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:
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Er… how much for a favicon?

Chins collectively hit the floor this afternoon, as word got round that the Information Commissioner’s Office had paid £585 for the creation of a single 32×32 ‘favicon’ graphic. Oh, and to be fair to them, adding a line to their pages’ HTML header referencing it.
Mark Bowen used WhatDoTheyKnow to follow up a reference he’d spotted in a document published by the ICO, which doesn’t exactly leave any room for doubt:

There it is, in black and white

His enquiry revealed that the work was done by Reading Room, commissioned through COI. In their defence, ICO say:

The work needed to put the favicon live was complicated by an old environment (which has since been updated) that caused issues and extended the time taken to carry out the work… Whilst there is no recorded information which would [explain the difference between the old environment and the new one that caused the extended time needed] I can confirm that that the old website development environment was upgraded from one server to two.

… which, on the face of it, wouldn’t seem to have caused any direct ‘issue’ when it came to sticking a graphic in a given folder.
But we shouldn’t rush to any rash judgments here. Yes, favicons shouldn’t normally take more than 5 minutes (as Mark notes) to produce. And yes, adding a standard line of HTML to reference it should be basic copy-and-paste… if it’s even necessary, which it usually isn’t. But we don’t know the full facts. Yet. The ball’s in your court, RR.
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