The £585 favicon: explanation and justification

The Guardian’s Charles Arthur followed up yesterday’s story about the Information Commissioner’s Office paying £585 for a favicon, and has managed to secure something of an explanation of how it reached such a price.

Though the creation process is quite simple, confirming that it has been done correctly is not: what’s been generated has to be created against a set of “functional specifications” laid out in the contract for the job – colours, sizes, a long array of confirmations quite separate from the task of making the actual item.
That bumps up the time taken to between two and three “billable hours” for the designer, who works at Reading Room based in Soho – one of the UK’s biggest web agencies, with turnover of £12m and 170 staff whose time is charged at £600 per eight-hour day, significantly lower than many in the business.
But the favicon can’t now simply be sent to the ICO site ready for uploading. First the company has to get approval from Capita, which has the contract to manage the site, and which may make its own comments about what it thinks, and at the very least has to check that it’s the correct size; and then from Eduserve, which hosts the site and has to check it can in theory be uploaded; and from the Central Office of Information, which manages the ICO contract with Reading Room.
All in all, getting everyone involved to approve the favicon that has been created means the time taken balloons to a total of nearly seven billable hours – which means Reading Room, as a commercial outfit, charges about £500; add VAT at the rate prevailing in 2010 and you reach £585.

I’m not entirely convinced by the calculation: I wonder just how long that ‘array of confirmations’ could have been for a favicon; I wonder precisely what input Capita, Eduserv and COI could each have had; and I wonder if the £600-a-day designer was actually the member of a 170-strong company spending 4-5 hours on the phone, valiantly trying to push it live. But that’s beside the point: if £585 is commensurate with the effort Reading Room went to, then they should invoice it. There’s no argument there.
The wider point here is that it simply shouldn’t have to cost that – as, indeed, Reading Room’s Margaret Manning seems to accept:

“A lot of government contracts involve outsourcing the IT, which sounds like a great idea in many cases. But if you look at the hoops you have to go through … it can make the amount of time needed by outside organisations just go up and up to get anything done.”
She thinks there is a culture within government which doesn’t try to reduce spending. Instead, she suggests, there is a culture of fear that something will go wrong whenever something is put on the web, which leads to a belt-and-braces approach that in turn pushes up costs and times above what any commercial organisation would spend.
But she’s also perplexed by the choices the government has made. “What commercial entity has Capita running its IT?” she asks rhetorically.

Fair points. And it leaves me wondering… what about those other links in the chain? How much did they bill for their contributions to the process, whatever they were? If Reading Room’s designer is spending 4-5 hours making phone calls, presumably Capita / Eduserv / COI will also be charging for answering the calls? Should we maybe double the £585 figure?
It boils down to this. Process is an insurance policy. Like any insurance policy, you pay a premium. You decide what level of premium you’re prepared to pay, for what cover, and what level of excess. And if you aren’t happy with the cover or service you receive, you go elsewhere next time.
If you bring in an insurance broker, you pay him or her a fee – on the understanding that he or she knows the market better than you, and will act on your behalf to ensure you get the best deal. If that doesn’t happen, you get yourself a new broker, or you do it yourself.
Update: which, actually, makes this tweet from yesterday (which I’d missed at the time) all the more interesting:
[blackbirdpie url=”″]

5 thoughts on “The £585 favicon: explanation and justification”

  1. £585 seems very cheap for a unit of change to any IT system in a large organisation, even without outsourcing. I’ve been involved in changes that affected one line of code but required 20 person-hours of time in meetings to agree, schedule and prioritize, and then a full day to check the output of all the regression tests, and that was in-house within a single company.

  2. Thanks for the linkage. Quite probably it isn’t the same designer who does all the checking – that would probably have been handed off, but it’s all billable at the same hourly rate no matter who does it, I’d imagine.
    @michael that’s quite scary, unless the line was rm -rf. At Google I suspect you’d show a version where you’d done the change and could demo the effect from the regression tests *before you went to the meeting*. Then if agreed, commit. Boom.

  3. I love this story – it just highlights everything that is wrong with outsourcing. “As a commercial organisation it is [our ethic to make as much money as possible rather than provide a good service and value for money]”

  4. the cost is one thing, but the process this had to go through is another thing entirely. this says it all “f you look at the hoops you have to go through”. I wonder how we will ever get agile digital government? Change the procurement process methinks.

  5. Simon, I’ve seen £150,000 quoted for a banner to be changed on our favourite supersite. The levels of testing, QA, sign-off and the accompanying phone calls, meetings and email chains are all billable at each level by multiple stakeholders.
    Meetings/calls/emails with 20 people involved rarely achieve consensus or clarity so are often reconvened (accounting for annual leave and available location) and then attended by subordinates or deputies. Each having to chinese whisper feedback and updates through their hierarchy in further meetings/calls/emails.
    Essentially the fog of war creates an environment in which pieces of work can roll on indefinitely.
    As you say it’s all insurance. The certainty of doing nothing always outweighs the infinitesimal risk of doing anything.

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