Petitions, targets and deadlines

What is it that really makes you sign a petition?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question today. Triggered by one particular petition that has seen an 11th hour surge of promotion through social networks. And I can’t help concluding that the nature of “deadlines” and “targets” does itself modify behaviour in these circumstances.

There’s a big difference between the phrasing: “sign this petition, it’s an incredibly good cause and by far the most appropriate way to address it”


“Person X has worked really hard to get this important issue heard. It’s only Y thousand signatures from success, with Z minutes to go.”

especially when you can get real-time updates of how Y and Z are racing each other to the wire. It’s a bit addictive like that, all this instant feedback.

NB. I am intentionally not referencing that precise petition here. To do so will take the argument into different territory than I am addressing: which is about mechanics and behaviours of mass, public, direct representation. You can obviously search it out if you choose, but I will give short shrift to comments that focus on it specifically.

So what is it that persuades someone to add their name to a petition? I can see a massive range of factors. It could be because: they believe it will make a difference, they’re angry, someone has asked them to, someone has told them to, everyone else is doing it, or maybe that they just want to see it “be a winner”. There are no absolute “good” and “bad” reasons. This is just how things are. That’s the nature of mass participation.

But it’s that last one that’s playing on my mind. The combination of target and deadline changes the dynamic. We start seeing “edge effects” at work. I’d say that something achieving 90% of its goal with 24 hours to spare can much more easily attract attention that something at 50% with three months to go. We like “the cause of the day”. (Indeed Twitter in particular now seems to be one long stream of them.)

And if that is true, then that target effectively shrinks slightly, as a result of this last-minute acceleration effect.

Is that a good thing? Has it been fully accounted for in the design of the system? What would happen if the “score” were kept masked (other than to say it exceeded a minimum threshold for consideration)? I’d be really interested to know.

A little local difficulty

Summary–this post describes:

  • why there are some particular challenges to overcome in making online local government services findable and usable
  • what Local Directgov is and where it came from, and
  • …and wonders where all this might go next.


I spotted a question within the LocalGovCamp tweets at the weekend:

Who are local directgov & what do they do does anyone know?

There’s a pretty dry and factual explanation quickly visible at the top of a Google search: here. It talks about an “application”, and uses a lot of localgov-type words.

Hopefully I can put a little more colour around the story in this piece, and illustrate the complex and interesting nature of the problem that Local Directgov was invented to try and solve.

Let’s set a bit of background texture first:

In any type of public service delivery, there’s a tension between “just getting it done” and “seeing who’s getting it done for you”. (There are other tensions, but for brevity, this is the one that is most relevant in this discussion.)

“Just getting it done” involves helping a user to accomplish a task as quickly and painlessly as possible, ideally using low-cost channels (such as the Internet), and steering away from the need to make phone calls and visits to check on how the task is getting on (sometimes known as “avoidable contact”).

“Seeing who’s getting it done for you” might seem a lesser priority: something that’s only going to get in the way of JGID, but there are some good reasons why it needs to be considered, no matter how much your customer might prefer to cut to the chase at their actual point of need. (There’s also the fair point that–taken too far–having your local authority keep telling you about the hard work they’re doing on your behalf looks like the most awful, wasteful showboating.)

In the private sector, knowing who you’re dealing with builds brand trust and loyalty. Assuming the services go well, that is–there’s a whole separate discussion to be had about “hiding” who’s really behind the crapper ones. But that’s for another post.

In the public sector, there is the small matter of local democracy to contend with. If your local services are rubbish, then by rights you should be able to express your discontentment, or otherwise, with your elected representatives on a regular basis. They are there to make choices that may be able to make a difference. (What happens if they really can’t make a difference, because of centrally-imposed funding cuts, for example, lies beyond the scope of this post. But again, there are interesting nuances about visibility that lie therein.)

So the argument goes: if you “mask” who’s providing the services–even though you may actually make the citizen’s task experience much more standardised and straightforward–you’re harming local democracy. Imagine a “national missed bin collection reporting site”, perhaps surfaced through a central website like Directgov. Just one place to get the task done, with someone else mopping up all the interfacing to the various local authorities behind the scenes. What’s not to like? (Apart from the uncertainties of who pays for all that mopping, of course…)

Well, a passionate advocate for local democracy might well stand up and say: “What about localism? Where’s the connection between that citizen and their own local services and decisions? A little crest in the corner of an otherwise nationally-uniform [orange] website doesn’t really cut it!”

Maybe they’d be right. The householder with the festering bins may not give a hoot in the short-term, but have they lost an important connection to local policy-setting? Even, in the extreme, to their right to have festering bins (and a cheap refuse collection contract) so that they can pay for better adult social care? Their choice.

And the other killer argument away from nationally-aggregated super-sites of local government services (all your environmental health inspection information and contacts in one place!) is that they are expensive and take forever to agree even simple standards. And basically, just don’t work.

And yet, and yet, people want to search by the problem they want fixing, not the authority they think/know/guess will be able to help them. A problem that Alphagov has put front and centre with its focus on information served up–wherever possible–around where the user is.

So, to the issue of Local Directgov. (Thank you for your patience.)

Having taken an information architecture decision that bundling local stuff all together in one place and style is most likely going to be a waste of time, and possibly counter to a fundamental principle of local democracy, we also note that almost all local authority services already have a web page somewhere, for good or for bad.

So the challenge then becomes: how can we get someone who searches, centrally (could be Google, could be Directgov, could be anywhere…) to the best online page to meet their needs?

We’re not going to try and re-present the local authority content, or dress it up with nice orange borders. We’re just going to link to it.

And to link to it, we need to be able to reference it.

Fortunately, a nice piece of work was done a few years ago to classify all local authority services using a standard referencing system (the Local Government Service List). “859” stands for “request a collection of clinical waste”, “59” for “apply for a discount on council tax”–you can find the whole list here [opens an Excel file].

And the other reference is of course, place: which local authority is responsible for the question you are asking? And that just needs information on local authority boundaries, ideally behind a front-end which can cope with a few variants on the way people describe “place” (town, postcode, local authority name, etc.)

So the building blocks are all there for a simple database that takes three pieces of input data: Place, Service, and the type of Interaction with the Service (get information, pay, etc.), and returns a web page. It’s a little bit more complicated than that; some parts of the country have two-tier councils, responsible for different services, and the database has to cope with that. But it does.

This is Local Directgov. I’d describe it as a database service, rather than application, but that’s just my opinion.

It takes some maintaining, of course. Those pecularities of boundary and service provider have to be taken care of. Links will change over time. They should also improve over time, as a basic “we don’t have a page for this, so here’s their homepage” response matures into “here’s the service page” and even to “here’s the task page”. There are some tools to allow councils to manage their own links, but it still has a small team to keep it running smoothly, run out of DCLG.

So that’s the paradigm: getting people who look centrally, to a page provided locally. Simples.

If I have a criticism, it’s that its use has been very much pointed at councils, rather than developers. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it hasn’t been better used? I see this is changing, with some forthcoming developer engagement and hack days, which is a Good Thing.

It has an API (though it sometimes seems like it’s trying to hide the fact). At the time (and this is going back around three years now) when we were starting to cotton on to the fact that government should be opening up APIs to its data so that more use could be made of them, why wasn’t this one blazoned out there as an early example that actually existed (and worked)? Properly documented, and made as usable as possible.

The Local Directgov team describe it as:

Links in the The Local Directgov application is constructed based on a set of parameters taken from these lists. Each service is matched against its Local Government Service List number, for example ’57’ for Council Tax, and its Local Government Interaction List number, for example ‘2’ for paying for something: http://local.direct.gov.uk/LDGRedirect/index.jsp?LGSL=57&LGIL=2.

…I’m thinking more could probably be done to tell its story.

So, it’s a value-adding data-rich service. It is the data that the Directgov family collects and holds from local authorities. A table of links. That’s all. And it is freely available, via that API, ensuring an up-to-date and usable service is maintained. I think it’s an unsung success story.

Years ago, people like the team at Hampshire County Council were innovating using it to identify services around their boundaries provided by other authorities, and ensuring people could get as smooth a journey, via the best links, to what they needed.

Will it be the way forward under Alphagov? Is there a better way of connecting a central request to a local page? Will we tilt back into trying to produce more service aggregations “in one place” for local services? Perhaps there’s a completely different approach that will crack this issue of findability with the need to preserve local visibility that we just haven’t tried yet?

What do you think?

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.


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?”

Driven to distraction

I’ve done a lot of work for the Directgov team. I love its core proposition: comprehensive, authoritative, readable information, all there in one place – without bouncing through portals and between different sites, and avoiding confusing journeys through lots of separate brands. But there’s a difference between understanding how it works in theory, and experiencing it…

So when I realised I’d lost a V5 (log book to you) registration certificate for a motorbike I’d just sold which was being picked up the next day… I became a real customer of a real government service.

Firstly, I was very unlucky. No, not just because I’d lost the V5, but because my crisis day happened to be 1 September. New registration day for ’59’ plates. Anniversary of millions of registrations. First working day after a Bank Holiday. First day of the month. It was going to be very busy. Probably as bad as it could be. And I needed that certificate very, very quickly. Great.

So, what happened? First stop: online. And I didn’t go to Directgov. Horror! Me, a convert, as well. Why not? Because I was being normal (sort of). I searched Google for “replacement V5”. Now, a few results down is the Directgov stuff (and DVLA Personalised Registrations – interesting! – well done on optimisation, but not a natural, or indeed useful, place to find out about V5 replacement). But what’s at the top?



This! And it emphasises the word ‘fast’! I click through and see a good question, and a seemingly good ‘Best Answer’. Remember, I’m being a real person now, and I am looking for an answer I want to find…

And below the “Best Answer” – even better:


Fantastic! Over the counter. “There and then”. But ‘0 votes’. Hmm. Need to check this. So, now to Directgov to confirm…


Oh. Where’s that over the counter service then? I can see a link to the nearest office; perhaps that’ll tell me. Nope. (And out of interest, when did V5 become V5C – am I in the right place at all here? Perhaps there’s a completely parallel description of the V5 process, including over the counter. Erm. Not that I can find.)

Alright, deadlock and uncertainty online. Time to shift channels. I’m not going all the way to the nearest office in Wimbledon without checking first.

Phone. 90 seconds of messages (I’m paying on an 0870 here – I haven’t used saynoto0870; look here for more on this…) about how I can find what I need online – grrrrr how I hate that – and then: Thank you for calling. Goodbye. Click.

They terminated the call? Not even the chance to hold (at my cost) to be answered? Dear. Oh. Dear. Oh. Dear.

Well – busiest day of the year, I guess…

So it looks like I am now going all the way to Wimbledon without checking first. Thanks to Mr? Silva and his handy “personal experience”. I want to believe it’ll happen. I really do.

Vroom vroom. I get to Wimbledon. Doesn’t look good. Three rows of seating, mostly full. Eight windows, five in operation. A door-greeter though – excellent.

-Hello: quick question – I need a replacement V5. Can I get one issued over the counter here?

-No [Damn!]

-Will it be quicker to get one by queuing here to put in an application, or by using the phone service?

-There isn’t a phone service. You have to apply here or by post. [Oh bloody hell. #fail etc.]

-I think there is a phone service – I saw it on the internet.

-There’s no internet service [sic] – you have to queue here. Take a ticket. [Big smile though. He did care. Noted.]

I took a ticket. Half an hour passed. I listened hard to the greeter. Amazing how many people were coming in just to renew tax discs. TAX DISCS. You don’t even need a DVLA office for that – I wasn’t expecting them to all go online, but I did wonder if they’d ever noticed that Post Offices… I could see quite a few were paying in cash. I almost got out the laptop and dongle to set up my own unofficial direct.gov.uk/taxdisc booth there and then. For cash, naturally. Might I even charge a tiny little mark-up for a faster service? Yes, Brent Council, I did notice…

But that was definitely going to lead towards Making A Public Scene. To an extent that even I was a bit twitchy about ;-)

At the counter (thick security screens):

-Hi – here’s my application form for a replacement V5. Would it have been quicker if I’d done this using the phone service?

-No, it’s exactly the same. If I press my button here it triggers the printing in Swansea just the same as if the call centre do it. [Brilliant – a full, accurate answer! At last!]

-Your chap on the door doesn’t know there IS a call centre.

-Really? Ok, thanks, I’ll tell him [score a point for process improvement]. It’ll print tonight. Takes a week to arrive in the post though. They go Second Class. And there’s strikes and that.

A week. Strikes. Game over. I clutch a till receipt for my £25. That might keep my buyer warm if I show it to him. And grovel.

So what? Why have I written all this (and tweeted most of it at the time)?

Well… You can’t eliminate random, possibly misguided, advice. But you can recognise it, and adapt accordingly. And you can always think of ways to put the customer’s interests first, particularly if you do have a shonky phone service that sometimes can’t take calls…

What if there’d been a few tweaks to the Directgov content? Could these have helped?

1. Near the phone number – “at very busy times we can’t take calls. If this happens, you’ll hear a message straight away when you call us, telling you that your phone call won’t get through. But if you want to stay on the line you will hear some recorded information which may help you”. Needs a tweak to the automated voice system, sure, but you get my point.

2. Catering for the effects of the Mr Silvas of this world. Covering the bases. Add a description of the third way of applying: Apply in person at a DVLA Office. You won’t get your replacement certificate any faster than if you apply by phone. It will still be posted to you, but you will get a receipt for your payment over the counter. This may be useful if you want to show someone that you’ve applied for a new certificate. The receipt isn’t an official motoring document, and you can’t use it when insuring a vehicle, for instance, but it might still be useful to you.

Or going even further: We’ve seen that some advice websites mention that you can get a replacement V5 over the counter at DVLA offices. This isn’t a service that we offer, but we are looking at ways that we might be able to offer it in future. We’ll let you know here if this changes.

And yes, I would have paid the extra 9p for First Class post. Really, I would. C’mon…