Sunday, 28 March 2010

PiPs, 2dot0 , internal development and the budget....

Last week I attended the PiP group (although we are not supposed to call it that) – Partners in Professionalism – to give it its correct title. This group grew out of the ProfIT (Professionalsim in IT Alliance) and consists of a wide ranging group of organisations from across public and private sectors seeking to advance professionalism within IT and to work collaboratively in order to maximise the impact we can have. The meeting chaired by John Higgins of Intellect considered how best to take the group and the subject forward in ways that were beneficial to each of our constituents and that would achieve significant profile, not for the group, but for professionalism generally and individual members specifically. We had some very interesting discussion around the development of cloud based computing across the public sector and particularly the implications of such developments for many within public sector IT who are unlikely, yet, to posses the required skills or professionalism in this and related areas. The pace of change in technology, the application of technology and the huge expectations created by the functionality we all enjoy ‘at home’ presents serious threats and opportunities in equal measure to those tasked with delivering efficiencies through the implementation of technology. This is a subject to which I am sure we will return.

In the middle of the week a budget happened which contained further requirement to deliver savings and efficiency gains upon people who are finding it more difficult to deliver the year on year savings they are being asked to. From our perspective there is a clear challenge, to which we are rising. We need to continually demonstrate how our key products and services actually enable our members to deliver better and more for less and, on a personal level, to equip them for the other challenges, financial and technological, that are following hard on the heels of the current ones. The plans we have for restructuring our service offerings and the developments within professional and personal development opportunities are all geared towards this end.

I attended an event at the Royal Courts of Justice, hosted by Global Crossing which was a really good networking event and the surrounding were stunning. I am often in the position of seeing clear synergies between organisations I speak with and this was no exception as i was left wondering about the benefits of companies such as this getting down with the likes of JANET (appropriately of course) who presented at our recent Socitm Futures group.....we’ll just have to leave them to it I guess.

I made my monthly trip up to Northampton for our Corporate Services Team meeting where we review the support we are able to offer the Society as a whole, plan for future requirements and events and, most importantly, are starting serious discussions about how we can offer a more consolidated business and member support service from a coordinated Socitm Office to ensure we make best use of all resources and reduce much duplication. I think 2010 will see significant moves in this direction. The website continues to cause equal measure of joy and pain although we are beginning to see our way through to some of the hoped for benefits....I am sure that the saying about ‘the best laid plans’ is never more true than when you are talking about the development of websites and particularly keeping content current and in a format that everybody ‘likes’.....

I rushed down from Northampton to meet with Bill Wells from 2dot0. I have mentioned them before and am as impressed with their business now as I was the first time we really is one of the examples of a technology that can have an immediate and beneficial impact on a business. As it happens it was also the 2nd birthday party of 1 Alfred Place, where we were meeting, so I stayed on for the celebrations (as you would)...but I really wasn’t expecting to meet a hero there. If I say that I am an avid – very avid – fan of Pink Floyd, then follow that with the fact that Nick Mason joined the party...other fans will get the picture. Now, it’s weekend preparations for next week’s board meeting, which I think will be a significant one.

Picked this up in The Register'll like it!

Monday, 22 March 2010

CFDG (who?) and other interesting things

Last week I attended an IT conference that was put on by CFDG - for the uninitiated that's the Charity Finance Directors Group ( ) Firstly I want to congratulate David Membury and the events team for a fantastic event. It was held at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln's Inn Fields, which was a great venue.It ran like clockwork, had a bustling exhibition area at which, form our perspective, delegates were generally eager to visit and chat, and had a simple but information packed structure.

With John Tate in the chair, following a brief introduction, we began with a 50 min session from Dave Aron from Gartner, who was excellent. This was a very pleasant surprise having had mixed experiences with Gartner in the past.

Some of the thought provoking one liners are probably worth a repeat or two:

• CIO's suffer the problem of 'being horizontal in a vertical world'

•Security and enterprise applications are moving to tactical rather than strategic issues for the 1600 CIO's surveyed.•CIO's are now focussing on 'lighter weight' technologies - virtual, cloud, web 2 , ( survey of 1600 CIO'S globally)

•Collaboration technologies now on the 'plateau of productivity' (Gartner), as is mobile commerce, social web2 on the way.Efficiency: do more with less: productivity: work smarter not harder: Not how much has IT saved per unit, how much benefit has it produced per unit•IT managers can too easily focus on efficiency rather than productivity and heavy IT systems rather than light and agile

•IT directors often not good at communicating benefits of IT , it's not all about cutting costs.

•Many IT orgs can be described as follows: great landing, wrong airport
 That's probably enough from Dave......

The final plenary session was Prof. Peter Cochrane who, as ever, was stimulating, controversial and sent you away thinking hard about a number of your previously held preconceptions.

To see more about him, visit his site, but two things got me thinking.

He started talking about 'wicked problems' and we all thought he was joking, especially when he referred to IT as a wicked problem....for more on wicked problems see here, then apply it to IT

And to finish, a great quote from a Chief Exec:

'infrastructure is everything just below the things I really care about'

All in all a very good day with loads of ideas and thought stimulation to bring back with me.
Here we are, and very pleased to be here:

And, if you're not squeamish you really must visit the museum at the Royal College.....

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A mixed bag of a week....

It’s been a pretty hectic couple of weeks so have not updated the blog as I should......last week began with the funeral of a very well known and popular Socitm member and stalwart of the events organising group. These occasions are always times for reflection and for assessing one’s perspectives and priorities. It was then up to Durham for a meeting with the Delivery Management group. There is a great mix of people from across central and local service delivery organisations and always good to talk informally with Martin Bellamy about the progress of ‘Cloud’. I always like this group because it begins with a social occasion – a meal and drink or two – and is always really practical, down to earth and at the level of ‘OK we’ve heard the strategy, and had the discussion, but how are we actually going to deliver something?’ They are the sort of discussions that are invaluable for future planning and activity. Unfortunately I could only attend the social part of what was only the prelude to a full day of discussion as I had to travel to London – a 5am start (thought I’d drop that in) for our Membership Board.

The board was, as always, stimulating – and I am being serious – as we put some of the final touches to our proposed new ‘accredited’ membership grades. These proposals will be going before the AGM on April 22nd which forms part of our National (Spring) Event – if you are a member of Socitm please do have your say. One of the issues that we are aware of and which we will be addressing is that as we broaden our membership, our traditional base of senior managers and CIO’s may appear or be perceived to be diminishing in importance or indeed focus. The concept of ‘networks & communities’ that is being developed will provide networks based on areas of common interest, common issues and may be based upon sector, job role, specific technical areas and so on. We are working on a number of such communities at present, one of which is focussed upon our senior members and support of that particular community. Following this meeting, and in many ways not unrelated, I met with Karl Grundy and Vicky Sargent to discuss future developments around our communications and marketing activity – something we have long known requires a more detailed focus. The following day, Thursday 11th, I was at Northampton with David Goddard, our Head of Systems and Corporate Services, to assess progress on our newly launched web site and to prioritise the outstanding issues. Among other things we were discussing the (then) imminent go live of our online sales and retail module (now live) and the re-programming of our online members data base so that it can be sorted in ways that actually make sense. It was a significant meeting in terms of progress towards a more fully integrated front / back office, a road that we are, at least, now travelling.

Just to address a question that i get asked a lot “Why is the site beta?”

There are some significant elements of functionality in terms of integration , business logic and intelligence that may well not be up to multi national trading organisation standards but , from our perspective, is certainly new, challenging and as yet it is still beta.

A rush down from Northampton to London to meet with Dave Briggs from Learning Pool (@davebriggs if you are on twitter) Always a pleasure, always stimulating and I think we have found a way for our respective organisations to move forward together in a number of areas which I am looking forward to getting stuck into. Well that was last week...trying to get up to speed with this week now......

And here is something you may want to consider.....

Monday, 8 March 2010

Cyber war and Tory ICT plans (not necessarily connected)

I realise that our more 'spooky' colleagues will be only too aware of the threat from cyber attacks, and indeed being of the disposition they are will probably read this article and say "this doesn't even scratch the surface", although it is quite alarming enough for the rest of us...

One of the numerous fascinating statements and facts , apart from the 1.6 Billion attackes per month on US government systems (that's about 90 attacks every second of every day!) is that 'there is no effective response to counter malicious attacks'. Assuming we can find out who it is - it's China - (although they obviously categorically deny it, so we must be wrong!) the reasons for why there is no effective response could be very interesting. On the 'raiding of secrets level' it could of course be because we have lots of info the want but they have 'nowt worth anything to us' - unlikely I would think. Perhaps our technology isn't up to penetrating their systems - equally unlikely. Perhaps it is because ny measure that may be effective in preventing them hacking would need to be on some other politically sensitive level - such as some sort of sanctions on technology, trade, finance etc - but that would be tantamount to cutting of the proverbial nose or the bullet in one's own foot scenario. so maybe there are measures that could be effective in stopping the cyber attackes but would be so detrimental in other areas that the balance of risk dictates that the attacks should continue and we will keep shouting about how there is nothing we can do...but be doing something anyway? I'm beginning to understand why the spooks need to be spooky. Interesting artical though.

According to PublicTechnology net the Tories have plans, for ICT that is, and they are likely to bring fresh challenges as the frocusmoves away from 'big ticket' high risk projects and adopt a more 'small is beautiful' approach. This, for Socitm, is not a party political point as it is an approach we have been advocating in much of our thinking on 'Tomorrow's publiic services' and about which we will have more to say irrespective of the outcome of the general election. See more on Socitm's developing key policy areas 'here'

Better Connected, Cabinet Office, good financial advice and R Buckminster Fuller

I cannot begin an account of last week without reference to the fact that 8am on Monday saw the launch of Better Connected 2010. This meant that the weekend was not without some tension and a little lost sleep.

I was in the Socitm Office last year for the launch of BC09 and it was genuinely manic. From 8 am there were phone calls - a lot of them, from people who could not access the material for a whole variety of reasons. This year, as you surely know, we have the recently launched new website....and all the questions around how it would cope. Unlike previous years where we really were constrained by our technology and had to send the same single password out to all Insight subscribers (and only one contact in each organisation received the password......)the new site has intelligent individual authenticated logon so we really do know who you are and where you work and if you have subscribed etc in theory the system would just let you have it if you had permission to access it and it wouldn't if you didn't. And it worked as we started the day averaging 700 downloads per hour, with very few phone calls. So all in all it was well done the central team who set up the site, turned up early on Monday and made it happen. More on BC10 here

Perhaps a word or two on the new web site, which, by the way, is now fully integrated into our back office CRM system. It has come in for a little criticism following its launch but by and large it is streets ahead of what we had previously in terms of functionality, capability and flexibility for the future. Of course it is not yet as we want it, but we are getting there and we very much appreciate your 'bearing with us' during this beta phase. For those who are not aware of quite how much infrastructure work has been going on within the Society over the last 18 months, we have in this period changed our hosting and e mail service provider without so much as a hiccup for end users, moved our domain to .net, sourced and moved to a totally new data centre, changed our technical support provider, procured and implemented totally new CRM (Gold Vision) and CMS (Jadu) systems and integrated them to each other and the finance system. I realise that many of our members do this kind of thing in their sleep but this has been achieved on a budget of less than £100 K for the systems and with 1 technical member of staff and one webby.... (and a lot of support from our partners) So, while its not perfect it has been a fantastic achievement and it is only the beginning of the process.

So, after that little diversion, it was good to start to the week, albeit unexpectedly, by travelling to London to sub for Martin Ferguson at a meeting in the Cabinet Office considering some of the requirements, opportunities and implications of 'future public service delivery'. Well, it was a little more than attending on his behalf; it was giving a presentation to the assembled group which outlined our take on 'Tomorrow's public services'.

Whilst not being able to report much of the detail of the meeting at this stage, it was refreshing in its honesty and the depth with which participants were prepared to share about the barriers and cultural issues that still exist, particularly, but not exclusively, between central and local government. These issues will be ignored at our peril and to the detriment of the quality and efficiency of future public services. However, there was also a genuine optimism based upon the opportunities we can all see in identifying and moving forward in a more collaborative and open way. Unlike many such meetings I have attended it was not just 'nice sounding words built on the foundations of zero intention'. There was genuine intention move us forward towards the goal of 100% digital delivery of all appropriate services. As we considered the notional concept of 'digital place' it was good to do so within a framework in which real people, real communities, real businesses and their needs were the drivers and in which digital issues had in mind real benefit for users not simply enforced migration to cheaper delivery channels (although in today's climate there is no escaping this factor).

One of the messages that Socitm is very eager to place at the forefront of people's thinking is that or better (not just more) for less. The introduction of a serious qualitative element is, for us, very important because in the public sector we do not and should not inhabit the warehouse festooned world driven by a particular "stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap" retail mentality. Nor for that matter should we flirt too closely with the budget airline philosophy which rather disingenuously seeks to bedazzle with 'good value' prices only to leave you paying and paying again for anything remotely resembling satisfactory quality. We did hear a rather amusing example (well, it would be amusing if it were not true) of a particular project (which will remain nameless) whose programme board decided to investigate to the nth degree a budget variance of £1M (which represented a relatively insignificant proportion of the total budget) and spent more than £1M conducting the 'inquisition'.... It would be wrong to finish on such a sceptical note as that would not at all give a fair representation of the meeting. Many of the discussions around subjects such as the Total Place pilots and 'Tell us once' certainly demonstrated that there is innovation happening, that there is both opportunity and maybe even emerging 'solid evidence' for a genuine 'paradigm shift' in our approach to public service delivery. Then it was off to Birmingham to meet with Glyn Evans over a pleasant meal at Chez Jules (recommend it if you are stuck for a place to eat in the middle of Brum).

On Tuesday I was at the next in a series of meetings with our Consulting business team during which we are looking at ways in which we can further and more effectively develop not only this particular area of our work but also how, as an organisation, we can operate in a more integrated and coherent way to produce better value for our members and more effective processes within our businesses....we are making progress. Next stop Lincoln, to meet with our finance director and finance manager in preparation for a meeting with our financial advisors Wright Vigar. I highly recommend them as purveyors of direct no nonesense financial advice - in plain English, now what more could you want? . We are in the process of forward planning, looking specifically at the governance and financial structures of the organisation over the next 36 - 48 months. There is a game plan..... and we are fast approaching the point where it will be sufficiently robust and coherent to take it to speak. The rest of the week (it is Wednesday evening and I am currently on a train northwards - that's the right way for those in any doubt) will be spent at home putting further detail around the outputs from some of these meetings.
And finally....this is a great quote (at least I think it is) and particularly relevant to what goes on in the name of 'progress' within some of the 'transformation' agenda.

If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem. -
R. Buckminster Fuller

Monday, 1 March 2010

Can the second time still be a one off experience?

Although I am not so presumptuous to assume a. that anybody will have read previous posts and b. that they will have remembered anything about goes.  I posted recently about my experience with HMRC and their super call centre (please note a healthy dose of sarcasm .....) Well I realise that a bad experience can always be passed off as a one off - they were just having a bad day etc etc (although I have to say it was a very very bad day), but as the situation did not appear to have been resolved I had cause to call them again. So, full of hope and optimism, prepared to accept the 'one off bad day' line of thought regarding my first engagement I called them again.

It goes without saying that I had to  repeat absolutely everything from the previous which point my readiness to believe that the last experience had actually been a 'one off' was rapidly dissapearing into the same ether that seems to be the location of HMRC customer records (because they certainly cannot be found in their new CRM system!). As the call progressed (with the first of 4 - yes 4 - members of HMRC staff on 3 seperate telephone numbers, more later) I was beginning to realise that my previous call had been a case study in efficiency by comparison.
Firstly, despite having given my national insurance number they seemed to have trouble locating me at all, let alone the actual status of any payments I have made or refunds I may be due. I was, at one point, beginning to doubt my own existence, or at best that it was a dream...a bad one. Eventually, presumably due to actually looking a little more closely at the screen, my existence insofar as HMRC was concerend, was at least acknowledged, although my entitlement to any refund, the same refund that HMRC had informed me about, in writing, the proof of which was in my hand as I spoke, was catagorically denied. And as far as the call center operator was concerend 'the computer said no', and that was that. Hmmm, maybe not - the now ever so familiar request was made, 'could I speak to somebody else please?' - I even suggested who I might speak to - the particular unit I eventually spoke to last time - who at least were able to tell me that I was (probably) due a refund. At this suggestion I was informed that there is no such unit and we then shuffled off into the surreal....I appeared to be asking to speak to a part of HMRC who, only a couple of weeks ago actually called me - but now have ceased to exist. The lovely fella on the other end of the phone then actually suggested (you'll love this) that I 'contact the police as I may be the victim of somebody trying to get money out of me by impersonating a non existent (according to him) HMRC unit. They phone me confirm confirm I am due a refund (which, admittedly, had not arrived) which is really a scam to get me to send them money...I was waiting for the guy to ask me if the HMRC staff had Nigerian accents!

I was duly given another number to call (not transferred.....) which I called...and repeated everything again, this time I asked why the system did not record any of this particular customer query, only to be told that 'we don't use the same system as the last person you spoke to and they don't talk to each other'. I was wishing I didn't have to talk to them either! I am not sure how they know they didn't use the same system as they didn't ask who I was talking to, I didn't tell them and as I had to dial a seperate number rather than be transferred they had no way of knowing...but I let that one pass. At least this person found me straight away...progress. They had a record of an amount being paid back to them from my employer...but denied the reality of the refund to which the letter from HMRC, which I had in my possesion, so clealry referred. They, I was told, have not sent me any letter, because it was not registered on 'the system'. Still feeling very 'zen' about the whole thing, and remaining remarkably calm, I asked to be put through to the non existent department, only to be told that, you guessed, it doesn't exist.

Anyway, just to get rid of me I think, they suggested I try another number (no transfer). I dialed the number and I must have entered the twilight zone because the non existent department answered the phone. They did ask me to repeat everything again because they were not on the same system as their colleagues! (actually they may have said 'in the same system' and been referring to the solar system).

This time - and this represented real progress - the fact that I was due a refund was readily acknowledged, although its whereabouts remained a I was put through - actually transferred to another person. I assumed that the alternative universe in which the non existent, but increasingly promising, department operated had superior telephony technology. A very pleasant lady came on the line, requested my national insurance number (and that was all...) told me immediately that I was indeed due a refund, confirmed the amount, which corresponded exactly to the amount in the letter they did not send and informed me it sent sent on Feb 15th. where was it?  Ahh, she informed me....when I say 'sent' I mean it was approved internally at which point it began its progress through the process so I should receive it 'soon'. Knowing how to 'finish while the going was good' I thanked her and hung up, pinched myself to confirm my continued existence , was beamed back into the world of real, but relatively unhelpful departments and pondered the governments committment to NI14 - avoidance of unneccessary contact. So, although I am no statistician, I am guessing that these experiences were not one off, nor were they simply an unusually 'bad day' for HMRC and that others have had similarly interesting journeys through the new HMRC call center process....
However, applying for car tax online is a dream.