If I could commission one government IT project


8:50 am - June 23rd 2008

by Lynne Featherstone MP    


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I’ve been pretty critical of two massive government IT projects – the existing plans to introduce mandatory identity cards with a huge database behind them and also the Home Office talk of a database of all phone calls and emails made anywhere in the country.

My criticisms in both cases are three-fold: the money involved could be better spent on other projects (such as giving us more police rather than keeping huge databases of the activities of innocent people), they involve a huge infringement of our liberties and privacy, and – thirdly – big IT projects like this are likely to go wrong and to be vulnerable to misuse.

But I’m not a Luddite. Over time I’ve found embracing IT innovations has made my life easier and made me more efficient – whether it was years ago buying a laser printer to speed up production of casework letters or more recently starting to use the text-messaging based blogging service Twitter to help keep residents informed of what I’m up to as an MP.

Indeed, the idea of organising information in an efficient way so that it helps people make decisions and find out what’s going on is fundamentally a very liberal approach – getting computer code to do the heavy lifting so that individuals can find out and act.

So this has got me thinking – if I could commission just one IT project from government, what would it be? Because that’s really the implicit fourth reason for my rejection of ID cards and logging all emails and phone calls – if you were going to spend that amount of money and hoover up that amount of IT expertise, surely there are better things they could go on?

Having pondered this a bit, I think my choice of project would be one that there isn’t currently any clamour for but which in a quiet way could revolutionise the way in which people contact public services – and so in turn the benefits garnered from having those services.

It all boils down to this. There are a myriad of different contact details for public services which most people – even MPs who are making numerous contact each week on behalf of constituents! – struggle to remember, if that is they even know they exist. For example, how many people do you think know how to contact their local police, other than on the emergency 999 number?

But we pretty much all know the postcode of where we live. So why not introduce a national scheme for matching up email addresses containing public services with the relevant public service? Imagine if you could email yourpostcode@police.gov.uk and you knew it would automatically go the relevant team? Or yourpostcode@nhs.gov.uk or yourpostcode@libraries.gov.uk or yourpostcode@schools.gov.uk or any other of a myriad of public services?

There’s no doubt it would be quite a meaty set of data sitting behind all this, but these days matching up postcodes to geographical units to public services is increasingly common – just look at what www.writetothem.com or www.upmystreet.com achieve – and this database would frankly be tiny compared to one holding records of all the phone calls and emails in the country or the national ID cards database.

Sure you have to factor in the email forwarding and other overheads, such as having to deal with the emails because the whole point of making contact easier is that you end up with more contacts.

But it seems to me feasible and practical – and is the sort of innovation that, once introduced, we would soon end up wondering how we ever lived without.

So my choice is ‘the Peoples’ Database’ – a database we the people might actually want rather than one that they the government want to impose. What’s yours?

Updated: in response:
Simon Dickson – The power of postcodes.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Lynne Featherstone served on the London Assembly 2000-5, before stepping down after being elected as a Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in London. She also blogs on her website here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


Logistically, Lynne, this is not that difficult if you stick to geographically defined services like the Police and most Local Authority services. It does get a bit more difficult with services that are not necessarily geographically bounded, like GP surgeries and, these days. schools, where the nearest provider is not necessarily the one that people will use or where you have multiple providers covering the same patch.

Your purely e-mail based solution may prove impractical on the lower scale, but a web-based system in which you put in your postcode and it returns a webpage with hyperlinked e-mail addresses for local services is not difficult in technical terms. The biggest task involved is simply creating and maintaining the database, which can be a bit like painting the Forth Bridge, but otherwise just a question of resourcing things adequately.

Its not difficult to find much of this information locally from Local Authority & NHS websites but the quality of information can be variable – some areas have cottoned on to the value of the internet and are very good, others still behind the times, so one of the objectives of a project like this would be to provide for some standardisation of information across areas.

In short, what you’re wanting is a public sector Yellow/White pages system and if anyone in government fancies paying me £35-40k a year to cover one salary (mine), a dedicated webserver and bandwidth, I could have it up and running in say, 6-8 weeks, and still have plenty of time for blogging, and if you don’t fancy that then talk to the LGA who’re probably the natural starting point for such a project.

BTW – I’m not being facetious here. This is actually a pretty good idea because it has the virtue of simplicity – as long as you keep it away from consultants and stick to doing the simple things well.

Actually, it might come a bit more expensive than the figures quoted, as one of the biggest single item costs of such a system would be licensing the postcode database from the Royal Mail – unless you could do something about that as it really our information and not theirs.

Agreed, this type of thing definitely needs to exist. The main stumbling block is the data. Nobody seems to make it available (except through Freedom of Information requests) and if they do it involves signing contracts and service level agreements (see NHS Choices).

Definitely don’t do another Direct.gov. Definitely do do another They Work For You.

This is a pretty good idea. I agree with Unity’s comments that this would be fairly easy to implement, and would require a web-based as well as email-based solution.

Lynne, I suggest you talk to mySociety about this. They could probably set it up reasonably quickly and efficiently. If it goes down the normal route of government IT projects, the contractors would make a fortune from it, probably adding one or two zeroes on the end of the price.

Lynne, I’m pretty sure a lot of what’s being proposed here already exists, certainly linking postcodes to public services is nothing new in data terms, everything below does it already.

Police (where I live, anyway)
http://www.safernorfolk.co.uk/your-neighbourhood

Schools
http://schoolsfinder.direct.gov.uk/

NHS
http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/

Public Transport
http://www.transportdirect.info/

The difficulty would be contacting local teams, NHS could mean any one of doctors, hospitals or dentists. Schools could mean Nursery, Primary, Secondary or Sixth Form. Public transport is even trickier since the best point of contact is dependent on destination.

The problem is that when you get into more detail it gets trickier some queries would be ambiguous in who they get sent to and there is a possible need for dedicated staff to answer some queries.

Tom, whats wrong with direct.gov, why is theyworkforyou so much better?

Andreas, the main problem with the existing solutions (if they exist at all), is illustrated by your post – you listed 4 addresses; you should only need 1 entry point (though public transport is a slightly special case).

(In addition, the first of your links doesn’t appear on the first page of google results for ‘police norfolk’ (though the general Norfolk Police page does, and you can get there through a couple of clicks, though the pages are quite busy)).

I agree with Cabalamat: talk to My Society.

In terms of google results is that they can’t be guaranteed, they have to compete with other pages and new pages generally take time to move up the rankings. The police site is relatively new so any movement in the rankings will take time, the address has been mentioned on a local police newsletter which I assume is likely to be a semi regular occurence.

All of the links I posted can be found on directgov, I think a search and two clicks is sufficient. A big problem is that directgov has not really entered the public conciousness as a place to visit for government services and this needs rectifying. The problem with all government information including Lynne’s emails idea is the difficulty of getting the message out to people that that these services exist.

I agree with Cabalamat: talk to My Society.

I don’t think the problem would be setting up the IT infrastructure. The problem would be getting govt agencies to buy into this and setting themselves up to respond to it.

9. Cheesey Monkey

Why not make it a Google-style front page that only asks you for your postcode. Type it in, press enter and a list of local services/amenities is returned, separated by categories (and subcategories if needed: the heading “Education” may have subcategories “Pre-School”, “Primary”, “Secondary”, etc.) which can be hidden/revealed by the user to aid legibility. Address, telephone/fax, email address and times of service for each result should be displayed with (ideally) a link to display a location map and another that returns a set of directions from the postcode to the service.

Tom, whats wrong with direct.gov, why is theyworkforyou so much better?

See this.

ukliberty – That’s simply not a good enough reason, it works as a criticism along the lines of “directgov’s search engine is inferior to google” but it’s not surprising that a multi million pound project can’t match up to that of a multibillion pound search engine. I would go further and say that directgov’s is particularly crap, a better one could be written without much difficulty.

The page itself is just a simple fusion of the information in directgov and google. But it would be foolish to claim that it would be possible to create directgov in an hour and I think the authors of directionlessgov would freely admit that.

12. Someone who's tried

Sure you have to factor in the email forwarding and other overheads, such as having to deal with the emails because the whole point of making contact easier is that you end up with more contacts.

And that’s why it won’t happen. Trust me, I’ve been working with the Home Office for years trying to get them interested in e-crime, and the police have consistently resisted online reporting for e-crime (never mind all crime) because they don’t have any resources to deal with that reported by the handful of people who do know how to reach specialist units. When we ask “Why can’t e-crime be treated as seriously as regular crime?” the answer, quietly admitted in private, is that it is: we’ve just got an unrealisticly level of confidence that the police really are concentrating on something else instead, rather than failing generally.

So, nice idea, but it won’t happen, because it will show up the general failings in the existing system, so everybody on the inside is against it.

Yes, basically.

This represents a good suggestion to step towards integrating e-information with service provision to prevent waste and delay.

Not only that, I also think that a coordinated system which is successful at instigating improvements in current services may overturn public scepticism against the value and security of new provisions by developing confidence and a track record from which positive lessons can be carried over.

All technological systems experience a development cycle of applications, so it should certainly be profitable to investigate ways to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency they afford: 999 give a good illustration.

Before telephone exchanges were automated we had the friendly voice of the operator to help us navigate our communication networks. 999etc was only instigated when the exchanges were automated to give directer access with greater responsiveness and only rationalised when the cost of the increased scale of the service could no longer match the improvements it enabled. Privatisation brought about innovation in technology, now government is forced to adapt to provide individually tailored responses.

This is exactly the sort of thing that should be entrusted to mySociety or similar. Anything else would lead to a expensive contractor-based horrible unusable mess.

Lynne; talk to Tom Steinberg about this. He knows what he’s doing.

And it’s at times like these, and on projects like that you envisage, where Tom’s old colleague Chris Lightfoot is missed very, very much.

16. Anastasia Christofis

I cannot imagine why this Government would bother spending another round of millions on these intrusive IT projects if it were not to keep tabs on the movements and behaviour of ‘ordinary’ people.
Everyone in the crimminal fraternity already knows that all telephone/e-mails are monitered and probably don’t even communicate their busness willingly using these methods, (does anybody watch TV?). We will have to go much further to monitor the wink wink nudge nudge world of the real crimminals.
In addition false ID/passports and papers has never been a problem, and indeed are often a prerequistite for most crimminals so I think it will be business as usual in the criminal world despite the vast sums wasted on these projects.
As one of the parents whose details have been lost/stolen in the lost child benefit details scandel I am now a woman of little faith in these matters and would prefer the money to be better spent helping our ‘battery children’ out of poverty and to cope with their ever dimminishing lot.

We could extend your very good post code idea to include a ‘postcode lottery’ but then I realised we have already got that….. such is life.

Andreas Paterson,

ukliberty – That’s simply not a good enough reason, it works as a criticism along the lines of “directgov’s search engine is inferior to google” but it’s not surprising that a multi million pound project can’t match up to that of a multibillion pound search engine. I would go further and say that directgov’s is particularly crap, a better one could be written without much difficulty.

That’s the point – not only did the Government’s team try to reinvent the wheel but they didn’t do it very well, and it cost a lot of money.

ukliberty – That would be a valid criticism if the search tool on directgov was a major aspect of the project, I seriously doubt this was the case given the simplicity of the feature. The search feature I wrote on a site I worked on took one day of six month project.

I would guess that the vast bulk of funds for directgov would be for the creation of content rather than the technical development. The criticism that they wasted cash reinventing the wheel just doesn’t stand up.

thank you

Andreas, DirectGov has much improved since its deployment.

thanks for feedback,. It’s good to see idea stands up to immediate reactions. Yes – I have contacted Tom about it – and if others think it is a good idea, would do no harm if you also encourage MySociety too or blog about it also.

Considering the criticism David Lammy has been subjected to on another thread, I think we should applaud Lynne Featherstone for *actually* engaging in the discussion here and showing she is prepared to listen as well as talk.

23. Anastasia Christofis

Here, Here, I agree with Thomas.
(even though I am unsure what D Lammy was criticized for. I only know he has been against some of the Gambling Licenses in Green Lanes, which is no bad thing. Tell me more…)
The lovely Lynne Featherstone is one of our more approachable M.P s and I have noticed she does put up a good fight on our behalf. Credit where credit is due.
Having thought more about the postcode link to services on line via e mail, I have realised that it could be very useful indeed, though I am not sure of the technicalities myself nor the costs.
In terms of sustainable develpment it makes sense if people are aware of what help is available to them in their local area, improving access to existing services and reducing the need to travel unnecessarily.
The A-Z of Haringey Services and the ‘I shall survive’ (for victims of domestic violence) booklets for example are quite comprehensive guides to services in our Borough, though getting access to the actual services is quite another matter in some cases.
If these two booklets (just for starters) could be merged and put on a website for easy access we would be half way there, add a postcode/ email link to the service providers and we are getting closer to what Lynne had in mind?
I have noticed that mostly in Haringey I have to travel by bus from N10 to N22 (Wood Green), N8, N17, for most services, (except school, Doctors, Dentist, Library) especially when I can’t get through by phone, often to find ‘there is no help available’ or am told to go to another building or come back another time. Numerous times this has happened….too numerous to mention. Having another point of contact/reference may have helped to keep the spirits up and if we can get a real time response to our on- line requests/ queries then we really will be getting somewhere.

I too want to say that Lynne, I know I’ve commented on your blog in the past with my honest opinions and sometimes they’ve been against your views, and for instance recently I disagree with how readily you’re taking on board this equality bill idea…but I really appreciate the way you converse with people and engage with them. Same view point or not, I hope a lot more MPs take a leaf out of your book when it comes to getting in tune with current communication technology.

Lynne, you should enter this idea into the ShowUsABetterWay.com competition for ideas to re-use Government data. You migth win 20k from Tom Watson, which would be fabulously ironic.

What’s more, the site just persuaded the Royal Mail to release the entire postcode address file to people wanting to enter.

http://www.showusabetterway.co.uk/call/data.html#mail

So someone could now build a prototype of your idea without the hassle of negotiating a licence for postcode data with the Royal Mail (often long and painful, as well as costly in the past)


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