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.

Preaching to the unconverted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agile, waterfall and muppets

There’s been some very good debate of late about how to do it all better, with a heavy emphasis on the role that Agile methods might play. “It” in this case being not just government technology, but extending to policy development, communications and more.

There seems to be a massed rebellion against the substandard, the lame, the failed and the apparent deathgrip that a few large suppliers have on taxpayer billions. This is a very good thing, of course.

I found a couple of recent pieces very insightful (in different ways). Alistair Maughan kicked off a lot of debate with a provocative piece arguing that Agile was doomed to fail in a public service setting. This from one of the architects of arguably some of the biggest, most expensive and (inarguably) rigid ICT contracts imaginable. Adam McGreggor from Rewired State came back with evidence of Agile success, and a rebuttal of the good lawyer’s key arguments.

These arguments really seem to me to be based around an overarching sentiment that Agile weakens the ability to hold contractors (and their clients) to account for the delivery of fit-for-purpose products. Whether as a result of mismatched expectation, fuzzy requirements, incompetence or downright fraud.

Our defence against these–particularly the latter two–has traditionally been the much-lambasted public procurement process. As Anthony Zacharzewski put it with characteristic tact and style, we should have a care about throwing out the defences that these processes are designed to provide, for all the tales of woe that can also be laid at their door.

Stepping back a little from all this, I am left wondering what points are really being argued here? Is this about a methodology, or is this about ensuring that the right people are getting through the door? Amazing things can happen when the usual barriers are thrown down and the real, trusted experts are brought in. (I hope to see real-life evidence of some of this next week.)

After all, with amazingly insightful and competent people involved, respecting each other, listening to reason, taking risks where necessary, being flexible–and above any suggestion of conflicted interest or perverse incentive–even the most traditional requirement/specification/build approach is going to perform pretty well. And just imagine the horror of a perversely-motivated behemoth muscling in (let’s call them Anders*nAgile, say) with their Chicago-schooled ScrumBizAnalysts(TM) charging a couple of grand a day to dance in a slightly different style to the same old tunes.

If this is about trust–and I think a lot of it might be–then we need to be careful not to confuse “method” arguments with those that are more about “gatekeeping”. A great sage in the public sector IT world once said that the only HR rule you ever needed was “No muppets”. He had a point.

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…

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.