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.


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…

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4 Responses

  1. Steph Gray says:

    Interesting, and I’m glad you’ve teased out some of the challenges behind MyGov (and its predecessors).

    You’re right too to ask about the nature of ‘personalisation’ that’s at stake. There’s a risk of disappearing into a rabbit warren of authentication systems, and lose sight of the bigger picture.

    I’ve not seen the research for a while, but here’s my gut feel: people don’t necessarily want ‘personalised’ services; they want easy to access, ease to use services.

    I don’t mind logging into Amazon with one set of details, and into PayPal with another. I don’t expect the private sector half of the economy to join that stuff up, and I’d be sceptical if they claimed to. But if registering to buy a book takes me more than 30 seconds, I’ll be grumpy; if it takes me more than a couple of minutes to pay for something the first time with PayPal, ditto. But my bank account is another matter – the four screens of details I have to work through to check my balance is a good nuisance, to me at least. Probably ditto for my tax and health information, were they both to be online. But not for renewing a library book, getting a newsletter about training, getting help with a new business, or buying my car tax disc.

    There are a few challenges here, then:

    – making transactions easy to accomplish, like buying a book from Amazon
    – developing authentication & identity management systems which fit the nature of the task and expectations of privacy (and don’t err on the side of caution, just because)
    – making transactions easy to find, so I know where to start and who’s responsible for administering Tax X or Service Y these days

    I don’t underestimate the complexity of the hidden wiring behind achieving this, which is one reason why I’m so impressed every year when I renew my car tax online (three cheers DVLA, IBM & Directgov). But I think there’s an opportunity for a simpler approach to delivering public services online in a way which satisfies users:

    1. Think less about the ‘single account’ and more about the single place to start. We have those: Directgov and Business Link.

    2. Think less about an identity management system, and more about usable online account management. One account for my taxes, one for my business, one for my health, one for my council – that’s still just about OK, as long as they match my expectations of the privacy and security behind them. Only ask me for the information you need.

    3. Make the supersites into very simple customisable portals. That sounds shockingly old-school, but I think it’s what would deliver the greatest benefit. Let me tell you a little bit about my lifestyle (like, 10 questions max) and give me a cut of the stuff that’s helpful. No car? Don’t show me the motoring stuff. Live in Scotland? Show me what’s a Scottish service, and what’s UK-wide, plus a widget of good stuff from my local council. Got kids? Show me the health/money/activities info that’s right for their ages in my area. Above all, keep the questions simple, and show me why it’s worth me 20 seconds to tick some boxes.

    That’s a workable, deliverable MyGov, from where I’m sitting. 10 straightforward questions, a clear explanation of why you’re asking and what I’ll get back, a page that looks a bit like Netvibes, and a bookmark in my favourites. A user account I can stay logged into for months at a time, only having to enter more sophisticated authentication info when I’m entering my tax details or talking to someone official about my sexual history.

    Does that make me a White Knight? ;-)

  2. Rich Watts says:

    Great post, Paul. As someone who has to grapple with this stuff most days (within the field of social care), a lot of it rings true.

    I think a lot of what you write above holds internally (i.e. an organisation’s relationship with its staff) as well as externally (i.e. an organisation’s relationship with its ‘clients’). I’m struck at work in general by how simple everyone thinks everything is – even from issuing annual leave forms, starting a staff suggestions box, ensuring documents/materials are available in alternative formats – when the reality of implementing this stuff is much harder.

    For me, being a manager is therefore recognising the complicated nature of all this stuff and enabling staff to work to overcome it. We may be able to anticipate 25% of the terrain we’ll need to navigate, but the remaining 75% will need to be somewhat reactive once we know the real problems that come up.

    If that’s right, then the implications for determining a technological solution – which I think needs 75% sure up front, 25% to be tweaked after – are not too fun.

  3. I agree, this IS complicated. Hugely so, and (if done properly) should impact pretty much every last corner of government. It’s an enormous project.

    But paying for a government that is highly inefficient, and duplicative, at times, is an expensive luxury. One the budget figures say we can’t afford.

    So it sounds like now is the time to attack the complexity, take it seriously and dedicate adequate resources to it. To work, this solution needs to involve an overhaul in the business of government and a serious citizen focus (from the strategy all the way out to the UX design). There are a lot of potential pitfalls and each must be carefully addressed for such significant changes to be implemented and carry on delivering government services. Otherwise, as you have so eloquently described, this project will go down the route of those predecessors.

    We have a stronger motivation this time (those budgetary and economic concerns – our deficit isn’t sustainable), and I’m hoping that means that the project will be taken seriously. I still (thus far) think this CAN be done. I just hope we’ll have the right group in place to do it. I can’t agree with you more on the intricacy and complexity of this challenge.

  4. Rollo says:

    Paul, just after reading your blog I came across the Employee Authentication Service (EAS) from PA (http://www.paconsulting.com/our-thinking/improving-security-and-access-of-shared-information/). There’s a video overview of the EAS, which I think nicely illustrates the problems of issuing authentication to secure services, and how processes can get out of hand. It’s worth considering that Leeds CC (as used as an example in the video) has over 30,000 employees – so that would require a considerable number of people to administer the EAS. Ah, it’s all so simple…

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