Upbeat assessment of government efficiency efforts

The National Audit Office has published a review of ‘Progress in improving government efficiency‘, following the Gershon review and its call for billions of pounds of savings. It actually puts a surprisingly positive spin on the whole matter:

The National Audit Office found that many efficiency projects are making good progress towards achieving efficiency gains and that in many respects departments are managing their efficiency programmes well, particularly through effective senior management focus and some high calibre project management.

‘Reported gains of £4.7 billion should not be regarded as final,’ it warns, suggesting the picture might be even rosier. Equally of course, since such figures are rarely more than educated guesses, it could all be rubbish. So you won’t be at all surprised to hear the CBI’s cynical response:

The survey findings show that 90 per cent of firms believe the government will fail in its quest to switch spending from the back office to the frontline… The number saying they are not at all confident has risen sharply, with 56 per cent expressing this view compared with 37 per cent last year.

Of course, you have to remember that it’s in the CBI’s selfish interests to cast doubt on government’s ability to deliver improvements. Outsourcing means more work for its members. But it’s hard to argue with Neil Bentley’s assertion that the civil service ‘needs the injection of new professional skills and a more rigorous and challenging system of performance management.’ More on that another time.

Westminster move on e-petitions

Good luck to Tory MP Grant Shapps with his Early Day Motion to have Parliament recognise online petitions. Details of the motion will appear on the Parliament database in due course; there’s quite a nice interview with him about it on silicon.com in the meantime. Fair play to the Scottish Parliament, by the way, who are way ahead on this.

Update: you can see the full wording (all 57 of them) of the motion here, and keep track of other MPs who add their name to it too.

Not worth the paper it’s printed on

A Mastercard-backed study, reported by silicon.com, says half of Europe reckons we’ll be a cash-free society by 2016. I, for one, can’t wait.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days back in my native Belfast. As you may or may not know, Northern Ireland’s banks issue their own (sterling) banknotes. If you’ve ever found yourself in possession of one such note whilst in England, you’ll know that people generally don’t trust them. Despite the word ‘sterling’ being written on them. If you’re a regular traveller to or from the Province, you soon learn how to avoid picking up local banknotes during your stay. This time, however, I got caught out… and on my return to England, there was a minor incident in my local Chinese takeaway, when they refused to take my money.

The arrangements for local banknotes in Scotland and Northern Ireland date back to 1845. The detailed rules surrounding them, and indeed Bank of England notes, are extraordinary: (Scottish and NI) notes are not legal tender; only Bank of England notes are legal tender but only in England and Wales. The term legal tender does not in itself govern the acceptability of banknotes in transactions. Whether or not notes have legal tender status, their acceptability as a means of payment is essentially a matter for agreement between the parties involved.

Sure, there are going to be problems with any electronic system. But it can’t be as barmy as the state of affairs which ensues – well into the 21st century, by the way – when I can’t pay for a Chinese takeaway.

Blogs in a communication crisis

How did I miss this? A stroke of genius from Steve Rubel a couple of weeks ago… and cheers to Antony Mayfield for mentioning it today. A ‘crisis blog’, full of ready-made defensive material, would be a fabulous piece of ‘communications contingency’. But it sparked off a slightly different idea in my mind.

For obvious reasons, a lot of government departments are suddenly a lot more interested in crisis plans than they were a few years ago. Let’s imagine the worst did happen – say a huge bomb in Whitehall, forcing the closure and evacuation of most major government offices. A time when we need a constant flow of information updates, probably from a remote location. A quick DNS switch, and each department’s main URL could point to a ‘crisis blog’, hosted externally at somewhere like Typepad, carrying the very latest updates, as they happen. Hey, the comms manager could even send the updates via his/her mobile phone or PDA.

Steve Rubel on press releases

Steve Rubel makes some fair points about the future of press releases. I haven’t made a secret of my firm belief that press officers’ days are numbered, nor of my dream of ‘taking down’ a Whitehall press office. We’ll still need media relations managers, press conference organisers, cuttings reviewers and communications writers. But it simply won’t be the all-powerful press office of old.

I’ve spent a lot of time in press offices in the last couple of years. Many incoming phone calls, perhaps the majority, are met with the response: ‘have you looked at the website?’ I’m sure press officers know which way the wind is blowing. But I’m equally sure that, having spent years looking down on the ‘nerds’ in the web team, they won’t be keen to admit defeat.

‘Press releases’ (note the quotes) are as good a starting point as any for a discussion thread. It makes sense to tie any press release mechanism into the ‘right now’ search engines like Technorati. All of these are good things… and as Steve points out, they’re going to happen anyway, so you might as well be part of it. The organisation might even profit from doing so.

Criminal misinformation

I’m delighted to see that media representatives are to be included on Charles Clarke’s panel considering how the UK’s national crime statistics are put together and communicated, as reported by the BBC. Government’s failure to provide a set of figures which make sense to the public – or more specifically, the electorate – has been an embarrassment.

Not long ago, I was working for National Statistics, and lobbying hard for the general public to be recognised as a key audience, if not the key audience, for stats like these. Invariably, I lost out in an argument over mathematics and/or philosophy. Terms like ‘dumbing down’ were often thrown around. The result is that people across the country have totally mixed-up views of what is actually happening around them: crime is down, fear of crime is up. Let’s hope the media can represent the public’s interest.

The figures need to be clearly expressed – regardless of the complexity of the calculation process, or the statistical technicalities involved. And they need to be made widely accessible, at local geography level. We still need a single government website where ordinary people can type in their postcodes, and find out all the hard facts about what’s happening in their local area. Neighbourhood Statistics could have been that website; but a brief glance at the jargon-laden language shows where its focus lies.

Don’t expect RSS from your MP

Don’t ever underestimate the daily miracle of the Parliament website, getting Hansard on the web. A full, verbatim transcript of the previous day’s proceedings, live online within a matter of hours – and they’ve been doing it for years. But sadly, its dated presentation is badly shown up by the magnificent theyworkforyou.com.

I’ve been in touch with the Parliament site, asking if they planned to implement RSS feeds any time soon. I’d love to be able to consume a feed of Education written answers, as part of an improved news area. But sadly, they have no plans in the immediate future, and the promise of a redesign in a year or so isn’t really what I need to hear.

In my regular teaching slots on government communication training courses, I’ve often talked about the threat of new competition. Government’s former privileged position has gone; under the terms of Crown copyright, anyone can take the same information – your information – and do it better than you. I’d love to see this as a positive thing, an opportunity for innovative ‘mashups’. But I fear it just shows up our weaknesses.

‘UK e-government at a plateau’

‘Free market think-tank’ the Adam Smith Institute has issued a report, Rewiring Democracy (PDF) which claims: ‘e-government in the UK has hit a plateau’. Why?

‘e-government is seen as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieving better governance… the lack of a coherent strategy of what e-government is meant to achieve and the means with which to implement it… too narrow a definition of e-government… conducted in an overly centralized manner and micromanaged to suit the needs of the producer (the government) rather than the consumer (the citizen).’

As the report recognises, you may or may not consider its Estonian case study to be helpful: personally, I don’t think it’s a valid comparison, given Estonia’s zero-legacy situation in the 1990s. And I don’t think it’s possible to separate ‘implementation’ and ‘strategic goals’, as the report seeks to do.

But overall, although I’d probably say it differently, I think I agree with what it’s saying. The ultimate vision of e-government can only happen when data is flowing automatically around the public sector – which means integrated (or at least compatible) systems, and a single, shared ‘national identity register’ for each resident. Yes, an ID Card.

There are some good people in government trying to make the case for this. I had animated discussions myself with one key player. But it all gets lost in rants about ‘terrorism’ and ‘Big Brother’. We should be talking about what positive, tangible benefits can be achieved by something so simple as a single state Reference Number… and just as importantly, what can’t be delivered without it.

Tony Blair: A Day In The Life

Well done Downing Street, for getting a government website piece among the day’s Top Stories. Of course, the decision to launch the ‘exclusive insight into PM’s working life‘ on one of the year’s quietest news days was not accidental.

Films have been a part of the Downing Street website for ages; and to be fair, they have tried some interesting new media experiments – such as the (admittedly short-lived) series of weekly MP3 ‘radio addresses‘, clearly modelled on the White House’s example.

At just three and a half minutes, today’s new movie hardly qualifies as a documentary. And indeed, if one were to be cynical, you could see it as a further example of Tony Blair favouring ‘soft interviews’ rather than hard news programmes. With the ‘interviewer’ never being seen or heard during the piece, Blair is effectively interviewing himself – it doesn’t get any softer.

The camera-work is a little amateur in places, and the video quality is perhaps a little disappointing, encoded at a relatively low 200-odd kbps. But Blair always comes across exceptionally well in such relaxed settings – one flash of his teeth, or the odd cheeky remark, and we remember why we fell in love with him in the first place.

Why have they done this? At the very least, the URL will get some free TV advertising today: you can’t miss the address superimposed on the broadcast-quality version of the film issued to the news channels. Traffic to pm.gov.uk has never been high: and if you trust Alexa’s numbers, the trend over the last three years is consistently downwards. But this is easy enough to understand: despite the PM’s public profile, his office doesn’t deliver any actual services to ordinary people.

Sky’s Glen Oglaza hits the nail on the head when he describes it as a ‘party political broadcast’: that’s exactly what it looks like. But the BBC’s Jo Coburn goes a step further, seeing it as an explicit Labour Party response to the plentiful good coverage of new Tory leader David Cameron. If they really believe that, they should be pushing it further: Downing Street’s website cannot be used as a Labour communication channel.

IT: ‘information technology’ or ‘ivory tower’?

You rarely hear the words ‘government’ and ‘IT’ without the word ‘disaster’. On one hand, this isn’t fair: successful projects just aren’t newsworthy, and don’t receive any coverage. But on the other, when millions of pounds are thrown at a project that just doesn’t deliver, for whatever reason, it’s absolutely fair to make a fuss about it.

For perfectly natural reasons, this makes the average IT middle-manager a cautious creature. Many of them are long-serving ex-programmers, from days long before email and the web arrived on the average office desktop. They probably have one eye at least on their retirement, and don’t want to do anything to put their pension at risk. Doing nothing – including preventing others doing anything – has much less (direct) risk than actually doing something, especially if your retirement date is fast approaching.

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