Thursday, 24 June 2010

Wasting money on checking Identity

Now that the unlamented Identity Card scheme has been chopped it's time to look at the problem an identity management scheme should have been designed to solve. This is the waste of money by each public sector organisation separately checking the identity of those they deal with, and the cost of fraud and errors when they get it wrong. Not forgetting the closely related customer irritation caused by having to repeatedly prove their identity in confusingly different ways.

As a first step it would be really helpful if public sector organisations were made to publish the cost of their identity checking. When aggregated this would show how much could potentially be saved. It would also highlight the differences between similar organisations, although cheaper isn't necessarily better here - especially if one cares about fraud and privacy.

The solution isn't as simple as building a 'one size fits all' system analogous to the Identity Card Scheme. Different types of people have very different interactions with the public sector, for example while most families pay council those individuals that pay income tax aren't generally those who claim income related benefits. I'm sure that understanding each citizen, or in practical terms each customer segment, is key to developing a shared service that will work effectively.

Instead of forcing each public sector organisation to make their own cuts more effective savings can be made by focussing on processes, like identity checking, that should be shared. I know that this means that politicians will have to delve into how the government engine they run works - no bad thing in my opinion.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Spend more not less on IT

At lunchtime today we will see the Coalition budget and I fear that buried in the detail will be a cut in expenditure on IT. Prediction is dangerous, but I reckon the cut will take two forms; pay less for what looks like the same and cancel projects (some of which have been announced already).

Paying less for the same project seems a great idea, but in reality often means suppliers providing services at a loss (really!!!) or reducing what they provide. And the bits that disappear are often the bits that generate value for the public sector. For example lets say the bit that is removed is something that avoids re-entering information. Customers get irritated because they have to keep answering the same question and public sector costs are higher than necessary to fund reconciling the differences in data and to fund repeatedly ask the questions. This isn't inevitable, contracts should be designed to avoid such perverse incentives (see my website for some ideas).

IT should be a small proportion of the cost of achieving an administration task and has the potential to remove a large part of the total cost. Spending more on the right IT therefore has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of effective government services. Let's hope that Osborne and his colleages see it that way.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Achieving outcomes when contracting

Thinking back to my booklet "Selling to Government" while listening to radio comments on Government cost cutting I was struck by an emphasis on "how" not "what". In my experience disaster projects usually have a dearth of thinking on what outcomes are wanted, unbalanced by plenty of documentation of how to achieve them.

I do hope the new Government will not get dragged into too much emphasis on professionalising the "how" when contracting, or revising contracts . It's so much more productive to have a person who understands and cares about the outcomes in charge, as that results in the right emphasis. Professionalism is important, but only when properly directed.

When cutting budgets and saving money there is an understandable desire to focus on the"how" and forget about the impact on outcomes. Who hasn't come across a project where a relativly small reduction in specification removed a large chunk of the value that should have been achieved. In reviewing government announcements I'll be keeping an eye on the relationship with budget cuts to the outcomes promised, and if the outcomes are hard to spot getting concerned.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Use of consultants

We know that doing anything for the first time is risky and expensive, and many failures of government projects are due to people doing work where they aren't the best qualified. "Consultant" has become a dirty word whereas consultants, used properly, enable the expensive mistakes made by staff without experience to be avoided. Quite simply - it's uneconomic to retain staff with all the knowledge and experience an organisation will ever need, instead hire consultants to plug gaps.

I fear that the new government will fall into the same trap as previous governments in their use of consultants. I believe that consultants should be used as advisers not to fill permanent roles. I've nothing against government hiring interim managers, but they should be seen as just that and not consultants.

I'd like to see some simple guidance on what consultants should do and how they should be controlled. For example:
  • Consultants are there to advise, not to take management or delivery responsibility
  • There should be clear documentation showing who they advise, and on on what subjects
  • Record and pay for time, and be clear about what was done during each block of time
  • Pay for time spent actively advising rather than continuous blocks of time, a day or two a week is usually much more productive than full time
  • Where appropriate contract for off site research, but expect fixed costs for deliverables (e.g. a research report)
And most importantly listen to and act on the advice that's been paid for.