Saturday 11 May 2013

Why can't the public sector develop good services?

Catching a bus isn't that painful these days thanks to a great app called TripView. After trying the free version, I was more than happy to spend a huge $2.99 on the full version. Anyone paying a visit to Sydney with the intention of catching a train, ferry or bus should buy it before they get here. It's brilliant.

It doesn't eliminate the smelly, fat people that you have to deal with on the bus occasionally, but it takes the hassle out of catching public transport at the right time.

The software was developed by a private company. When they started, they didn't have real time information on the location of the bus or train that you wanted to catch - that was introduced this year. In fact, the public monopolies were so manic about keeping their timetabling information to themselves, that the company had to develop a way to scrape the timetables from their websites. It just goes to show how individual persistence and ingenuity can overcome bureaucratic stupidity and inertia.

Many years ago, I used to drink with a bloke who was a software developer for the railways. This was back in the days of the Nokia banana phone - the one used by Nemo in The Matrix. That's how long ago this was. He managed to convince his boss to buy something more advanced than the Nokia 3210, which was the most popular phone at the time. He got one that came with a very basic data service, and in his spare time on weekends, he developed an app that could push timetable information to the phone.

It was pretty hopeless, but it demonstrated what could be done with a very clunky phone and a data service that ran at no more than 9kb/s. It was also expensive to run as data services were in their infancy.

So it ended up being a total failure, but it was an interesting experiment. He tried to get some internal support to take it further - to turn it into a customer facing app - but management couldn't be less interested. Making life easier for the customer was not in their remit. They didn't think anyone would want to use it. In the end, he moved on, and I haven't had a beer with him in quite a while.

When the conservatives got into power, one of the things that they did was to force the public transport operators to open up their timetables and real time information feeds to private software developers. I imagine the Transport Minister had to beat the bureaucrats over the head with a baseball bat for months to make that happen. Resistance would have been intense, and I bet one of the reasons for resisting would be the idea that they suddenly wanted to develop an app like this, and allowing private competition would put that project at risk.

I saw things like that happen a few times when I was in the public sector. The bureaucrats would have less than zero interest in doing something until someone from outside popped up and said that they could do it. With great rapidity, the bureaucrats would circle the wagons and mount a spirited defense to ensure that the interloper didn't trespass on their turf. Once the interloper was beaten back, they went back to doing nothing about that particular issue. Protection of their turf was key. Delivering a service to the public was barely even considered.

So if you ever get to use TripView, you can thank the current Minister and her staff for belting the bloody bureaucrats until they relented and made the timetabling and real time information public. Or at least partly public. Whenever I have to catch a bus or train, I say a silent thanks to Gladys.

1 comment:

Steve at the Pub said...

I feel the pain you describe. My town is bristling with government departments (of the care bear variety [e.g. dept of "human development" or somesuch], not the pragmatic results variety [e.g. Dept of Primary Industries]

There isn't a project or suchlike by a business operator that the public servants havn't immediately copied, for 10 times the cost.

If businesses don't go under, and (using a thing known as "customer service") actually overcome the competition from the (heavily subsidised) public service, the public servants will go and spend another few million upgrading their "business" to ensure private business gets donged.

The public servants have never had an idea of their own.