Friday, 28 December 2007
These subtleties are what really count in government. After all, three quarters of the country wants the government to tell us how to live our lives in detail.
So, there was no sense in Gordo galavanting on our behalf at the signing ceremony of the EU Constit... er, sorry, "Reform Treaty", when there was a meeting of the House of Commons "liaison committee" to attend.
And if the government can't control the security of people's personal information, then it can at least have a policy of being transparent when they get it wrong. And keep logs of the problems. And undertake investigations. You never know, people might just get sick of hearing about it all and stop bothering to care about their personal security anyway.
And then there is the distraction of targets. And of reports of performance against targets.
We are blinded by the detail.
But just for a laugh, I looked at the Autumn 2007 Performance Report of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, or "BERR". That's the department charged with promoting enterprise and cutting red tape, I'll have you know.
Footnote 6 on page 5 gives you an idea where the report is headed:
"Factors affecting performance are only discussed for targets from the current spending review [undertaken in 2004]. The performance on targets from previous spending reviews can no longer be influenced since the period covered by them has ended."
In other words, if they miss the targets, the slate gets wiped clean.
And here's what we got for our tax money spent on promoting enterprise and cutting red tape:
"Of the ten PSA targets from SR04 which BERR is responsible for delivering, five are assessed as on course to be delivered, two are assessed as showing slippage, two are split up and assessed in more detail by sub-target (with most of the sub-targets assessed as on course for each) and one further target is yet to be assessed."
5 out of ten.
But what of the targets "showing slippage"?
Pah! They're only concerned with fuel poverty in vulnerable households, reducing EU trade barriers to help developing countries and nuclear clean-up. "Greater choice and commitment in the workplace" hasn't even been assessed.
I'm sorry, did you say, "nuclear clean-up"?
Ah, yes... Target 9, page 7:
"reduce the civil nuclear liability by 10% by 2010, and establish a safe, innovative and dynamic market for nuclear cleanup by delivering annual 2% efficiency gains from 2006-07; and ensuring successful competitions have been completed for the management of at least 50% of UK nuclear sites by end 2008."
I see. The same government that tells us how to live our lives is also dumping our unencrypted personal data in Iowa and failing to clean up its own nuclear waste.
Somehow, I reckon life could get pretty warm around here during '08.
Better make this New Year's Eve party a big one. Enjoy.
Friday, 14 December 2007
Sport and (un-scripted) reality TV shows (including the "News"?) are about the 'freshest' US TV broadcast content out there, which heralds a giant audience moving online for the latest in entertainment. That migration should include viewers in markets like Australia that screen a high proportion of US television content, as well as viewers in other markets following more selected content. Advertisers will no doubt follow the migration like lions follow wildebeest (although, of course, online nobody knows you are a wildebeest).
All of this suggests that TV execs will have to pay even bigger bucks for good writing and sports rights to keep themselves in a job.
PS: 7 Jan '08, a survey commissioned by MySpace says kids would rather network online than watch TV:
"A group of 18- to 24-year-olds drawn from 1,000 people surveyed by Future
Laboratory said it would rather spend 15 minutes visiting social networking
sites than watching television, reading, playing video games or talking on
Now I see that two equally shadowy entities, OFT and TSS, are trying to let the cat out of the bag so that virtually anyone could comply.
What a pair of do-gooders.
They say that 66% of people selling remotely have never found the laws that require some bumf on their web sites, which could land them in hot water with local officials.
Well, don't think the official hot tub sessions will stop there, folks. There's a lot of regulation that has been released by the European Commission in code that only lawyers can read. Allegedly, because it helps create confidence in doing business across the length and breadth of the EU.
Thursday, 6 December 2007
"an enterprise, which at the time of conclusion of the payment service contract, is an enterprise as defined in Article 1 and Article 2(1) and (3) [oh, don't forget 2(3)!!] of the Annex to Recommendation 2003/361/EC".I'm thinking of launching a Quest to find those responsible for this latest gobbledigook and demand to know in plain English what "micro-enterprise" was intended to mean, without referring me anywhere else.
But where to start?
In 2005, the UK's Better Regulation Commission produced a fascinating, literal "map" of what we might really loosely describe as the 'European Union legislative process'. See especially page 14.
I'm not being sarcastic here. The report is a veritable base camp from which to begin the quest for the source and true meaning of EU legislation. It provides a guide, pack animals, tents, rope, torches and other basic tools. The rest of the specific search is down to good eyesight, a laptop or PC, broadband, physical fitness, strength, caffeine, food, and several towels that can be soaked in ice cold mountain springs and wrapped tightly around one's head. Oh, and a journey to Brussels. With a lobbyist.
Are you in?
It will be very crowded, but ours will be lonely work. Listening amidst the din of countless institutions and committees for the mystical whisper known as the "Social Dialogue". For it is only in that stream of semi-consciousness that we may dare to even hope to find the truth of the coded messages embedded in the "stakeholder input", "advice", "green papers", "proposals", "adoptions of proposals", "opinions", "consultations", "co-decisions", "common positions" and, ultimately the Regulations and Directives that emerge six or seven years later to drive us to distraction.
Yeah, sod it. I'm staying in London to earn a crust.
Monday, 3 December 2007
Because most web sites with anything remotely important on them seem to require log-in codes, I keep many different usernames and passwords in my head. Apparently, the average person uses 12 (Independent Extra, 21.11.07, p.8). That's nothing compared to the many phone numbers that we used to remember before we began relying on the directory in our mobile phones and laptops, or Skype. But it hardly aids freedom of movement around the web.
To ease my passage, so to speak, the (worryingly named) Open ID programme would have me replace all my passcodes with a single ID. It would sit in a database somewhere to be checked when I access each participating web site.
Cue another standards battle, and Round 10 between Google, Microsoft et al.
But the people working on the semantic web would say that I shouldn't have to move around the web at all. Their goal is making information "understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing and combining information on the web". As I recall the explanation of Dr Nick Gibbins (School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton) at the SCL's Law 2.0 event in September, the key issues are trust and provenance in the information which the computers are being made to understand. Both vary according to the source, time and context in which the information is given, as well as the content itself. You trust Prof Lillian Edwards' view of privacy law, but not her tips on car repair. But rather than drawing on a single ID in a single (hackable) repository somewhere, the computers would rely on a whole range of circumstantial evidence to confirm that the data in question is likely to be true and relevant to you - or in a log-in scenario, that the person whose computer is trying to gain access to a database is you.
Cue another massive battle over standards, but also over ontologies, taxonomies and other elements of the semantic web that are worthy of such top-draw words.
I guess that Open ID may be a stepping stone along the way to the semantic web, in which case we should get on with it. But that does seem like two stones for the one bird. Whereas the semantic web promises convenience without humans having to do all the moving around - so two birds with one stone.
I know which sounds better.
Saturday, 1 December 2007
Of course, Richard is wasting his time and effort when it comes to the very law firms who need to listen most. Enormous profits provide no incentive to innovate, except perhaps to cut the costs of current processes and figure out new excuses to hike hourly rates. None is really organised to innovate. The trend away from the pretence of partnership and chatter about who will list on the stock exchange reveals that their true intent, ironically, is to mirror the ethos of their best and biggest clients. Economies of scale and profits, not staff or clients, are paramount, the argument being that only huge profits allow adequate investment in staff and various hallmarks of quality. Like extra sculptures for the foyer.
True, clients do get resentful as rates soar, and the big ones bully firms into complex discount arrangements that sub-scale clients ultimately pay for. But that's merely a corporate game of cat-and-mouse, not seismic innovation.
No, the only participants in Law 2.0 are going to be relieved clients, the lawyers who solve their legal issues, and law firms that do no more than what is strictly necessary to facilitate the interaction between the two in order to solve those legal issues. In other words, lean, rather than obese, intermediaries.
I began working through Lawyers Direct two years ago to top-up my salary while working at Zopa, the person to person lending marketplace (in fairness to them, it was perhaps my stints at Reuters, DLA and GE that drove me to become a serial disruptor). Lawyers Direct offers access to more than 60 highly experienced lawyers at half what their City rates would have been. There is a fantastic but small support team in a small office in West London. The lawyers work wherever and whenever they please, linked by email and with the same sort of online tools and intranet that any self-respecting law firm should have. The reduced overhead means that even after the lower charge-out rate, the lawyers still have the opportunity to take home the same salary as some of their City counterparts (the ones who really do the work of solving legal issues).
Vaporised is the monolithic concrete tower with its vast, wasted common areas, sculptures, reception, private dining rooms, gym, library and hordes of support staff. There are neither billing targets nor the anxiety and temptation that goes with them. There are no partners, committees of partners, managing partners or senior partners.
All that's left is a compelling, lean and efficient business model for clients and lawyers alike.
List that, and I'll queue for the stock!
Describing the Northern Rock situation, Lex asserts that "The muddy confluence of desperate politics, financial greed and spin has obliterated transparency."
Thursday, 29 November 2007
Saturday, 24 November 2007
Saturday, 17 November 2007
A glance at the excellent programme shows why this should come as no surprise: there's an awful lot to get your head around just to understand what open source software is in the first place.
But, let’s not lose sight of the wood for all the trees (the history and philosophical debate between the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software Foundation, the vast array of licences and nor the complexities of GPL2 vs GPL3 and AGPL3).
The fact is that software developers can easily import any computer code via the Internet without fully understanding the licence obligations. What seems "free" code can actually come with an obligation to licence the source code for you proprietary product to the world, free of charge.
So, as Kat McCabe of Black Duck explained, sophisticated buyers of businesses are now requiring an audit of the source code for the target's IT systems and products in an attempt to exploit the target's inadvertent use of open source software, and reduce the price for acquiring the business. Overseeing that due diligence is Jim Markwith's legal role at Microsoft. And it explains the incredible degree of licensing rigour imposed on Nokia's open source programme by Dietmar Tallroth.
This is not an argument against using open source software. But anyone with an eye on the value of their business ought to get a handle on how their developers are operating and consider regular audits of their source code.
Friday, 16 November 2007
While I doubt that I was terribly informative last night, I'm now able to recall that, personally and professionally, I'm aware that people are already connecting economically speaking in education, complementary healthcare, event organising, lending (as a proxy for investing or saving) and borrowing, music, financing music production, stuff, accommodation, jobs and more stuff, legal services and home improvement. There must be loads more, but I'd have to start actively searching and my emails are piling up...
Could you get through the day, week, month, year only dealing with individuals?
Thursday, 15 November 2007
Research tells me that I am not alone, but what tools exist to help us achieve this?
Needless to say, the government of the day is particularly untrustworthy when it comes to demonstrating value for all the money we give it. The opposition are generally at the opposite extreme. The various media are concerned only with what is “news”, which is to say what they believe to be immediate, significant and topical - usually the posturing of the main political parties. And only the PR-skilled, lucky or very persistent ever get their message into the news. Like politicians and those who hire lobbyists.
The rest of us have been pretty much left with the National Audit Office, which provides great ammunition for everybody to use. But the NAO quite rightly focuses on how the government is currently spending or promising to spend our money now, and can't ever be seen to be using its fact finding and reporting as a basis for 'campaigning' for change.
So, it's up to us as citizens to find other ways of keeping the pressure on. But how?
Charities and other 'pressure groups' often do a good job of including the humble citizen in their activities e.g. Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam. Otherwise, it's self-help.
Of course, "self-help" could mean voting, and even swapping your vote at the next General Election. But while you're waiting for our beloved Prime Minister to call one, you could get an overview of the problems as the politicians see them (and comment on your MP's blog), share your views with others via social networks (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo etc), comments on blogs and email, participate with other vigilantes in our 'special relationship' with the US, sign up to a petition that proposes a solution to the root cause of your problem, write to the civil servants with your problem directly, or report an issue to your local council.
If there are other self-help measures, I'd love to hear of them.
Wednesday, 14 November 2007
Thanks to Blackbeltjones I recently had the privilege of discussing the Future of Money as part of a programme at the Royal College of Art in London.
Based on what I consider to be the relevant drivers of change, the need to solve significant consumer problems from the consumers' point of view and likely sources of resistance to change, I suggested that the innovative retail financial services of the future would tend to share the following characteristics:
1. The service is unlikely to be offered or facilitated by an entity that consumers perceive to be an “institution”;
2. The service solves the root cause of consumers’ critical need in the course of actual or desired activities, linking with trusted third parties to provide a comprehensive consumer experience;
3. The service leverages a shock amongst consumers who subsequently accept that the world has changed, yet helps them to embrace that change;
4. The service leaves day-to-day control of the management of money with the consumer;
5. The service improves rapidly with user collaboration, giving value beyond the facilitator;
6. The service will remain successful so long as the facilitator continues to invest in enhancing the service and meeting related consumer needs rather than seeking merely to enrich itself (i.e. preferring to meet the needs of stakeholders other than consumers);
7. The service is safe, easy to use, and involves communications that are fair, transparent (enabling ready comparison) and neither misleading nor patronising;
8. The service and its operator plays well with the regulators and public policy/opinion-formers.
Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Green Thing is a community that makes it easy and enjoyable to be a bit greener. Every month you’ll get a different Green Thing to do. All you have to do is do it.
October's Green Thing was "Walk Once", while November's Green Thing is a bit more open to interpretation...
Taking the UK as an example, in 2005 the Small Business Service found there were 4.3 million businesses in the UK, 3.2 million (74%) of which were owner operated, employed no staff and generated an estimated annual turnover of about £190 billion. Only 6000 UK businesses, or 0.1%, had more than 250 employees.
By March 2006, Ofcom reported that 15.36 million UK households (60%) had Internet access; over 11 m UK homes and small businesses had broadband; 40% of adults, and 70% of 16-24 yr olds, with internet access had used social networking sites (defined as any site that enables entry of personal online profiles).
Government statistics put the UK’s population was estimated at 60.2 million people in mid-2005, approximately 80% of whom were over the age of 16.
The European Commission recently announced its decision to propose new EU consumer rules in an attempt to create cross-border retail markets in the EU. The member of the European Commission responsible for consumer policy, Mrs Meglena Kuneva, said:
“I am convinced that consumer policy is uniquely well-placed to help the EU rise to the twin... challenges of growth and jobs and reconnecting with its citizens... The Commission’s vision is to demonstrate by 2013 to all EU citizens that they can shop from anywhere in the EU, from a corner shop to a website, with confidence and equal protection. And we will also show to all retailers that they can sell anywhere on the basis of a single, simple set of rules.
We are a long way from those goals now…”
A long way indeed.
A study by the European Consumer Network on cross border complaints pointed to problems with delivery (46%) and defects or lack of conformity with description (25%) as the two main problems.
Furthermore, Eurobarometer discovered in October 2006 that while 27% of EU citizens shopped online in 2006, only 6% made a cross border purchase online. It also found that consumer perception is focused on more practical concerns: "... it is harder to resolve problems such as complaints, returns, price reductions, guarantees etc” (71%); “there is a greater risk of falling victim to a scam or fraud” (68%); “there is a greater chance of having delivery problems with goods or services” (66%); “there are more problems returning a product they bought at a distance within the "cooling-off" period” (65%). From a business standpoint, “the biggest perceived obstacle to cross-border trade is the insecurity of transactions (61%)… potential problems with resolving complaints (57%)… difficulties in ensuring after-sales service (55%) and extra delivery costs.” A further 43% of respondents cited language differences as an obstacle to cross-border trade. Such issues may point to problems with enforcement of existing laws and contracts, but not to any fresh regulatory opportunities.
Similarly, a May 2007 study by Civic Consulting reveals that efforts to construct a single European market for consumer credit by introducing a new consumer credit directive are flawed. According to the consumer organisations and national banking associations who were polled, “the main [non-regulatory] barriers hindering selling of consumer credit products in other EU Member States are different language and culture; consumers’ preference for national lenders; credit risk for lenders – no access to creditworthiness information; problems related to tax, employment practices etc.; difficulties to penetrate local market; different consumer demand in different Member States; lack of consumer confidence in a brand; differing stages of development of consumer credit; and lack of adequate marketing strategies.” The study concluded that “a single market for consumer credit cannot be expected to be created by harmonisation of legislation alone, and this is a long term rather than a short or medium term perspective.” As such, “the supply side of the market… does not expect increased demand and therefore economic growth from the proposal.”
In short, the European Commission is proposing a regulatory solution for problems that have no regulatory solution. And worse, for those of us who do share an ambition to create cross-border markets, is that, ironically, regulation in this area is likely to stifle innovation and constrain growth rather than promote it. As has been observed by Marsden et al. (2006) in connection with the reform of the TV Without Frontiers Directive, prescriptive regulation tends to cause markets “to develop towards more closed and concentrated structures”. This is because larger participants can afford compliance costs, lobbying efforts and have the bargaining strength to shift liability onto suppliers and consumers in a way that smaller market participants cannot – “hence, incumbents and regulated actors have incentives to drive up regulatory costs in other parts of the value chain”. Complex regulatory regimes may also either avert venture capital investment from attempted innovation in the regulated activity or ensure that it “will only flow to those companies considered to have the ability to ‘play a good game’ with the regulators”.
If the European Commission must play a role in creating cross-border retail markets, then it should help foster solutions to the real obstacles, bottom-up amongst market participants, not pose new ones.
A pragmatist does not slavishly follow rules, or political dogma, or "positive thinking" or the herd. To do so would assume a world that is somehow ordered, whereas almost all significant events in history are Black Swans - surprise events that have a huge impact and which we rationalise by hindsight. Rules and dogma can turn out to be badly wrong. The herd is eventually caught out. So it's dangerous to follow. Instead, we must rely on experience and critcial thought to minimise our exposure to the downside of these surprise events, and maximise our exposure to the upside.
The combination of theory and practice that qualifies as "intelligent practice" involves trial and failure. It involves being sceptical and "contrarian". It encompasses the aggressive "tinkering" of entrepreneurs - facilitators - who have helped us wrest control of our own life experiences from the one-size-fits-all experience offered by the established music labels, book publishers, retailers, package holiday operators, banks and political parties. These facilitators make the difference between us 'raging against the machine' in a lone, fragmented way and acting together as individuals in a highly concentrated fashion. And this giant, boundaryless online community of practising individuals and facilitators characterises the "architecture of participation" that lies at the heart of "Web 2.0".
In other words, it may be that institutions are being marginalised by people pragmatically engaging with each other in their own digital communities, not only for retail purposes but also political, environmental, health, and economic reasons.
Big questions arise.
How do the institutions get it so wrong? How do facilitators succeed where institutions fail? How can we bridge the gap between what institutions say is right for us, and what is actually right for us personally? Could today's successful facilitators become tomorrow's institutions? Are today's institutions doomed? Or can they respond, re-organise and align themselves with how "we" individual citizens and consumers behave?
I explore these questions here, and look forward to discussing any thoughts or comments you have along the way.