WRITTEN ON December 18th, 2009 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Across the Board, Design: Co-creation, Design: user-oriented, Foundation of Trust, Government Procurement, Ideal Goverment - project, Ideal government IT strategy, Identity, Pertinent Art, Policies, Political engagement, Power of Information, Save Time and Money, Transformational Government, We told you so...

It’s time to say what we want from government IT.

Let’s do this together. Let’s say “wouldn’t it be better if” about how tech affects transparency, costs and the quality of public services and how they affect our lives.

@ntouk and I have long since been fed up with what one senior Whitehall official yesterday called “this £trillion attempt to drag us into 1983”. Many of us have had a go at the draft government IT strategy on the Opposition’s makeITbetter site. Officials across Whitehall are now furiously revising it, so let’s hope the final published version is better.

Meanwhile we can speak freely. We can look to the realities of the wider world, and we don’t have to pretend that everything to date has been fine. Now it’s time to find our voice and say what we want.

The Centre for Technology Policy Research and IdealGov are launching a six-week competition, which everyone wins. Everyone who contributes is invited to a party. And everyone can, like, bring stuff (as we did to mypublicservices).

Practicalities. Please add any comments of suggestions about the process to this post. The final crowd-sourced “White paper of Wibbi” will be created on an open wiki here. Please feel free to register and edit, or to add comments at the end.

Party: IdealGov and CTPR are chipping in £1000 to the launch party to which everyone who has contributed is invited. There will be prizes including signed photos of our very own tech mandarin Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom.

Political engagement:An Opposition front bench team has already agreed to listen attentively to our results. We have also extended invitations to Labour and LibDem leaderships and to officials to attend the party or have the results presented. [UPDATE: Big news: still on day one and we’ve now also heard back that this will get presented to a LibDem front bench team and to the people drafting the Labour manifesto. This is subject to the project attracting enough substantial input of quality. So this is now definitely an opportunity to put good ideas in front of all three main UK parties. We’re also up for inviting SNP, Plaid & Greens to launch party. Everyone needs a good government IT policy.]]

This initiative is formally adopting the principles of #CMRD, the “courteous and mutually respectful dialogue” called for last week by Michael Wills and first practised at an Intellect/Identity and Passport Service event this week.

Above all, we need to state in plain lay terms the role of contempory technology in future public services should be. Specifically, our work will need to cover off the main headings:

– governance of public-sector IT
– technical architecture which supports the real-world intention
– procurement of technology and tech-based services
– design that works for front line staff and users
– basis for participative public services
– public data
– personal data
– trust, dignity & legality under human rights & DP law
– political engagement, openness and trust in the political process
– and above all saving vast, vast amounts of money.

This is not a time to splash out. The country’s broke. So first we need to spend less on IT, existing contracts notwithstanding. But then it’s two orders of magnitude more important that our IT plans support far more efficient public services.

Suggesting we deploy hundreds of PA consultants (or Deloitte or whoever) to mooch around filling out timesheets and expense claims for absurd day rates is not going to get you invited to the party. But any suggestion that draws the best expertise available into the gift economy (and by no means are all consultants nitwits) is most welcome.

This project is not a platform for venting anger at wrong headedness or past mediocrity (whoops! did I just do it? Old habits…) Take that frustration but use it to say what you want in the spirit of the #CMRD. Please bring your beliefs, principles, and passion, but the IdealGov and CTPR moderators will give short shrift to anything actionable or which reeks of partisan preconceptions. Scepticism is justified, but cynicism not.

We may need a “babies and bathwater” section to set out for controversial systems such as CfH or the ID Scheme what must go but what also should be retained. We should give praise where due, eg for Power of Information work. And our suggestions must be practical enough to keep the lights on, ie to keep essential services running uninterrupted while new and better plans emerge.

Contributions from all stakeholders are welcome: officials, industry, front line staff, anyone who speaks from personal experience of public services. Pertinent Art is always welcome, because it can speak to our condition so powerfully.

We last did this in 2004, remember. Now its time to do it again.

16 Responses to “Time to say what we want from government IT”

J-P wrote on December 18th, 2009 3:23 pm :

Government IT needs to concentrate on small projects, quickly scoped, easy to accomplish, with measurable success and failure, and each based on close, non-top-down, non-multiple-choiced communication with front-line staff. If one member of staff is spending two hours a week copying and pasting into Excel to accomplish something a simple web tool will do in seconds, that’s a two-week project for a good development team right there.

No project should take more than two weeks of developer-hours and should be completeable within a month. They should use existing technologies and agile management methods. Scoping should be tight and based on principles like MoSCoW to ensure that only the most important user requirements survive and don’t get dragged down by pointless would-likes.

It basically needs to work less like government IT and more like mySociety projects. I wrote about this on my blog nearly two years ago now (see website link above) and what I wrote still feels relevant. The time of big IT projects is over, and they’re now completely redundant when you can accomplish so much with progressive change rolled out the moment each smaller phase is ready.

Christina Zaba wrote on December 18th, 2009 4:23 pm :

OMG this is fantastic!!! More important than quantitative easing….more radical than Gandhi…with more implications for the future of humankind than Copenhagen.

May I make a suggestion? Before dealing in the minutiae – or perhaps, more realistically, *alongside* dealing with the minutiae – should we give some thought to MORAL PRINCIPLES?

Among them I number beauty – that is, elegance and lyricism of design architectures; truth – that is, appropriate, feasible and just legislative arrangements; probity – that is, the utter eschewing of vested interests, greed, personal gain; and above all a commitment to imagination – that is the willingness to embrace the full picture in its simplicity.

To reduce that to even shorter terms: we need good conduct, good laws and good design, in that order, and anyone working on this needs to do so in a spirit of service, not profit.

Art of course. Because despite its apparent utter dullness, government IT is actually going to be one of two things: either the cradle of the coming civilisation, or its nemesis.

And unless informed by the four points above, it hasn’t a chance and we will founder in a welter of debt, decrepitude, turpitude and turpentine. Or near offer.

Thus so far. Put me on your lists. Bring me to the party. I will sing the heavenly muse of a technology that serves and empowers without imprisoning. It’s high time.


Symon Chalk wrote on December 18th, 2009 6:02 pm :

Allow the use of agile methodologies by local providers rather than require everything to be ITIL/PRINCE2/insert-framework-name-here and big-name, consultant-driven

Chris Wheeler wrote on December 18th, 2009 7:07 pm :

Don’t do IT for IT’s sake. I hear about many Government IT projects, but pretty much every one is actually a business transformational project being sold as an IT project. That’s an easy way to fail.

Work out what changes you want to make to your business first, then work out what IT you’ll need (if it’s needed at all). It’s much easier to convince people to help a project if it’s theirs, not ‘something driven by IT’.

Chris Mills wrote on December 18th, 2009 11:38 pm :

Rather than Government sharing citizens’ information without their explicit consent, or even knowledge, why not have a relatively simple “my.gov” website which provides a directory to all central and local government sites, help in accessing information and services and which allows the user to initiate a single communication directed at multiple government recipients – e.g. “My new address is … “

Kate wrote on December 19th, 2009 12:36 am :

The most ridiculous web (and thus management and communication) thing is what many people in government IT circles have been trying to work through for YEARS.
There are any number of small projects that set up projects with external suppliers. You’d think it was obvious that someone centrally should build a shared infrastructure that all these projects could use, benefiting from shared costs, less development time, fewer design requirements (as most of functions and information structures are now standardised). Like any shared hosting system…
And it is… but public sector projects are, apparently, not allowed to develop on spec, in advance, then “sell”, support or supply to internal projects. They have to specify first, then develop – so generic platform building, however complex and thorough, is prohibited.
People have tried for YEARS to get enough small projects together to set up the first IT platform that all the rest could then jump onto – building up using DOIs and standard modules and standard taxonomies and links – which would help users enormously. Under current financial rules it can’t be done. Change that, and you change everything.
I can’t think of a single project that couldn’t have spent less, contributed more, and avoided being vanity publishing for their budget owners.

Colin Beveridge wrote on December 19th, 2009 10:40 am :

the best way to address the Trillion Dollar Bonfire of unexpected cost and disappointment is to move forward from the redundant iT paradigm.

Things will not improve as long as we simply persist in seeking better ways of doing iT.

William Heath wrote on December 19th, 2009 6:32 pm :

OK – we’re off to a cracking start – thanks everyone.

I think the way this goes forward is:
– we continue to spread the word
– we focus on whether the structure we have set out is right and complete
– if so we focus on one area at a time and I’ll do a blog post for each
– mid Jan CTPR and we will sit down and sort through all the feedback
– then we’ll start offering final versions of each section
– and then do the exec summary and intro at the end

It wd be great to have any artistic, design or creative expression or input. I think – especially in the light of Christina’s comment above – that might be a decisive differentiator.

e-government is a huge new creation. Of course it should be beautiful!

Simon wrote on December 21st, 2009 12:54 am :

Mature developers are required who understand meeting the needs of users. I’ve worked with small teams as Quality Manager and this one thing was my biggest bug bear – the young graduate developers will build what makes sense to them not realising they are not the users of the system.

Skizz wrote on December 21st, 2009 2:44 pm :

What I’d like to see removed from future public IT work:

1. Politicians
2. Bureaucrats

They are the common denominator for all failed projects.

In an ideal world, there’d be a non-political IT department in Whitehall that would take the government’s proposals and create a system specification that involved everyone affected by it with projected costings before actually starting work, with everything being open to public strutiny and free from political interference.

Jeremy Smith wrote on December 22nd, 2009 9:31 am :

Government IT should restrict itself to defining standards for basic things like data files, compatibility, UI, login security, disaster recovery etc. Then if a small, or local (or both) product adheres to those standards it gets to be able to market itself as “suitable for government” etc. That puts the power in the hands of small outposts of government (eg a GP surgery), without allowing a forest of incompatible software.

Tim Davies wrote on December 22nd, 2009 9:48 am :

I’m most interesting in having a strong focus on: \design that works for front line staff and users\. I did some work on the simple, practical barriers that front line staff face in engaging with online tools (http://www.practicalparticipation.co.uk/socialstrategy) and I’m sure many could be extended to cover other IT projects.

IT projects are about changing services, not just implementing new IT – and so it’s key that any strategy recognizes that spending time on (a) user centered design and development; and (b) supporting the roll-out of new systems, with good quality training and capacity building; are just as important for success of systems as is the IT.

Particularly if a strategy encourages a move towards more agile IT, it needs to make sure it looks at building the capacity of front line services and users to respond to agile changes in the platforms and IT they are relying on (and it needs to be able to identify when, for the end user, sticking with something slightly sub-optimal is better than investing time and energy to adapt to new systems).

With a recognition that the key factor standing between the effective operation or failure of most big systems is user time and skill in operating them – we should check for every possible IT investment what the required parallel investment in staff resourcing will be – and also check if, such investment in staff resourcing could yeild the same social outcomes we want without the IT.

David Moss wrote on December 22nd, 2009 4:47 pm :

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Book II, v.x14:

“The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained
by calling it a ‘young science’; its state is not comparable with that
of physics, for instance, in its beginnings. (Rather with that of certain
branches of mathematics. Set theory.) For in psychology there
are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. (As in the other
case conceptual confusion and methods of proof.)

The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have
the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem
and method pass one another by.

An investigation is possible in connexion with mathematics which is
entirely analogous to our investigation of psychology. It is just as little
a mathematical investigation as the other is a psychological one

eGovernment is not a software engineering problem. The methods of software engineering pass the problems of eGovernment by. Let’s try to sort out the “conceptual confusion” of eGovernment before we waste any time on the mere methods.

Better hurry up, though. IBM takes on services in Essex as part of £5bn privatisation deal:

“A Conservative council has signed a pioneering deal with IBM worth up to £5.4 billion to manage and provide public services in a new wave of privatisation supported by David Cameron.

“The eight-year deal between the technology giant and Essex County Council is expected to transform the way that public services are provided across the county and save 20 per cent of the authority’s annual £1.2 billion budget within three years …

“IBM was chosen, in part, because of the company’s experience in Canada where it saved “billions of dollars” by streamlining government services. The company set up a one-stop shop where customers could go to one website to get information on all government services, file tax returns, pay vehicle licences and claim benefits.”

nick james wrote on December 26th, 2009 12:45 am :

This doesn’t fly for me. The government are starting to realise how unpopular they are (I’m a left winger, I’ll be voting Tory in the hope they get rid of ID cards) and they are undergoing a deathbed conversion. If they get back in power, they’ll claim a mandate and it’ll be busines as usual.

“courteous and mutually respectful dialogue” hey? So they’re going to stop conflating opposition to totalitarian government with terrorism and paedophilia?

Sorry to be so negative, but I think the government and civil service need more virulent and better directed abuse, not respect and courtesy: we haven’t got to where we are now by beeing nice to the government.

The most important thing to do now? Ensure that /all/ government (and local government) contracts are open to scrutiny by the electors and that civil servants and politicians are made liable for losses on lousy contracts.

Martyn Thomas wrote on December 29th, 2009 6:53 pm :

– governance of public-sector IT

WIBBI Gateway Reviews were peer-reviewed and published?

– technical architecture which supports the real-world intention

WIBBI the intended real-world outcomes had to be stated in a form that guaranteed that the success or failure could be measured, and that the proposal for an IT solution had to state all the alternative solutions that had been considered, and why they were rejected in favour of the proposed IT solution. WIBBI the project had to be defined as a business change project, not as an IT project, and if all the business costs had to be identified and justified and bid for, not just the technology costs?

WIBBI the proposed technical architecture had to be published for public review for one month before any implementation contracts could be signed, and if anyone could propose a manifestly better architecture in that period then it had to be evaluated before proceeding?

– procurement of technology and tech-based services

WIBBI if procurement was always two-stage, with the first stage involving a Systems Architect (SA) with a role analogous to that of an architect in designing a new building: the SA would help the customer to really understand and capture their business requirements, formalise the requirements and analyse them for consistency and completeness, evaluate alternative solutions, and prepare a high-level design proven to meet the specification, and then move to the customer’s side of the table and help with procuring an implementation, using the formalised specifications and design as the contractual base.

This would eliminate almost all of the specification changes that cause cost escalation and overruns.

– design that works for front line staff and users

WIBBI systems that are designed to be in widespread use were prototyped in small areas first, so that users and staff could input their requirements after working with real examples of the systems?

– basis for participative public services

WIBBI this had been expressed in plain English?

– public data

WIBBI all public data was licensed under Creative Commons?

– personal data

WIBBI UK DP law implemented the letter and spirit of the European DP Directive, as it is interpreted by Germany, for example?

– trust, dignity & legality under human rights & DP law

WIBBI there was a rapid and cheap way to enforce these laws in the UK?

– political engagement, openness and trust in the political process

WIBBI politics stopped being a career and became a period of public service? This could be done by limiting anyone to a maximum of 8 years in either House, or in local Government.

– and above all saving vast, vast amounts of money.

WIBBI the only permissable way to implement a national system was to incrementally increase the scope of a small system that was already working successfully.

WIBBI there were independent, constructive, published stage reviews of major projects, involving independent experts with international reputations.

Martin Veitch wrote on January 18th, 2010 11:58 am :

I agree with J-P. Most voters have *no clue* about what’s going on with IT projects because of the monstrous complexity caused by having layer upon layer of stakeholders. We need more six-month plans and fewer five-year plans that end in confusion, overruns and finger-pointing. ‘Chunking’ projects would at least allow for some visibility. More use of SaaS would be an enabler here. I’d also like to see more ‘cloning’ of successful foreign state models e.g. maybe Munich and Extremadura open-source projects