Posts Tagged ‘civil service’

Tell Us Once goes national

October 2, 2009

So I saw something on Twitter about the government’s intention to roll-out the Tell Us Once programme nationally.  And then someone asked me what I thought about it…

I think it’s a laudable goal to try to simplify the bureaucracy that citizens experience when dealing with the state in all its guises. However I think TUO is problematic for three reasons:

  1. It’s not addressing the real issue, namely that the state is too bureaucratic.  TUO is a work-around because the state isn’t organised around actual people.  It’s sticking plaster that gives an artificial sense of coherence to a flawed system.  And everyone knows that papering over the cracks is unsustainable.
  2. It’s not giving citizens control over their data.  It’s channelling data between bits of government and the scope for error is still huge.  Accepting that the hideous bureaucracy isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it would be better to make it clear to people who they need to contact with what information and how.  Then I can send one email (or better still an RSS feed)* to all the relevant departments and I can be sure that the data they get is accurate and that they actually get it – it’s my data, after all, and I firmly believe that a state employee does not have a role as an intermediary for my data.
  3. The basic principle of the government sharing data between departments is fraught with problems.  At best it’s paternalistic and at worse it’s the stuff of Big Brother nightmares.  Sure, our current government might not be organised enough to actually make use of the data shared between departments, but it sets us on a dangerous path in which ultimately any information about me can be shared between departments and quangos – I don’t get a say in who gets what and what they do with it.  To some that sounds over-dramatic but there are others who have seen the effects of regimes that do this in their lifetime.

In short, Tell Us Once is a shonky fix for a bigger problem.  It does not give individuals control of their own data and it has very scary potential.

*Yes, some people don’t have access to email or RSS (though they are few) but we have to start somewhere.

VRM and the public sector

May 23, 2009

I spoke at VRM Hub this week about the implications of VRM on the public sector.  If you’re new to the idea of VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) then you should check out this nifty explanation by Adriana Lukas.

I thought it would probably be best to start with trying to figure out what I mean by ‘the state’, since we could be talking about a variety of bits of the spaghetti of government.  In fact, the full list of all the different bits are on the Direct Gov website.  There’s a prize if you can find the weirdest bit of government.  I’m also thinking that in some cases charities or voluntary sector organisations could count as ‘the state’ since they are often grant funded by the government and therefore do their bidding.

The big question is why VRM matters for the state – there’s lots of good stuff about how it can help us transact with companies better but not much out there on how it can help us improve the balance in our relationship with government institutions.  I think it’s crucial.  For a start off, interaction with the state is complex and you can’t take control.  We have little choice over how our data is used or kept safe (missing memory stick, anyone?) and we never have a complete picture of all our interactions.

We can be residents, citizens, customers, clients, patients, victims, criminals, volunteers and donors to name just a few, and we can be all of those things simultaneously.  In some cases, lives are at stake.  If we could understand more about our interactions with the state then we’d become better citizens – more informed people can take better decisions and maybe even provide for themselves, easing pressure on an already burdened system.

I nearly typed ‘broken system’ then because just the thought of introducing the idea of VRM to the public sector is not for the fainthearted.  There are lots of hurdles, from the extreme risk aversion (AKA ‘blame aversion’) of officials (‘what if no one shares their data with us????!!’) through to worries about digital inclusion (‘we shouldn’t adopt new ways of engaging digitally when there are still some poor/old/disabled people who don’t have computers or broadband’).

      There is also the difficulty of going too fast.  I know – fast isn’t usually the problem with government.  But I’m very nervous about the rush to ‘scale’ VRM before any tools have been properly built or adopted.  We had some debate at the VRM Hub session about how you could authenticate your bits and bobs like your passport, birth certificate, driving licence and soforth in order to make it easier to transact with the government.

      While it’s obvious we will need a way to do this, I think it’s too soon to start trying to invent those ways now.  I’m more interested in people being able to tell their local council their preferences, ideas, suggestions, needs and views and for the council to really listen to what people are saying and then design services accordingly.  Maybe once the state is used to interacting with citizens on their own terms we will start to see entirely new ways of transacting, and only then will we be ready to design solutions to help this more balanced relationship to scale.

      While there are undoubtedly challenges to bringing VRM tools to bear on the state, there are also some open doors.  I think VRM will save state institutions money – possibly through having less of a need to store data (since we will be the source of our data); probably through deleting many of the pointless consultation teams that exist throughout local authorities and departments; but definitely through more accurate service design.

      Another opportunity is the increasing acceptance that the government might actually need to have a relationship of sorts with its citizens – most recently expressed through the delightful ‘duty to involve‘ placed upon councils, which makes talking to people a legal requirement.  I tend to think that if you have to rely on a law to make that happen then you’ve already lost the battle, but at least it’s bringing questions of how best to talk to people to the fore – make way for social media and of course, VRM.  And with faith in political institutions at an all time low, there’s never been a better opportunity to introduce a radical re-think of the relationship between people and state.

      If you’re interested in VRM and want to find out more, you should totally come along to the next VRM Hub meeting in June.  They usually happen on the last Thursday of the month in central London, and you will find details and sign-up here nearer the time.

      Open Gov (?)

      April 25, 2009

      I”ve just got round to processing my thoughts on the OpenGov Event which happened on Wednesday.  Here’s my synopsis, but the #opengov Twitter feed is worth a read, as are some other write-ups here, here and eventually here.

      The keynote was Alex Butler, Director of Transformational Strategy at the Central Office of Information, whose main point was that they movers and shakers in government still don’t get ‘It’ (i.e. the web as a tool for citizen participation).  She suggested less talk about technology and more talk about participation to get the big-wigs on board.  She also revealed that the COI has set up an R&D budget to be more experimental, meaning more freedom to work with smaller suppliers, news which sent the audience a-twittering.

      Stand-out clangers of the day were mostly dropped by Paul Evans, who said ‘active citizens’ (i.e. those that readily participate) are usually wealthy, obsessive and time rich.  They are, in Paul’s view, not as useful as passive citizens and their opinions should be disregarded, an opinion which I think is elitist, bureaucratic and a bit dangerous.  Paul’s other gem of wisdom was that eavesdropping on people is a good idea so you can find out what people are thinking.  Another bit of lunacy there – no one likes being eavesdropped upon.  It’s creepy.  If you want to know what people are thinking, go to where they’re hanging out online, let them know you’re there and you’d just like to hear their opinions, shut up and listen to them, and participate when it feels right to or you’re invited to comment.

      Luckily, other speakers had some useful things to say.

      Dave Briggs made the very good point that the perceived ‘digital divide’ is too often used by government to avoid engaging at all.  Just because there is a minority of citizens that aren’t on the web, it doesn’t mean the majority should be denied the opportunity online.

      I might be Tim Davies‘s newest fan – he made some brilliant points, like reminding us that most people in local authorities can’t access the web tools for citizen participation at work and they don’t have a policy that encourages them to experiment (he’s actually done a big long list of hurdles for local government in this area).  He also talked about the need to use creative methods internally as a way to encourage staff to be more creative when engaging externally.  I absolutely agree with that as I think role-modelling behaviour is one of the most powerful tools we have (it can also be translated as ‘get your own house in order before you start bossing citizens around’).  Another great comment was that officers fear that citizens won’t participate online.  Tim pointed out that government has often failed to engage offline (take the woefully small numbers of citizens who go to local area forum meetings) Tim’s point:  It’s not new to fail but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

      Paul Clarke reckoned that the IBMs and KPMGs of this world should be participating in the debate since they’ve got most of the government contracts (there was one attendee from IBM to be fair…)  He then incurred the wrath of the back-channel by collectively describing those of us that did attend as ‘fringe’.  Maybe that was a bit insensitive but I can see his point.  Having worked at one of said big players in the government market until recently, I can say the reason they weren’t at the conference is because THEY DON’T GET IT.  What’s more, we don’t need them to get it – we need them to get out of our way.

      One of the coolest comments of the day came from Jonathan Akwue, who gave us a lesson in being ‘street’ and reminded us that the development of the web is a bit like the development of hip hop.  I’m not as cool as that, but much to my surprise I did seem to get some retweeting of this comment.

      One final thought, on a theme I’ll return to in the future.  It was once again a mostly male audience at the event, with women making up about 20% of the crowd (notwithstanding the female keynote at this particular event).  Women have so much to offer this industry (or whatever we’re calling the social/government/innovation/web ‘space’ these days) but they’re rarely involved and I’ve no idea why.  In fact it seems like no one really knows.  I went to the London Girl Geek Dinner for the first time this week and joined Silicon Stilettos (which anyone who’s ever seen my trainer collection will find hilarious) so let’s just say I’m investigating and I’ll post my findings on this here blog…

      Baby steps

      April 10, 2009

      I came across this cool site ages ago, which is about getting people to do small things that would make a big change if enough people did the same.

      Not sure I’m convinced that sites like this can ever catch on in a big way – you might end up spending more time trying to convince people to take part than actually making any real change – but I am totally in favour of starting small and embodying the behaviours you’d like to see in others.

      It sort of got me thinking about government, and how men and women who work hard as public servants somehow get caught up in the bureaucracy.  When you take people outside of their work context and ask them what kind of service they would like to see as a voter and taxpayer, they suddenly realise that they’ve become the thing they hate in their own public services.

      I was wondering what kind of small changes could each public servant make that might make a small difference.  Here’s my starting list, some of which I wish I had done more of when I worked in a local council:

      1. Book meetings in half-hour slots as the default, rather than hour slots
      2. Don’t call things a strategy when they’re really a plan
      3. Any time you spend any of your budget, calculate how much council tax that is for a resident and whether you’d be happy to see your hard-earned tax money go on that purchase
      4. If you normally work in the back office spend one day working in a registrars office/library/reception
      5. Set up a colleague with an RSS reader and show them how to use it to save time
      6. Thank people when they’ve done a good job and cc their boss
      7. Ask ‘why?’
      8. Do something on time for someone, or better still ahead of the deadline
      9. Have a discussion with people about whether you think the plan you’re writing/implementing will really do the job. If it won’t do the job, change it so it will.
      10. Measure fewer performance indicators and trust your instinct more