21 June 2011

SmartGov live 2011

I first went to the pregenitor of SmartGov live around six years ago when I was working for the London Borough of Lambeth.

In those days it was called Government Computing and was held conveniently at Earls Court but now it has adopted the topical adjective "smart" and has moved out to the posh but inaccessible ExCeL complex by Victoria Docks in what is still very much the East End.

Previously it had been the exhibition that had attracted me with the large hall full of vendors eager to sell their latest content management or customer relationship management products. I went to one or two talks but they were of peripheral interest.

This time the talk programme was my main pull and I identified several sessions that would all but fill my day.

and it's just as well that I did as the exhibition part of the event had shrunk alarmingly and there was not one stand that I found more than mildly interesting.

The reduced scale was reflected in the freebies. I went expecting to have to fight off the cloth bags but I managed to leave with none. There were a only few there, just three stalls had them, and none were of any brand that I wanted to carry with me to the shops. And I alread have more pens than I'll ever need too.

Luckily it was not long to wait until the first talk.

10:00 - 10:30 Channel shifts and large scale transformation

David Wilde, Chief Information Officer, City of Westminster gave his view of the trends in government technology and how these are helping the transformation of public services.

He explained that Local Authorities had initially responded badly to external players, like FixMyStreet, but had learnt to accept and then to work with them.

He went on to say that the adoption of web services had been less successful than had been expected (they were the big cure when I worked at Lambeth) but he had high hopes for easy to use apps that citizens could access any time anywhere.

We also heard a fair bit about the shared service initiatives being run by the three Conservative boroughs. Remarkably this is a five year programme of IT standardisation and consolidation. Stalin might have approved but I cannot see it working.

11:00 - 11:40 Public data transparency and open standards

Paul Davidson, Chairman and CIO, E-Government Standards Board (LeGSB) and Sedgemoor District Council, and Simon Rogers, editor - Datablog, The Guardian, gave us two contrasting perspectives on open public sector data.

Paul Davidson came with enough slides for a week that broke all sorts of records for words per page and boredom per minute.

The LeGSB reminded me of some of the public organisations that I was involved in at Lambeth and which I hoped had all died a natural death.

Local Authorities just love talking to each other at length about standards even though this has no impact on the delivery of services. It's just foilware for gullible executives.

Simon Rogers followed with a breath of fresh air.

He talked through some examples of how the Guardian has collected, analysed and presented public sector data in a clear and understandable way.

The Freedom of Information Act is a useful lever to pull to get this data but it takes a lot of effort to pose the same questions to each authority and to consolidate it in a consistent format before the clever design work with the presentation can begin.

The Guardian also makes the consolidated data available, usually in spreadsheet format, for other people to play with.

This is a genuinely interesting and useful application of open data, and the originating local authorities are not involved.

12:15 - 13:15 Lunchtime keynote debate: how is information technology changing the UK?

I was really looking forward to the lunchtime debate with Dave Briggs Kind of Digital, Andy Gibson founder and director, Sociability, Chris Chant interim executive director for digital Cabinet Office, Dominic Campbell director, FutureGov and Professor Paul Watson director of the digital institute Newcastle University because I'd come across some of these people before, e.g. at citycamplondon, and I follow them on Twitter.

In the end the session proved to be disappointing as it tried to cover a wide range of topics, from identity to the Cloud, and so failed to cover any of them in any real depth.

It may be because that I am am fairly close to the subject and the people involved that none of this was new to me and I took no notes during the session.

13:30 - 14:00 Open Standards and Open Source Software: Crucial for Government IT in a Big Society

Bill McCluggage, deputy government CIO Cabinet Office and Gerry Gavigan, chair Open Source Consortium gave us some very lively views on Open. Put simply, Bill said that the Government takes Open very seriously and Gerry firmly replied that this is not true.

I found Gerry to be the more convincing and I tweeted at the time, "The Government speaks Open but acts Microsoft."

Gerry's main argument was that Government likes building cathedrals, and rewards their staff for doing so, and so it naturally opposed to open even if those at the top would like to embrace it.

One of the reasons for this is at Open leads to Localism (if you have access to the tools you can do it yourself) and Central Government does not like losing control.

14:15 - 14:45 Intelligence based public customer service reform

The day ended with a case study from Valerie Pearce, programme director- Improving the Customer Experience, Brighton and Hove City Council.

In some ways this was the most positive session as it told us what is really happening and there were some nice nuggets in there. Such as the effort that they make to get information out there, e.g. giving extreme weather updates by twitter, so that people so not have to call in to find out, for example, if the school is open.

Brighton and Hove also have the courage to ignore some Government guidance, which I heartily approve of.


Overall I was surprised and disappointed at how little progress had been made in the five years since I last worked in the public sector.

The programmes in place then failed and local authorities are still promising jam tomorrow with lots of enthusiasm but little evidence to back their claims up.

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