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Sunday, July 13

IT rules? No, no Mister Steel

[Presentation reproduced with permission]

At the PSF event in June to discuss Better Connected, SOCITM's president Richard Steel presented 'Why we should no longer distinguish web from ICT'.

Some of this made me applaud madly, some made me inwardly groan.

It was deliberately provocative and Richard comes from a strong base with his argument; his borough, Newham, is doing some great, ground-breaking stuff (including free wireless, no fixed desks including Chief Exec.) for this deprived part of London. In his presentation he laid a lot of that out, but what I completely disagreed with was his conclusion: that web must be 'run' by IT, they are 'indistinguishable'.

What made me applaud was his line that, basically, senior managers who don't understand the basics with IT no longer have the requisite skills to do the job, they should go. He, like me, is sick of senior people who wear their ignorance 'like a badge of honour'. I also liked that he was arguing that services must take more day-to-day responsibility for what they do online and that government gains from being subject to the same forces as business.

He was looking to the future convergence of technology and especially the coming growth of web access through mobiles or other devices: a 'network of networks'. Government is about services and information and as web access becomes more ubiquitous what matters is that we provide information in a way that can be easily pushed through these channels and found. What he cited as key technologies were identification and data integration.

Here's part of his presentation about his vision of this from three years ago:
By 2012 (Olympics) mobiles morphed into ‘personal communicators’

Technologies like ‘smart chip’, biometrics and GPS, will enable:
  • authenticated ‘e’ order & payment
  • e-tickets for chosen events delivered to your device.
  • e-directions to venue/your seat
  • your ID and ticket electronically checked,.
  • commentary provided in your own language
  • option to follow a particular team or athlete
  • view instant playbacks of exciting moments
  • personal calls/messages delivered plus appointment reminders.
  • remote control of home environment also likely
Device selects the most appropriate combination of fixed and wireless networks - balancing task, cost and performance.
A couple of quotes he used talked about 2018, ten years from now, when this convergence should be in full throttle.

Let's look back ten years and see what's changed: yes, everyone has a website and yes, services are 'online'. But as I've noted in other posts on my blog, there are still many things we, government, don't do and as a sector we are walled off from influences from wider web development - a primary driver for change - or any sense that we are in a competitive environment, online.

I don't see anything suggesting that in another ten years either of these factors will change, that we will be doing the things we don't or that we will be absorbing the right influences. However we will probably be in a more competitive environment simply because many more businesses will be in our territory - people selling recycling bins, people promising to better handle your passport enquiries, people trying to make money from your health enquiry, other services like charities. When this is happening, how do customers find you and steer past the commercial providers?

Richard's ideas come entirely from one part of what makes a web presence and it's not surprising: all websites have come from a few sectors other than IT but that's, largely, where government websites have grown out from.

Take 'content' for one other source of websites - newspaper websites are built on content and the IT development entirely revolves around servicing the editor's needs, rather than the other way around. There it has to be a partnership but you couldn't argue 'Why we should no longer distinguish web from ICT' because there it's understood that 'web' largely means content - which needs it own skill base - supported by IT. Richard's proposition doesn't make sense. Same goes for websites which have grown out of marketing and sales departments, there it's a partnership but there's another primary skill base than the IT one.

Why do we think we are different from other websites, especially when there's little evidence customers behave radically differently with us? I would say this is because we live in our own world without the sort of influences which would shake us out of it. Other sectors largely don't; they absolutely have to understand their customers and hire the right skill base to create a web presence which will meet needs in a rapidly evolving and competitive environment. Doesn't sound like us does it?

Another difference is that the web is becoming more central to businesses, meaning that all aspects of the business have to take it seriously and skill up. Here, this does connect with one of Richard's points about the vital need for engagement by government services - the pointy end - rather than being disempowered (although that's not how he puts it).

The problem with Richard's proposal is not just where it's coming from - as I commented to him, he and the analysis come from IT as opposed to, say, sales - but the impact.

Web skills are very specific, you need to be across a lot of terrain. You need to understand SEO, usability, web content, have good people skills, be across various and ever changing IT, visual design, accessibility, marketing, PR ... Even the very best IT managers don't have this skill range so they can't make informed decisions or informed choices across the range of issues which constitute good and most importantly successful web. In his presentation Richard alludes to this when he talks about the problems in benchmarking, take-up and engagement.

I understand that Richard's forward focus is 'non-web', or 'post-web', thinking of mobile devices for example, but I see no future in which all the other skills involved won't be any the less vital in making a successful, used and useful service/product for government online.

What we need is exactly the opposite of Richard's argument: ICT needs to be in its place and web needs to be raised. It needs to be properly understood as a new profession, a unique skill set and assume its place at the table in government. Because at the moment it doesn't have one.


  1. Hi Paul,

    some interesting thoughts and views here, i have just posted a response, which offers a slightly different view, not great news for you and I but i believe it will happen.

    Carl Haggerty

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