Thursday, 4 November 2010

How the law can be used to save millions

For some years I worked with a small but highly innovative software organisation from Australia.  Barristers with a hint of geek about them, they came with the strange notion that law could be used to great effect in supporting the citizen through translation of the law into computer systems.

The company was SoftLaw, formed by pro bono lawyers who spent their days helping people deal with ineffective government departments and with a belief that there had to be a better way.  The better way they envisaged involved translating the archaic language of the law into clear language that could be understood and processed by computers so a client could provide answers to questions posed by the law and receive a judgement based on the answers provided.  The applicable elements of the law were considered those that weren't relevant were excluded to reduce the number of questions to the minimum necessary to get to the right determination.  A simple example, in plain language:

Benefit may be claimed  if
  - the claimant was under the age of 65 at the 1st of January of the current year
  - the claimant has not earned more than 15,000 in the financial year
  - the claimant has no other means of income
  - the claimant is currently unemployed

In the above example there would be a number of questions that could be asked to determine eligibility in an initial data capture, such as...

Date of Birth
Employment status (employed/unemployed)

The translated law would use the provided data against tests to determine whether basic criteria were met before proceeding into a deeper investigation.  If the initial response gave employment status as employed the test would be failed.  The system could then provide a detailed statement of just why this was the case with direct reference to the elements of the legislation that led to the determination.

All seems fairly straightforward.  What was more impressive was that the amount of IT specialist input required to produce systems was minimal but the potential value from developing them was immeasurable.  For example, having a system that could be used to test the effectiveness of the legislation by putting real-world data through draft legislation to determine winners, losers and outliers would be an enormous advantage to the policy makers who want to achieve the best result and cater for extremes in the most appropriate way.

Evidence from Australia at early adopting clients pointed to significant savings from a variety of sources:

  • reduced time effort and cost in reaching determinations of eligibility
  • increased accuracy of determinations
  • reduced number of legal challenges against determinations
  • reduced losses when challenged
  • improved productivity of users - reducing staff costs significantly
  • reduced time to change legislation
  • reduced errors in new legislation
A list of benefits that most software products could only aspire to.  The early adopters were best described as raving fans and with good justification.  However, selling the product was an uphill struggle to say the least and it made little sense in the early days.  Given the advantage of hindsight it is easier to assess the issues:
  • IT people saw threat not opportunity
    • a test production of a system for a UK legal requirement was delivered in one tenth of the time that it had taken the outsourced SI to deliver the same thing using Microsoft technologies (this is fact - I was there)
    • the buyers had just invested in the equivalent of two plastic cups linked by a piece of string, who did these upstarts with the equivalent of a mobile phone think they were?
  • Legal people saw threat not opportunity
    • if the system allowed for demystification of their legal language then perhaps they might no longer seem as special and important as they once were
    • if the software could represent what they did so effectively could none lawyers draft the law in plain English just leaving them with the final stage conversion?
  • Policy people saw threat not opportunity
    • policy is black art, the ability to increase the levels of certainty of result reduces the significance of the problem, policy people in the civil service are traditionally senior - if it isn't so hard to assess and trial alternatives then there is no need for the same levels of seniority
    • if the law was simplified people would know how to deal with it and could turn it to their advantage (citizens aren't supposed to know how to do that apparently)
  • Operational people saw threat not opportunity
    • if a Q&A system can reach a determination in a short time with no human support most of the time then what would operations be about?
    • allowing intelligent self-service would reduce the needs for large armies of advisors, in the civil service having lots of people equates to having lots of power
This all added up to universal resistence other than from a small number of enlightened individuals who could see the potential instead of being consumed by thoughts of doom and gloom.

The Australians worked as well as any I have ever witnessed in my experience, gently and intelligently pressing their case.  Tackling resistance in a sensitive manner requires the patience of a saint and the determination of a mountain climber.  They deserved better results than they achieved.  

Why does this matter?  Because the loser in this situation has not been the software company (they became RuleBurst then took over and adopted the name Haley and eventually sold their product to Oracle where it is now known as Oracle Policy Automation and is buried amongst their other offerings) or the outsourcer or even the client who lacked vision to recognise just what had been placed before them.  No, the loser was the citizen of the UK.  The citizen who just might have seen a better benefit system emerge, or a better and fairer tax system, a cheaper civil service, an engagement with public services in plain English and a Treasury that might have a little more money to spend wisely.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Remote working...

My friend and colleague Jim Scopes at InScope recently wrote about  the 21st Century NHS and the potential for remote activity to better suit the needs of the patient.  This could include remote consultation using web based technologies for example.  This idea isn't new, the Australians have managed all sorts of remote activity including education for years.  What struck me though is just how great the potential is for saving time and money this way. 

Okay, at the moment not everyone has the necessary technology for this to work fully effectively but that isn't a situation that will stay the same for ever.  And, in some cases it may be more efficient to provide NHS patients, especially those with limited mobility and high care requirements, with the appropriate technology to connect them to services more immediately.  The cost of provision could more than be saved by reducing the load on the service in getting patients to appointments.  

There are plenty of other opportunities for creating more complete remote services, especially where physical presence isn't actually a requirement, rather it is just the way things have always been done in the past.  Education has started to move down this path with an increasing number of online and distance based education options.  Given the relatively low attendance requirement for some courses this is a considerably more efficient option and allows for courses to be offered to a much wider audience.  Why sell to 20 because that is the room capacity when you can deliver to an unlimited number through intelligent application of technology.

Challenging current thinking and process norms is not all that hard to do and often the simplest ideas have the most profound impact.  The huge expenditure on the NHS IT systems appears to have done little for the patient.  Perhaps putting some new thought into process and approach and taking advantage of some of the technology now available to the NHS might have been more appropriate.  Maybe it could have helped to reduce wait times at surgeries, waiting lists in hospitals and actually have given those that need help, but struggle to get to the point of service, a better quality of care. 

Friday, 22 October 2010

Spending that a misnomer?

Spending, saving or cutting?

The Comprehensive Spending Review is an odd name for a periodic Government exercise to try to exercise control over the national budgets.  The Government departments all lay out their spending plans for the coming period having gazed into crystal balls, tossed rune stones in the air or consulted mystics in order to build a picture of requirements in an uncertain world.  Pet projects will be pushed with claims of extraordinary benefits.  Empires will be protected.  Arguments for good new ideas will be presented and kicked around and the odd meeting will probably have taken place scratching around for something to keep the budget as high as possible.

The trouble is that it is a cycle of spending that lacks strategy and focus.  It doesn't feel  like there is an overall plan because more often than not there simply isn't one.  There are few organisations that would stay in business if they were run the way we run our country.  But, it isn't easy to work out where to focus concerns.  The politicians appear to be responsible for it all but they all know the failings of the current systems and successive Governments have failed to change things.  Ths civil servants know that if they hold tight for long enough politics change...Governments change.  The civil service knows how to endure difficult times and remain in place despite everything that appears to be going on around them.

So is it a Spending Review?  Or, perhaps, a Cutting Budgets Review?  Whatever it is it isn't what it ought to be.

Government Transparency

Comments on the Coalition Government Proposals.

The proposals for ICT are welcome but the significance of the topic merited a category in its own right within this document. While, the points raised here are a positive start but they will also require a significant cultural shift to make a real difference. Despite outsourcing significant amounts of IT provision to the private sector there is insufficient trust (or appropriate controls) over what is delivered and many departments shadow their suppliers in mirroring roles which creates significant cost increases for questionable value.

Government IT has a poor reputation that is not always deserved and needs to be improved upon, a more open public perspective of the standards expected from suppliers (particularly on the larger outsourcing contracts) should become the norm. If we can see how privatised rail companies and the like are performing then why not make similar moves to publish the quality of privatised IT services?

Government procurement practices are also in need of change if this is to work. The current OGC procurement processes contain some good thinking but lack any identifiable process structure and present a confusing mess to anyone trying to engage with the public sector, it is good to see that the woefully inadequate explanations presented until this month are now being reviewed –

Research suggests that the UK relies on less than 10 suppliers for the bulk of its IT provision and many of them will see no gain from a shift to open source and may positively discourage it in the selection processes. Equally they will present strong arguments against smaller organisations providing services where stringent requirements are used to prevent genuine opportunities for innovative organisations. Simply by dragging their heels it is possible for the larger outsourcing contract holders to destroy the ability of smaller organisations to engage in meaningful dialogue however good their offerings may be. How will this level playing field be created for open source or smaller suppliers? Where external suppliers are responsible for product selection how will it be operated, measured and reported?

There is also a significant need to consider where technology is now going, the rise and availability of cloud-computing solutions is challenging the status quo and presenting an alternative with significantly different cost benefit implications. The proposed Government cloud seems to have some merits where data security may be an issue and would see an evolution of Gershon’s push for shared service capabilities but there are just as many non data-security critical applications that could be benefiting now. Current contracts are too large, too long and too expensive and current de-constructions, as with DWP, are still much too large to allow even high quality tier 2 suppliers to stand a reasonable chance of winning business.

There is a point that seems to have been overlooked as well, the real need for transparency is transparency of process; document points of interaction and publish them, not in lengthy narratives, but in a form that can be easily understood with additional detail behind if it is necessary or required. The UK Government has the people and the technological capabilities to do this and has made insufficient progress. It is time for transparency to be taken seriously and to be meaningful, at one time the public sector won awards for plain English, there is a real opportunity for this new Government to move in the right direction and not just make it more transparent but make it genuinely understandable. ICT should be simplifying the citizens interaction with Government but the current position leaves a lot to be desired.