ICT



Two things made me take up my (electronic) pen today.

First, on BBC TV yesterday the wonderful Martha Lane Fox gave the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture.

The BBC web site summarise what it was all about

She will challenge us all – leaders, legislators, and users – to understand the internet more deeply and to be curious and critical in our digital lives in order to tackle the most complex issues facing our society.

It reminded me that not long after I started the HelpGov blog I responded to a consultation she organised as the government’s then digital champion on the future of the old (and appalling) UK government web sites. Her efforts led to the formation of the GOV.UK team and something of a transformation in the UK government’s web presence.

Second, and much more prosaically, I’ve just renewed my vehicle tax online. As a once-upon-a-time advocate of process maps I thought I’d compare the pre-web and GOV.UK processes of this onerous task. As you’ll see they’re not strictly process maps, but you’ll get the point.

pay tax

There are/were other ways to fulfil the same task but this is the way I used to do it and did it today.

As I said, it’s prosaic, isn’t it? It’s even more prosaic than my steps suggest because the web site is just about one of the easiest I’ve used, with my payment accepted with less information than most commercial sites and an e-mail already received confirming all the details and that I’m now taxed for another twelve months.

The impressive thing is that the change not only focusses on my needs as a taxpayer but also must save major costs in staff time and printing.

And it’s not only the transaction that’s been made easier. If I want to check any question about taxing my car, or indeed any other aspect of government from policies to the availability of data it’s easy to find on GOV.UK.

I’m almost ashamed at both my cynicism when I wrote to Baroness Lane Fox in 2010 and my misunderstanding of what she was about.

Only one thing wrong. The amount of tax I’m paying is outrageous. But I can’t blame Martha or the GOV.UK team for that.

If you work in the public sector, how does your organisation’s web site match up to the GOV.UK standards?


Go away, you annoying addictive bird

  1. 0800 check 203 incoming tweets received overnight. Time taken including reading/replying/commenting on/following interesting links – 23 minutes
  2. 0823 return to top of Twitter stream to check 31 tweets received in last twenty-three minutes. Time taken including reading/replying/commenting etc. – 7 minutes
  3. 0830 return to top of Twitter stream to check 9 tweets received in last seven minutes. Time taken including reading/etc. – 2 minutes
  4. 0832 break for breakfast. Time taken – 30 minutes
  5. 0902 check Twitter stream before starting work. Read/etc/etc 41 tweets received in last half hour. Time taken – 6 minutes
  6. 0908 work for an hour avoiding temptation to look at Twitter. Time taken – 60 minutes
  7. 1008 coffee break. Time taken – 10 minutes
  8. 1018 before resuming work read/etc/etc 112 tweets received  since 0908. Time taken – 10 minutes
  9. 1028 return to top of Twitter stream to check 19 tweets received in last ten minutes. Time taken including reading/replying/commenting etc. – 3 minutes

Well, that’s the day nicely filled.


My heartfelt thanks to the correspondents who have sent me messages urging me to purchase a pair of fashionable boots of a particular brand (let’s just say ‘Ugg’ to that), describing the merits of their particular credit deals in German, promoting the wonder of poetry (can’t argue with that), acquainting me with the qualities of different brands of steel sink, and telling me I should really buy a guitar.

I appreciate all your thoughts, and I have no doubt that all your offerings are genuine and above board.

I also enjoyed the more personal messages you’ve gone to the trouble of sending me, which I know you won’t mind me sharing with the wider world exactly as I received them

  • your own write-up. It evident that you have a great deal knowledge on this subject. Your items are very well created and relatable. Thanks for composing interesting and fascinating substance
  • could you increase the amount of your posts, i would like to read them more often [ah, if only I had the will and the imagination], and best of all albeit somewhat mystifyingly
  • s learn And I appreciate all an easiest way this was almost only Shining in the burst; myself the may a Eve, skittish mare. her lower back, and wonderfully didn’t said as far as I could.You taught uncollared dreams I try..(bo

Unfortunately the heartless and cynical people at WordPress directed all of your kindness and wonderful thoughts to my blog’s spam folder so I’m afraid they have been deleted.  Sadly, I suggest you save yourself similar effort in future.


This post began as a jokey exchange on Twitter. As part of confirmation that he was taking part in Movember, someone I follow tweeted a link to the UK government’s NHS Direct web site and a ‘checker’ there on Male sexual health.

The principle seemed sensible

If you would like confidential advice about a sexual health problem, you’re in the right place. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy if you are concerned about a sexual health issue.

I thought I’d give it a try – and to forestall inappropriate comment, no, I don’t have a ‘sexual health issue.’ I’m interested in government web sites – honest, officer.

Click through to the next step on this helpful ‘checker’ and you’re asked

Before continuing with this health and symptom checker you need to make sure that the person is conscious and reacting to you normally, or if they are asleep, that they react to gentle shaking.

What?! I’m about to check my sexual health and I’m unconscious or asleep?

The next pages ask for my age and where I live. Fair enough.

Then, straight down to business in the next page with the first question – those of a delicate disposition turn away now

Have you been bleeding from your genital area in the last 6 hours?

Whoa, steady on, I thought this was about ‘male sexual health.’ This seems like getting down to business just a tad too soon.

For the sake of research I answered ‘No.’ That took me through to a page giving me twelve further options – none of them implying good news.

If you want to see a better – no, a brilliant – government web site check out GOV.UK, the UK government’s new site that’s supposed eventually to incorporate all their other current sites.

The contrast with NHS Direct couldn’t be greater

  • Clear simple layout and graphics – unlike the dense clutter of NHS Direct
  • The things most people want to know about each subject highlighted in clear language – I cannot believe that most men looking for information on sexual health need as their first port of call a  shock-horror question about whether they’ve been bleeding from their ‘genital area,’ and not only bleeding but within the last six hours. If they’re not unconscious before they read that they might be after.

In fact the NHS Direct pages would more honestly be headed ‘Do you have a serious sexual problem?’ They’re all about sickness, not health.

UK health aficionados will know that NHS Direct covers England only. It advises Scots, correctly, to visit their own NHS 24 site for advice. But before the Scottish NHS get too smug about how they’re doing, a search for ‘male sexual health’ there throws up no fewer than 175 links. On the first page of ten, not one is to do with male sexual health. So a big fail there too.

I can now add abhorrence of NHS web sites to my phobia of what I’ve called elsewhere the  NHS’s ‘disease of poster-itis and advanced leaflet syndrome.’


21 August 2012

Dear Tyler

Thank you for calling me today from the security department of my Windows computer. I hadn’t realised that the computer had a security department tucked away inside, let alone a human being able to address me by my own name.

I jest of course.  I know you’ve got other people there because I can hear them in the background and, indeed, I think some of them have called me in the past.  So I guess you work in a call centre, probably somewhere in South East Asia judging by your accent.

I have had more or less friendly conversations with many of your colleagues, or perhaps they are competitors.  Who knows.  There seem to be a heck of a lot of you and you all tell me that my computer has a security problem.

Since you all know my name and that I use a computer with Windows I have tried asking on previous occasions which of my two computers has the problem, what you believe its brand name to be, and whether you are employed by Microsoft itself or their appointed agents.  Curiously, at this point, the line usually goes dead.

I do hope you weren’t phoning about the same, forgive me, scam that one of my friends fell for when someone called him about the security problem his computer also had.  That other person took him through a long routine online that ended with him saying, I may have the detail wrong, ‘And if your screen shows the number 2789.54 you have a security breach that our software can resolve.’

My friend was so impressed with the diagnosis that he subscribed to three years’ worth of protection from the problem.  Pity he read later that the same sequence of steps on any computer would result in the same number.  Sort of magic, isn’t it?

Anyhow, my apologies for putting the phone down on you so quickly and abruptly.  I expect all this has made me more cynical than I should be.  Feel free to call again and we can compare notes about the weather in Scotland and Manila, or wherever you’re based.  I don’t expect you get much light relief.  It must be a hell of a way to earn a living.

Yours sincerely