Contributory negligence

I am not giving to writing political posts. Indeed, the allegiances of the characters in this one are unimportant compared to the message they give about society, participation and responsibility.

This line was the trigger:

“This decision will cost him (and benefit the Treasury) tens of millions a year in tax yet he considers it worthwhile.”

[William Hague, talking about Lord Ashcroft in the Guardian].

Nobody really likes tax. That’s usually a starting point for the arguments. It’s a statement I think is arrived at too easily, but that’s another story. Let’s assume you aren’t exactly a fan of seeing your earnings disappear out of your pocket into another place, wherever that may be. We can probably all identify with that to some extent.

There are two ways to deal with this: an intelligent one of questioning priorities, addressing waste, and doing what you can – directly and through your representatives – to help shape a programme of public service funding.

And there’s the lazy one of pretending that it all just goes into some big smoking hole under Alistair Darling’s bed. And then after some labyrinthine process of leaking out into various MPs’ and bureaucrats’ pockets gets spent on equality coordinators in Scunthorpe. So you should resist paying at all costs because it’s just some nasty combination of extortion and fraud.

Clearly the latter approach is utter bollocks. But it’s far easier to believe in, and strangely comforting, provided you never actually have to experience life at the sharper end of any form of public service.

It seems Lord Ashcroft felt it was the most disgraceful waste of his money to have to pay some of it as a contribution to a society he was part of. It’s a view, I guess. But what message does it (and Hague’s support for it) give about the character of those purporting to be leaders of that society?

That everything they will propose as a publicly-funded programme is founded on something you really shouldn’t have to do anyway? That’s going to work, isn’t it?

These are statements of selfishness, shortsightedness and greed. And for politicians heading towards a General Election, lunacy. The row over deals, peerages and status is one thing. But the underlying attitudes revealed (which by no means are the sole preserve of any political party) about the role of contribution to our society, are far more serious.

Hardwired State

It’s easy to see why projects fail.

Why ‘open goals’ are so often missed trying to improve public services with new technologies.

Or is it?

What’s been happening in recent months?

Rewired State: generated 30+ ideas in one day for better use of public information to transform public services, many backed up by working prototypes.

Young Rewired State: yet more ideas, and real code, from 15-18 year olds.

Barcamps, Reboot Britain, Show Us A Better Way and many other initiatives: creativity, inspiration, passion, and even solutions.

The daily activities of hundreds of developers, policy enthusiasts, data specialists, lobbyists and real service users to make things better.

And through things like the proposal for a Rewired State-type event within government, we’ll no doubt see that the public sector already has many committed people with the skills to do amazing things with technology, processes and information.

Ideas and talent aren’t the issue, evidently.

Yet how many of these ideas are actually crossing the seemingly vast divide to become ‘production’ public services?

We have a few ideas about why this might be the case: not enough will to change; would it scale?; procurement never works like that in practice; sure, you can design smart new services but can you sustain them?… And so on…

And perhaps we’re right. We’re probably on the right track with some of these. But we don’t really know. And until we do know, we’re poorly armed to take on the systemic issues that really stand in the way of public service innovation. Only by having a well-structured agenda can the things that really need to change, be changed.

What we experience might be the consequences of perfectly rational decisions. Rational decisions that at a detailed level make perfect sense. But when combined into complex systems, such as those that procure and operate public services, can have very irrational consequences. It might be. But we don’t really know.

So how do we get to know?

Here’s a proposal.

Hardwired State?*

What it is

A small number of great ideas are taken on by a panel. Over a few weeks the panel meet regularly, virtually if necessary, and agree a series of steps which would, in theory, bring these ideas to life as real public services.

A small team follow this direction, and simulate the progress of this idea as it becomes a service. Any actual actions or financial commitments are simulations, but the decisions, and decision-makers involved, along the way are all real.

All progress is documented. As, perhaps more interestingly, are any blockages.

That’s it.

Who’s on the panel?

A minister, a senior civil servant, a journalist, an executive from a public services supplier, a developer, a community worker and an independent information management professional.

Facilitated very carefully, and with some clear rules.


Money is no barrier to progress. This is a simulation exercise. But it all gets counted along the way.

(Realistically, there will be some real costs involved even as a simulation. Questions of suppliers in particular will sometimes need funding to get an answer. This funding needs to be available, and recorded.)

Decisions are real: if something is agreed to, it’s agreed to as it if were actually going to be implemented, at a level of authority which would be required to do so, for real.

Behaviours: this is a potentially hard-hitting exercise. But it is intended to show systemic issues, not to show up individuals. Respect for the skills, talents and experience of all involved in designing and delivering public services will be upheld throughout.

This is “fantasy project management”, if you will. A one-off exercise to really demonstrate the art of the possible. And to inform an agenda for change that will unlock so much of the potential shown in the initiatives already mentioned.

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, early 2010 probably isn’t the time to do something like this. Other priorities may occupy the attention of the movers and shakers who’d have to get behind this.

But it’s an illustration of one way in which we could get away from generating innovative ideas that don’t actually go anywhere. And take a whole-life look at the real implementation issues that have to be tackled to make a difference in the real world.

    What do you think? Should we try it?

*The question mark is intentional, and fair. The outcomes of this exercise are not prejudged. The title is inspired by the paradox of unchangeable URLs (that serves as an excellent metaphor for making technology change happen in government). It’s almost as if the state has hardwired itself.

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…