little glitch: the form (see pictures) suggests you go online, or pick up the phone, to find out the nearest branch offering the service, yet the covering letter that’s physically attached to the form tells you the two nearest, as I said. Little discontinuities like that are part of the customer journey. They’re causing me to read again, to look between the two documents at the discrepancy, to wonder if I’ve misread something. To make a phone call–a contact that could otherwise be avoided. Details, details, all very important.

The pictures are scruffy because the form stayed in my bag for two weeks, as I never quite found time during the day to go into a post office (and I was still unsighted on how much I’d actually have to pay). As I take photos, I decided today to just shoot one to the required spec and get the damn thing done.

It’s a simple form. It asks for a few bits of information, as well as the photo (which it says must be taken within the last month). Or does it? Please put your date of birth and driver number “if you know it” in the boxes below. (Don’t I just HATE that “if you know it”–it’s a little clue to a bit of poor design…)

Let’s think again about the journey. The way the form has to be used within a wider context. In other words: this form has to be sent back (according to section 1) either with both driving licence parts, or with a declaration that you don’t have them any more. In the first case, they’ve got your date of birth and driver number plastered all over them, so why ask for them again? In the second case, you’re not that likely to know your driver number, are you? And we’re absolutely certain that submission of date of birth is critical here for “security” purposes, or whatever? Really? So those information requests may as well disappear from the form, no?

And before leaping to the conclusion that they must be there as a failsafe in case the envelope’s contents are broken up and dispersed, remember that the form is preprinted with my name and address. Not that tricky to match up with all the stray pink cards lying around on the floor in the post-room in Swansea, now is it?

A couple more check-boxes, a section on organ donation, stick on the photo, and off we go.

Hang on–that organ donation bit: is that section compulsory? It doesn’t say. I can choose between giving my entire usable remains or a selection of organs. Will the form be rejected if I leave them all blank? Stuff like this will cause some forms to be thrust to one side rather than be further completed, perhaps permanently. Never, ever, leave room for doubt.

On the back there’s a whole load of A-F guidance notes. Nothing to fill in. Well, if you actually stop to read (how many will?) B is a quite important section on declaration of health conditions. But nothing to fill in, so I guess it just gets left. Somebody’s box has no doubt been ticked in Swansea. So that’s ok then. There’s some nudging towards Directgov to get further info (oh look, the journey now has an online component–that’s nice).

And so I think: I just spent a while doing a form to send a photo (which doesn’t have to be countersigned–I guess they have a visual inspection in Swansea to check I haven’t suddenly changed race, sex or grown horns) to an agency who are expecting it, and who know full well who I am. Why the hell isn’t this online? And I moaned and tweeted a bit. As I do.

And the shocking answer came back that there was an online service available. At Directgov. Oh, the irony: I worked there for a couple of years and thought I knew most of the available transactions in some detail.

This is the real journey failure. That the form has been sent through my door with no mention whatsoever of the online service. Wait, look back at the very top: that Directgov URL (no, I hadn’t seen it until this point). That starts me off towards an online transaction, though for some inexplicable reason it’s been coded as “For more information…”. Admittedly, it’s the usual “before you apply…” rigmarole (we have to just suck this up, apparently…) but it’s there!

Ah, wait, the handy …/photorenewal URL actually takes me to a whole bunch of other driving licence services (most of which have sod all to do with photo renewal) rather than this one which looks more like it. And yes, even here, I have to do another click to actually get me to the transaction. Because there’s some other information on the page: oh look–there’s the mystery post office service charge–£4.50. Why hide it away there?! And loads of stuff about how to go to a post office and do it…hang on, are we trying to promote the online channel or what? This is getting very confusing. I can now see I’d need a form D798 if I did. But MY form (check those pics) is a D798 U. Now that might be the same form. But it’s another bit of uncertainty. Details, details, again. Another reason to shove it in a drawer, or a bin.

Let me spell this out. Money has been spent creating an online service that (in theory at least) will save the public time, and the taxpayer money. And the people who send out the forms (which is how you know about the service) don’t even mention that it exists as an option. Has anybody actually tested this as a journey? (It was at this point of realisation that I went, as they say, a bit ape.)

And then, the coup de grâce. I hit that “Apply Online” button. It tells me the prerequisites. I need a passport issued within the last five years. Ah, I get it now. If they can verify who I am (they ask for previous addresses, and presumably run an Experian or similar check; in combination with a presented passport number that will probably suffice) they will drag my passport photo between systems and bingo, my driving licence will have a new photo. Presumably there is relatively little risk doing it like this: it’s not as if I can slip an entirely bogus photo into the systems this way–which seems like the main fraud risk within this whole process. (I have skipped over the “role” of the Government Gateway for brevity. More on that can be found here. Though it does at least appear to offer me access to a DVLA dashboard of my information, including my old photo! Which is quite cool. Though what would happen if I connected a second Gateway relationship to my DVLA info is anybody’s guess…)

That’s a “new” photo as in “up to five years old” of course–or possibly even older…is it just me? Is this all sounding both wonderfully joined-up and strangely discontinuous all at the same time? The photo has to be no older than a month by post or post office, but up to five years is ok if you do it online. Riiiiight.

Sadly my passport is a fraction over five years old, so it’s game over online, for me anyway. And why can’t I just email them the damn photo or upload it on a website? There’s nothing on that paper form that I’d be unhappy putting in an email, or a web form. And the picture wouldn’t need rescanning. And I could just certify that I’d destroyed the old licences (the paper process doesn’t fall apart if I mark that as having happened on the form anyway, now does it?)…I could go on, but I won’t. This post is way too long already.

This is an absolute, prime, simple, transactional government-to-citizen interaction. It is the sort of thing that could be reformed NOW. Without an elaborate authentication framework. Without a new website. Without changing more than a few fields and lines on paper and web (or at most, adding a simple image upload process if we really wanted to gold-plate things). The fact that we don’t, or can’t, change it is lamentable. There are no excuses. Really, there aren’t.

POSTSCRIPT

You’ll see in the comments below that I proudly maintained that my application would stay in its envelope, completed and unposted, until such time as I saw fit to, or was compelled to, submit it.

That smug stance was all well and good until I found myself at the Hire Car counter in Venice airport a couple of weeks ago. With an expired driving licence. No car for me. Game over.

While driving licence expiry doesn’t mean much in day-to-day life, when you need to hire a car, it suddenly acquires a new and terrible significance.

I could swear that on the breeze over the lagoon, I could hear a distant voice whispering to me all the way from Swansea:

“Who’s the c*** now, boyo?”

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.

How the Government Gateway works

Caveat: this is not a technical description of how the Gateway works. Nor does it cover the behind-the-scenes services that the Gateway provides in terms of messaging and interoperation between various government systems. But it is my description of the way it works at the front end–the signing-on bit–of government services. Because that’s where it’s most apparent, and that’s the bit that’s often misunderstood. I wrote this because I haven’t been able to find such a description anywhere else on the Internet. Which is slightly odd (isn’t it?) given that the Gateway has been around for about ten years.

For a service that plays a part in millions of online public service transactions a year, the Government Gateway is surprisingly poorly understood, and described. What you can find online varies from the noble attempt (but not exactly functionally descriptive) to the flamboyant, to the technical, and on to the slightly bizarre.

But nothing in plain language that really sets out what’s going on. And, perhaps, what isn’t. I have something of a fascination around the mechanics of authorisation and authentication, particularly when applied to government services, so here goes.

You want to a use a service that has the gateway sign-on apparatus at its front-end. Like Income Tax Self-Assessment. So you go to HMRC’s Self-Assessment service and register as a new, Individual, user (as opposed to an Organisation, Agent or Pensions administrator). Very quickly you’re taken through a brief request for your name and a password, a few warnings about the seriousness of what you’re about to do and the type of documentation you’ll need with you later on, and behold: a big long formal 12-digit User ID pops up. 848355815693 is the one I just registered.

Shriek! Did I just put my Gateway User ID out there on the Internet? Why, yes I did. (We’ll come back to why that doesn’t matter in a moment.) HMRC are now asking me to continue through the process and ‘enrol’ in the service. But we’ll pause there for the moment.

The Government Gateway uses an approach called “Registration and Enrolment” (R&E). First you have to register for a User ID (we just did that). Then you have to enrol in the various services you want to use with it. Enrolment means you go through a process, specific to the service you’re trying to use, of giving proof of who you are and that you’re entitled to use the service. Leaving it up to the service to decide how much proof is needed is a really good thing, surely? No avalanche of information required to use a simple, low-value, low-risk service? We’ll see…

In theory, therefore, you can add more and more services to your ID, leading to what becomes a single sign-on for lots of services, using the same User ID and password. In theory.

The great genius of the Gateway R&E design is that it does the reverse of what you’d expect. Instead of trying to be all secure up front–insisting you prove entitlement and identity straight away–it wilfully ignores all that and gives you a wholly anonymous, “throwaway” ID number. You can go and get as many as you 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 way.

It was once memorably described by a much cleverer colleague as “an insecure keyring to which you can attach secure keys”. (Great, until you need to find your keyring.)

The great folly of R&E is that it is utterly pointless, unsupportable, and ultimately valueless for normal people in real life. Have you spotted the gaping holes yet? Before we expose them in more detail, let’s quickly look at enrolment.

For HMRC self-assessment the enrolment process is the bit where you enter your Tax Reference Number and a few other bits of identifying information. And then you wait. For a PIN to arrive in the post. As a means of confirming you are who you say you are, before you can go any further. Not quite a seamless electronic transaction there, then. In the days leading up to Jan 31st the post seems to move very slowly indeed. And you might lose that 12-digit number in the meantime.

DVLA have a twist on the process: not for them the “give us a name and here’s your ID” approach. Oh no. They ask for lots of other qualifying information, name, address, Date of Birth, Passport Number, and—of course—money before they get to the bit where they spit out your new provisional driving licence. Not bad, really.

They’ve almost masked the presence of the Gateway entirely. There’s a question at the very beginning saying: “While applying, you’ll be issued with a Government Gateway user ID. If you already have a Government Gateway User ID, simply enter it with your password.” And if you haven’t, can’t remember it, or can’t be bothered—don’t fret, you can just get another one.

Getting a sinking feeling about the value of this User ID yet? (And actually, people will fret. They will spot this sort of “do I/don’t I need to…” ambiguity and it will delay or put off some people from using the service.) Doubt is something you really want to design out of online transactions.

So, behind the scenes, DVLA just went and generated you another Gateway User ID. One you’ll probably never need again, and one which carries no security risk, but isn’t necessarily anything to do with your other Gateway relationships. Unless you happened to have a previous one to hand when you applied. (I’d love to see some stats on how many do this, by the way.)

So, let’s look at what’s really bad about all this (and I stress again that I am talking about the user experience of the Gateway as a front end to transactions: Gateway R&E. Not about the back-end messaging standards which also form part of the Gateway suite of services):

1. Unsupportable. You can’t find your Gateway ID or password: what do you do? No point approaching the Government Gateway team—they don’t know who you are. They only recorded a name and password (which you might have lost). If you’re going to start resetting passwords and handing out IDs by email you need some better checks than that. They don’t have any information to check against. (And you’ve probably spawned several by now as you’ve been navigating through various online services. Which one have you lost?) So you approach HMRC, or whoever you need to deal with at the time. And they ask for your Tax Reference Number. Because your relationship is with them and that’s how they know you. The Gateway adds no value.

2. Take-up. Despite a bit of official posturing about it being government’s preferred online transaction authentication solution, and a few high-profile services which incorporate the front-end bit in some inconsistent way, most services routinely ignore it. Look at this service list: and this service has been operating for how many years, and has had how much spent on it? The Gateway is routinely ignored at the front end because it adds no value.

3. Lack of transparency or challenge. Try and find another piece like this on the internet that explains what’s going on and casts a critical eye over value. People seem remarkably reticent to discuss something that is a pretty big feature on the government technology landscape. If they do praise it, it looks like this, emphasising the benefits to service providers of using its protocols and messaging, but glossing over the broken stuff with phrases like “allows citizens to have one user ID and password”. Yes. In theory. Oh pur-lease.

4. It’s not Your Account for Government. It never can be. It’s designed not to be. This is a particularly pernicious failing. It raises expectations that it should, somehow, be a single connection point between citizen and state online. When it’s compromised, we panic. When it fails to add any value, we’re disappointed. We’ve been, effectively, duped into thinking some sort of useful, usable functionality has been added. It hasn’t.

5. It fundamentally misreads individual user behaviour online. People do share and lose their IDs and passwords. Putting in a wait for the postman does result in everything having to be redone, and in sapping user confidence in government’s online services. The situation is slightly better for businesses, and I will concede that for business-facing transactions (and for accountants, agents and other intermediaries), Gateway R&E probably does add some value. But there’s a hell of a difference between employing someone whose job it is to get these processes right, and providing services to individuals.

One can see why Gateway R&E had some attractions: ten years ago, when it started, there was massive political pressure to bring public services online. Earlier attempts to build a secure authentication framework across all services had foundered (and still do, see numerous other posts here on this). This half-way house created a way in which the press and public could be fed stuff like that BCS line above, and we public could be left to pick up the pieces of a miserable, broken, user experience.

A value-adding single sign-on experience can be yours. If only you don’t do stupid stuff like lose passwords, IDs, or a strange little card we send you, and if you can manage to navigate around the workarounds (like that DVLA “if you already have…” stuff) that we have to build into every service to make them actually get used.

Time for a few pointed questions and FOIs, I think. Because this is fundamentally difficult territory, I think it’s had a bit of an easy ride.

Data.gov.uk one year on

A year, almost to the day, from the launch of data.gov.uk it seems clearer that it was really trying to fire at three targets simultaneously: transparency, usefulness and good old commercial value. Three targets that have some overlap, but also some inherent tensions. How well has it done?

On transparency, we heard much along the lines of “sunlight being the best disinfectant” and that the very act of openly publishing information, particularly on accounting and spending, would do much to reduce wrong-doing and rebuild trust. It might not matter so much if the information wasn’t actually read that regularly or in detail; what mattered most was that it was published. We were told that tools would emerge to make general understanding easier, that amateur auditors would audit from their armchairs and indeed there has been some progress in this area. But there hasn’t been a dramatic unveiling of hitherto concealed horrors, just some visualisations and a tendency to focus on quirky details that make interesting stories—with no substantive follow-up.

On the subject of usefulness, things have gone less well. We haven’t seen much in the way of new apps and services driven by data.gov.uk data which actually deliver value to people in their day-to-day lives. Political pressure has been focused on driving out more of the spending data, perhaps at the expense of data that may be practically useful. We can speculate about the political factors at work here: gleeful exposure of the excesses of the last government and the current tensions between central and local government on spending priorities both spring to mind. But it does mean that the genuinely “useful”—the data that describes things in real people’s lives: maps, postcodes, contact information, opening hours, forthcoming events—and the real-time stuff, such as live running transport information, are falling behind. And that’s where the really useful apps and services are going to come from. Certainly, recent moves such as the release of Ordnance Survey maps under reusable licence are steps in the right direction, but much more political will is needed here to level things up.

And on the last target—the billions of commercial value that were touted as being locked up in government data—things don’t seem to be going too well at all. Some of this value was no doubt to be derived from the opening up of key enabling datasets—such as maps and postcodes—allowing new business opportunities to really take off. But some of it would have to come from inherent value in the data itself, or released from the combining of datasets to produce new products: taking data and finding new markets for it. Quite where this is currently headed remains shrouded in vagueness, but a new Public Data Corporation is now proposed, which lists among its objectives the management of the conflict between revenues from the sale of data and the benefits of making it freely available. This doesn’t actually seem that unreasonable. If one considers data as a national asset, why would it not be sensible to secure appropriate commercial value from it as with any other asset? But the proposal has triggered questions and some criticism from open data campaigners that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The extent to which commitments to release data free of charge were actually made or implied is now coming under scrutiny.

So where do we go from here? In the light of what we’ve learned over the last year, I’d prescribe the following: a rebalancing of the data held within data.gov.uk in favour of the genuinely useful; swift clarification of what is to be made available free of charge and what is not; a more mature approach to engaging developers and entrepreneurs if we’re really to see apps and services flourish (it’s going to take more than just a few “hack days”); and some exploration of how to demonstrate the value returned from what government spends. This last point should be of concern: at the launch last November of central government spending data, I reminded Francis Maude and the Transparency Board of Wilde’s description of those who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing…

When is the government not the government?

The Prime Minister has asked…

The government recommended that…

It was suggested by ministers that…

Number 10 has contacted…

Conservative party officials have acted to…

MPs demand…

The government will order…

Parliament to decree…

We see variations on these all the time. But what do they actually mean? Is there a hierarchy? Glyn Wintle was quick to spot the implications of the statement that the government had asked Facebook to remove a page it didn’t like – the Raoul Moat tribute page.

I am personally very uncomfortable about the Gov telling Facebook it should remove a group because the Gov does do not like it.

Well, quite.

“When does it become Gov?”, he later added.

I don’t know. Do you? There is certainly a difference between an MP asking for something in the House, and the formal machinery of the state swinging into action to making things happen. But where does “No.10 asking” fit in? I have absolutely no idea. But I’m not that comfortable with it either; in whose name is it doing the asking?

Digging carefully into the media, some reports were explicit about the No.10 involvement – some just mentioned the MP’s request and that the Prime Minister confirmed it was a “very good point”. Ultimately, the nuances don’t matter to anyone other than keen observers of Westminster protocols – the public impression is that a freedom-limiting manoeuvre has been made by the government of this country without any clear mandate, process or instrument involved.

And that’s worth appreciating. Thanks Glyn.

There’s data, and there’s data

I’m enjoying the latest flowerings of open data, and the recent quality posts from Ingrid Koehler and Steph Gray on what it all might mean. As well as quality action from Rewired State and others to actually demonstrate it in practice. (ooh, I just spotted that a reel of my photos is running on the Rewired State home page – thanks guys)

We’re getting a better understanding of what data actually is now that we’re seeing more of the things that were previously tucked away.

I’ll add my own observations: it helps me, at least, when thinking about complicated things to break them down a bit. My suggestion is to think in terms of four broad types:

1. Historical data

What’s happened in the past: how organisations and people have performed – what’s been said in meetings – what’s been spent – where the pollution has been – how children performed in tests…

2. Planning data

What’s projected to happen, or will shape what will happen: this and next year’s budget – legislation in progress – consultations – proposed housing developments – manifestos…

3. Infrastructural data

The building blocks of useful services. Boring stuff, doesn’t change that often, but when it does, it needs to be swiftly and accurately updated: postcodes – boundaries – base maps – contact directories – opening hours – organisation structures – “find my nearest…”

4. Operational data

The real-time stuff; what’s happening NOW: where’s my train/bus? – crime in progress – emergency information – school closures – traffic reports – happening in your area today…

These are not unrelated: what’s happened in the past will often guide what’s planned for the future. Today’s operational information becomes tomorrow’s history. And so on. There’s plenty of overlap. They’re intended as concepts, not hard definitions. The types can also be combined in every way conceivable: that’s part of the point of releasing the data in the first place.

I’m deliberately drawing no great distinction here between ‘information’ and ‘data’: the latter is a structured, interpretable incarnation of the former. That’s another set of issues in itself. I’ve also skipped over questions of interpretation and spin – this is a blog post, not a chapter of my book ;) And I’ve omitted “personal data” as a type – this is woven through all areas and carries with it its own baggage. I’m thinking more about the basics of function and purpose. Which lead on to usefulness. Which, as I’ve said before, is the test that all this is taking us in the right direction.

“Useful to whom” does of course vary by type: 1 and 2 are great for those holding public service to account (press, public, whoever). 2 is for those who will make change happen. 3 will benefit of ordinary people in day-to-day life (and I’m careful here not to imply that these ordinary people ever have to see ‘data’ or an ‘e-service’ themselves: their local paper, toddler group, or community centre noticeboard are all valid intermediaries here). 4 will do things for the e-enabled – the mobile generation, the data natives, as well as for places that can serve an offline public (screens in train stations, visuals at bus-stops).

As a practical suggestion, I would love to see some of the current initiatives to build repositories and access to data recognising these distinctions exist. A little more signposting about the type of data that’s being released may help to highlight which types are being overlooked. For as we know, opening up the narrative helps to drive the change itself.

And how are we doing against these four types?

Pretty good on historical (it’s quite easy to dump old files online); weak on the future planning stuff (trickier, because if there’s no means of action accompanying the data, will publishing do anything other than frustrate?); getting there on infrastructural (though licensing, linking and standards offer the greatest challenges); struggling on operational (contractual, accuracy, standards).

That’s a one line summary. What do you think? Where should we putting more effort?

It’s all about me

I don’t know where this story ends. I know where it starts though.

At various times since the dawn of technology-enabled government – since information about some of the big things in your life was held on computers – the cry goes out: “Why can’t we join all this up?” “Why do I have to keep telling government the same information time and time again?” “Why can’t I get at all the things that are important to me – all about ME – in one place?”

And other such variants. But you get the point – simple, obvious questions.

And as the years have ticked by, the progress made towards answering these questions has been…well, shabby, to say the least. Especially in proportion to the money that’s been spent in this area.

We’ve had talk of passports, of portals, of “Tell Us Once”, of Citizen Accounts. Of Gateways, single identifiers, and now, MyGov.

None of them, with the exception of the last one – for whom it’s too early to tell – have done very well. (Online, anyway. Tell Us Once has apparently being doing quite well in face-to-face service pilots.)

Isn’t that interesting? Simple questions. Obvious goals. But never any progress. Ah – the wise will say – that’s just because nobody in government wants to change. There are all these vested interests. We’d have to rewire the way everything worked. And – say the privacy campaigners – do you realise what you’re also doing here? Creating an environment where a future totalitarian government can control everything you do from that one place – and where the loss of that single picture of you would make your life completely unmanageable until it got sorted out again.

I’ll argue that there’s an even more obvious reason why progress falters and eventually stalls. Time after time.

Temptation.

The temptation to believe that such easy questions must have simple answers, and to keep on searching for them in the same way over and over again. Usually by starting with a simple model, getting frustrated by how quickly it gets complicated, then abandoning the work and starting with another simple model. Rather than the harder task.

Which is to ask: what’s the actual goal of this ‘personalisation’? For it’s really not as obvious as it may seem.

Some of you may stop reading at this point. Or find yourselves wanting to dodge the difficult questions. “Why make this more complicated than it needs to be?” you may think. Why, indeed? “Surely the goal is to make things simpler for the citizen, and less expensive for government? Like, durrr…”

The White Knight of Personalisation (and I’ve met a few over the years) generally says one of several stock things at this point. Here are a few of them: “All your data can be cross-referenced in any case by government: why the hang-up? Just accept this and build everything around one identifier, hey how about the National Insurance number?” “Let’s just do an account that doesn’t hold personal data, then we don’t need to make it too complicated.” “Ok, let’s start from scratch – let people just choose their own identifier, maybe their email address, and use that to log in”. Or the delightful line: “but I have accounts with my bank, and to buy things online – why does government have to be so different?” Believe me, I’ve heard them all. The “why is government different?” question needs a whole post to itself.

White Knights either wear suits and get paid a lot to try and crack the problem afresh, or step forward from the lower orders to show how simple it all is, and try to stick it to these greybeards in government who “just don’t get it”. Isn’t it a bit odd though how the Knights never actually demonstrate a workable solution, no matter where they come from? Shouldn’t that tell us something?

(I owe an honourable mention here to The Tall Knight of Vendor Relationship Management – Google it when you have a moment – who may surface at some point and tell you the whole model is upside down, and people should be choosing what information they share with government, because that makes everything much cheaper and safer to manage. But I’m definitely not taking on that one in this piece.)

I can’t address every twist in this topic in one post by the way. It would become a very long, dreary read indeed, and perhaps detract from my main point. But here are just two of the many simple models of “a personal relationship with government” that you can use to illustrate the point about how it all complicates rather faster than you’d expect.

Case 1: the simple ‘account’. I just want somewhere I can bring together basic information relevant to me. My bin collection dates perhaps. And school terms. Local services for my area, not just generic national information. And reminders about stuff like my next MOT date. No personal data though. I don’t want it to be so secure that it’s hard to access, and I don’t want it holding information about me that will matter if it gets mislaid on a memory stick.

Case 2: the single place to do business online. This is more advanced: it’s an online service that I can log into and then do really useful things. See my tax and benefit account information in one place. Make payments. Change where my benefits are paid into. Find out about eligibility for things I didn’t know I was entitled to, based on what I am already. Correct my address details if they’re wrong. Upload my photo and allow it to be used for several purposes. Notify my change of circumstances. And so on…

Can you see why these two examples are very different? And why it would be next to impossible to morph a Case 1 solution into one for Case 2? Get a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and try that for yourself as an exercise. (Focus on who knows what about whom at all stages.)

Here’s how Case 1 can get complicated: quite quickly we realise that any meaningful personalisation of services actually requires more than just bookmarking things nominally “about us”. We can use personalised portals (netvibes.com, for example) or even just browser ‘favourites’ to bookmark things like that. We don’t actually need government to provide this. So, either our Case 1 solution is a publicly developed version of something we can get elsewhere, or it’s something more. “It’s something more”, we cry – it does the pulling together of the relevant bits based on who we are or where we live. “Who we are?” I respond – but remember we said this wouldn’t deal with personal data? Ok, ok then – how about “where I live” (comes an arbitrary counter). My postcode sits in the account and then my view of services gets ‘localised’ in some way. So it’s not really a personalised service any more, it’s a service about my house. And I haven’t even started on what sort of ‘identity’ you then assert in this account. Do I pick my own (in which case it can never be used for anything secure or confidential) or is it given to me (in which case we have to deal with distribution, record-keeping, level of asserted trust and so on)? We realise soon enough that what we really wanted was stuff to be suggested to us based on who we were, not as a result of us finding it and then bookmarking it. See, it’s really complicating already, isn’t it? We didn’t really understand what we were asking for by a non-personal, personalising service.

Case 2: the other extreme to which solutions usually gravitate – the one strong identifier that lets you prove yourself, be suggested to, self-serve and all the other good stuff. How are you going to get that identifier? In the post? At a face-to-face interview? Sent online in response to a passport number? You get my drift. And if all my data is then linked up around it, will I be able to control who in government sees what? Yeah, sure – you can have this 22 page e-form to fill in allowing for various combinations of permission and restriction. But I only wanted to know when my bins were being collected, isn’t that a bit of overkill? Etc. etc. The problem here being that the usability of the service rapidly complicates at a faster rate than its usefulness.

There are lots more nuances to all this – and many more types of solution. But this post is already longer than I’d have liked for easy readability. I wish I could wrap all this up in 500 words. I really do. It could save millions. But I can’t, and I accept that. This is difficult territory.

I even think one particular type of solution may actually be achievable. But you’ll have to get in touch with me to talk about that one. Clue: it’s neither of the cases sketched out above, nor indeed VRM.

If you bump into a White Knight of Personalisation, here are a few posers to try, just on the topic of the identifier (the equivalent of your account number for online banking, or your Driver Number on your driving license, perhaps).
– Will you have to have one?
– Can you have more than one if you choose?
– Can you end up with more than one by mistake, and if so, what happens?
– What’s the worst case if it’s lost or falls into someone else’s hands?
– Will it be possible to connect it to any service that I might use, or will there be limitations, and if so, what?
– Will I be able to stop it being used to connect up any services to each other if I choose?
– Will it be held in a big database (and who would look after that database)?
– Will it be connected to a register that’s also used for ID cards?
(I did actually ask the Prime Minister that last one at the MyGov launch. Just sayin’. The answer, via Jim Knight, wasn’t terribly clear.)

You’ll probably find your White Knight will go a little whiter when you do ask. And then either charge you another couple of million for another ‘scoping’ study, or turn smugly away saying: it’s so easy, surely we can work this out, stop being so negative…

This is very complicated stuff. But it always looks so simple to begin with.

UPDATE 18 December: MyGov died with the change of government, I think. It was a short-lived initiative (perhaps not even that) to reposition the mythical “single place online where you can do everything”. But it will be back. It always comes back. Google “unsinkable rubber ducks” (Randi) when you have a moment…