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Tuesday 29 April 2008

Another toothless Commons review of eGov web strategy

Looking at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee's report on government delivery of online services, released today. a few things leap out.

Firstly, the PDF document I'm looking at is text images. It's not searchable and it's not 'accessible'. Yes, it's the PR version but that's hardly the point. (Though maybe good government PR is to make lengthy, text-heavy docs unsearchable ... ?) Practice/preach ...

Secondly, they keep referring to and They're not the brands, it's 'directgov' and 'businesslink'. If they don't understand this and use the right brand name what does that say about the strength of the brand?

Lastly, their main obsession is the 'digital divide' and they do ask that the government spells out that:
  1. services won't be removed for the excluded
  2. savings will feed back to the excluded
They didn't hear evidence from the civil servants who formed their witnesses that anyone seemed to be checking this and no-one could convince them this wasn't happening or wouldn't happen.

Chairman Edward Leigh (Con., Bright Eyes, Red Nose) said:
Those gazing towards the sunlit digital uplands must not forget those among our citizens - including three-quarters of socially excluded people and a half of people on low incomes - who have no access to the internet or do not use it. They must not be left behind as the government's use of the internet gathers pace.
This is good but they haven't hit the headlines with this point and they need to adopt the Dunwoody strategy if they aren't going to be hearing the same excuses next time they review. Cameron should pay attention as well, there's politics to be played.

Committee member Austin Mitchell, doing little but play politics, appears to have a particular thang about 'my constituents', 'the middle classes' (not his constituents maybe?) and 'fashion', as he said in evidence giving:
"I have now found a channel called something like which allowed people to communicate with their MPs and I am now receiving enormous amounts of abuse every day - every day there is fresh abuse! .. I get the impression that that is 'transformation of government' ... I get the impression that that has also happened with government, that it became the subject of fashion, everybody must do this ... It is only now really that [online government can provide a decent service] for those middle class people who will use it? Would that be a correct interpretation? The mistakes arose from goodwill and over enthusiasm?"
Naturally, Mitchell has comments turned off on his 'blog'. In committee, he also refers to a 'lad' who looks after his website and something else that 'my wife' looks after. Does Mitchell think the Internet is a 'middle class' thing and not for the 'working classes'? Is he the very definition of a technophobe? How is he 'excluded' from using technology? Ignorance? Fear? Can't be bovverred? It's just 'fashion' and the wife takes care of it?

Seriously, so-called champions of 'the working classes' like Mitchell should take a good look at themselves and set an example for their excluded constituents rather than shift the problem elsewhere. You are the problem, Austin. Learn how to use this instead of expecting someone else to, let alone a patronised 'lad'. You're not leading your constituents into 'sunlit digital uplands' are you? You're just acting like a luddite.

The evidence also has some gems from Government Services Transformer Tsar John Suffolk, one of which bashes Google:
We all probably use searches in this room and if you key in anything you will get two million references and [most] are useless. this is because all the search engines do not really know in a sensible way what you are looking for.
News to Google, I'm sure. And this after saying:
I am not going to pretend to bluff my way on the technology of search engines.
Because Google is useless, he argues, we need a destination 'holiday' page of directgov ... look, John, I just searched on 'passport'. #1 result on isn't UK government, #1 on UK Google isn't directgov. Past result #3 clicks drop off a cliff. Plus there's a very prominent commercial advert. This is a classic example - there are lots - of where commerce is way ahead of you and you haven't taken any strategic account of that fact whatsoever in online service delivery. Do catch up John.

Apart from some obvious points about 'customer focus' being a mirage because there's little understanding of metrics and another bang-on about accessibility in it's disability sense, one thing struck me hard about the report.

Edward Leigh said:
The time has long passed for getting a firm grip on the growth of government websites which has been almost uncontrolled. The streamlining of web services around the key websites and is a very welcome development. It is essential that the DWP, the department responsible for these sites, should arrange for regular independent reviews of how they are developing and the associated risks.
In the PR they say:
The government has embarked on an ambitious strategy to move most citizen and business facing internet services and related information to two websites, and, by 2011. These sites are well regarded by the public and industry and both have received awards.
The problem being that the strategy itself is a risk, as Helen Margetts, of the Oxford Internet Institute, told a recent conference (speech notes reported here):
Right now the UK govt has embarked on a high risk "supersite" strategy of centralizing e-govt services on two sites: DirectGov and BusinessLink (while closing down 2500 disparate e-govt sites at the same time). Both have low brand recognition and problems competing with other sources.
She's right, but the committee has just taken the strategy at face value and simply not asked the right, informed questions or invited critics.

This is underlined if you look at what evidence is cited in the report that directgov and businesslink are "well regarded" - the evidence comes from the sites themselves. It's self-serving, it's not objective evidence. A bit like the evidence cited when this strategy was launched that people wanted a portal, a one-stop shop. Very 'push polling'. Find the evidence to back up what you wanted to do in the first place rather than actually be 'customer focussed' and be prepared to iterate your strategy based on real evidence of behaviour. Like wot commercial sites do

As for the 'awards', who hands them out?

Like a lot of strategy, by the time it's adopted it's dated: 'supersites' are a bit yesteryear elsewhere and other big organisations are moving away from them (see Tesco). But just to take one example of a risk, when you centralise the side-effect is to disempower. Why should the organisation learn and become more focussed around the web if 'that's someone else's job'? Why should the actual service provider learn how to repurpose and retool? It just waits to be told and the corporate knowledge goes backwards.

One news nugget in the report is that, as I had heard rumours of, Google is talking to the Cabinet Office and this appears to follow on someone's engagement with the US government who have a cross government search portal (though not run by Google). This is good but history shows, however, that this may not end up going anywhere except into another piecemeal strategy which is dated before it arrives and fails to 'trickle down'.

So why is this report ultimately useless? No critics giving evidence, in a nutshell. Members proud in their ignorance (see Austin Mitchell). They spoke just to civil servants, critics giving evidence would immediately shake the whole shebang up. It's another version of the bigger 'walled garden' egov problem which means that progress is so bloody slow, partial and 'two steps forward' and the review function that this committee is supposed to do on our behalf is utterly toothless.


  1. Well covered Paul! I was interested in the difference between the text of the 'debate' and the conclusions/recommendations. Be interesting if they come up with anything at end 2008/9. As Pete commented on mine - we need some quality worthwhile pilots to demo value to the wider .gov community.


  2. I'm not sure about 'pilots'. I tend to agree with Simon Dickson about 'just getting on with it' and we seem to have had many pilot already setting examples and not changing the overall picture. But the main thing I'm saying in reviewing the reviewers is about leadership and breaking down walled gardens - bringing in critics for these guys would immediately help.