Somebody drove into my car last week while it was parked outside my house and carried on without stopping. Somebody else, driving just behind, took the trouble to take the registration number of the car and to leave a note on my windscreen. There is both good and evil in the world.
That has been enough to generate not one but three fascinating insights: two into service design, or rather into services without obvious or complete design, and one into why government does big IT.
Since there was a witness, I thought it might just be worth reporting to the police. The Met has one of those fashionable single non-emergency numbers (though the world being the way it is, it isn’t very single). My call was answered in an efficient and friendly way, I told the story, gave the registration numbers of the two cars, and was asked if I had access to the internet. As it happens I do, so was told to go to the Met’s web site (which at a quick glance is worth the services of service designer on overtime in its own right) and, mysteriously, to search for “F207”.
That turned out to lead to a PDF form. A 21 page PDF form. A 21 page PDF form with the instruction on the front to return it to the “reception staff / volunteer” (volunteer?) from whom you got it. Presumably the expectation was that people should print it, fill it in by hand, and then take it to a police station. That felt a bit too much like hard work, so I did the whole thing on screen. Having done that, the obvious thing to do was to email it to them. I even had a potentially relevant email address, that of my local safer neighbourhood team, an only very slightly orwellian sounding bunch of friendly coppers who take an interest in mostly minor crime. So off it went. And came straight back again, stopped by the Met’s email filters:
Unless Acrobat itself is in the habit of generating malicious PDF files, that’s just a little strange, particularly as sending the same email to my government account just to see what would happen occasioned no problems at all.
So where to take it instead? Any police station? A particular police station? A second call to the contact centre. Ah yes, of course, it has to be taken to the second nearest police station. Off we go. The function of the second nearest police station is, it seems, simply to be charming and helpful, at which they are excellent, and then, in a particularly enjoyable piece of reverse Pinter, to send the papers to Sidcup. It is not their role, it is clear, to add any insight which may come from being second nearest as opposed to conveniently reached.
The insurance company
The insurance company has so far performed flawlessly which is reassuring in many ways, but useless for a blogger in search of material. But then it struck me that what they were doing might shed some tangential light on a very different and slightly unlikely issue, the whole question of government and big IT.
Big IT companies have been everybody’s favourite enemy for years. They are perceived as being unimaginative, slow, expensive and incompetent all in one unhappy package. Some of that is a bit unfair (this spectacularly misleading graphic from the Guardian is a lovely example of demonisation, however much they may want to hide behind the small print), and there are certainly more sophisticated versions of the challenge which deserve a serious response, particularly in world where other very large scale users of IT seem to be able to do things differently. Andy Murd in a comment last week on a great (and sadly rare) blog post from Emma Mulqueeny describes his willingness to play with open data and to build proof of concept services as being based in part on a desire
To embarrass, shame, and (hopefully) put out of business the EDS/Accenture/Gartner/CSC consulting firms that make a massive sum from obfusticating and holding back government IT. I could go on a long rant about firms whose primary product is invoices and whose R&D consists of lobbying but it’s easier to spend an hour on a demo that would cost millions through the state’s “preferred suppliers”.
So why if it is that easy is it that difficult?
Back to my car crash. I know a man in Battersea who has a small body shop. If I were spending my own money, that’s where I would go. But there’s him and his mate in a tiny yard behind a row of terraced houses. I doubt that he could absorb more than a small fraction of the work needed by my insurance company. And he certainly isn’t set up to deliver the range of related services which might be needed – collecting the car, disgnosing, let alone fixing any deeper mechanical damage. If my insurance company were to do business with him, they would have to manage and co-ordinate suppliers to a degree which would push an administrative burden back on them which they simply do not want. So they don’t. They find a bigger supplier who can deliver an integrated service at the scale they need. My man in Battersea doesn’t get a look in.
So one version of the question – and I am not suggesting it is the only one – is how you deliver large scale outputs while using a loose federation of small scale inputs. The answer needs to cover how it applies to the back end as well as the front end. An answer which starts by saying there should be no need for large scale outputs may be interesting, may even be right, but in the short to medium term is not helpful.
The hire car
So I am not sure my car is safe to drive, and I am certainly not going to experiment by driving down a motorway, which is precisely what the plans for the weekend require me to do. No problem, we can go by train. Except we can’t because of engineering works (or at least that’s my best guess, based on cryptic statements on badly structured websites – you might think that it would be worth giving some prominence to the basic question of whether a train company is running trains, but it seems not).
So nothing for it but to hire a car. The practicalities of that mean I have to collect the car on my way home from work. I carry the plastic card bit of my driving licence with me but, like any other normal human being, I don’t carry around the paper bit. That’s a problem, though, as it turns out, one which can be solved by spending £6.38 on a short phone call to DVLA. DVLA aren’t going to give out personal information to just anybody. Quite right too. So they make the car hire person hand the phone to me so that they can check my identity and record my authorisation for them to disclose my driving record.
They want to know my name, my full name with a peculiar inistence on middle names, I don’t think (pace Simon Dickson) they are at great risk of confusing me with anyone else, particularly since they also check my address and date of birth, but never mind. So now I am authenticated.
Bear in mind though that the use case I am describing is one where the plastic card bit of my licence is present. So it seems faintly odd that every question DVLA asks can be answered by reading things off that very card, so long as you can rise to the very mild challenge of deobfuscating dates of birth from driver numbers. So what is this process protecting for whom and from whom? I am not at all sure.
Maybe next weekend will be quieter.