Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


MONDAY 13 MAY 2002

  60. Layman's term.
  (Mavis McDonald) There were three million hits in April.[4]

  (Mr Pinder) The UK online portal has recently been redesigned. We redesigned it in January and put it onto a much more flexible platform so we can keep on updating and changing it. We have noticed that since then, the number of hits, or page impressions, the number of users hitting it has risen substantially. That just shows the benefits of a decent presentation. The UK online portal itself is in a sense a sort of travel agent, it is a means of getting to other Government Departments. What we are trying to do with the portal is get people to access Government and then pass them through as fast as possible—continuing the analogy—to a tourist destination, like the No.10 website where people tend to stay for much longer and browse round the site longer because there is material there which is of particular interest. The point of a portal is often to get people in and then point them in the right direction to get the much more detailed information that they are after. We should like to see large numbers of users hitting the site, a small number of clicks and then going on somewhere else and that is what we are achieving with the portal.

  61. How do you establish whether a large number of users hits the site or a smaller number of users hits the site more often, or more regularly, they just re-use it all the time?
  (Mr Pinder) In two ways. First of all, we have a system of registration, so there are people who want to remain in the site and when they come back to it have their preferences remembered, often because they want to go to a particular part of the site or because they want to deal with a particular language—the site is also in Welsh—or perhaps they are in Northern Ireland or Scotland or one of the other devolved administrations where they can get content for a particular area. So a number of people come in, 50,000 or so, who are regular users, who have taken the trouble to register with the site. In addition to that we track the number of different IP addresses, the source from which someone is coming and try to identify those. This is rather difficult to do without the placement of what are called "cookies", little bits of software inside someone's PC, which as a matter of policy at the moment we do not do because we are waiting until better guidelines have been produced on that. Trying to identify the IP addresses from which people come is a difficult matter. The answer for the record is about 14,500 unique users per day, but that would regard people who come from one of the major internet service providers, for example Freeserve, as one user. We cannot go behind the facade of Freeserve, one of the largest internet service providers in the country and identify their individual users. They all look like the same user to us. That makes counting the different numbers of people coming onto the site really quite tricky. We are aware that the numbers who do come in from different addresses has grown considerably by very large percentages but we cannot pin down, in common with virtually every other provider of IT services, how many different people are coming in.

  62. So at the moment you have a relatively small number as far as the percentage of the population of the country is concerned.
  (Mr Pinder) Yes.

  63. What happens when it grows. What risk assessment has been done of the numbers that a site can cope with? How do you deal with that? I have a difficulty at home when I log on on a Saturday morning. If I try to get onto the internet on a Saturday morning I know why it is called the "worldwide wait", because it is a long, slow process. What happens when the system gets so overloaded? Obviously it does not crash, it just blocks. What level do you get to before that happens?
  (Mr Pinder) The site has a substantial amount of capacity within it to be able to cope with about ten times the average daily use. We saw that on 11 September when a number of websites, including ours, had a very, very large number of hits and our site remained up; much more than many comparable sites did. We dealt with that very well. That is in the very short-term, building in extra capacity on the day. The design of the site is also very expandable, so within a very short period of time, a matter of weeks, if we saw demand ramping up, then we could simply slot in additional servers to the site and it would provide permanently increased extra capacity. We are pretty confident that provided we do not get 100 times the number of people on an ordinary day suddenly out of the blue hitting us when obviously things would slow down a lot, as demand gradually builds up or even quickly builds up we are going to be able to respond to it in a very flexible and responsive way.

  64. My biggest concern is that within our senior staff in the Civil Service there are people almost in my age range and we are not all that IT literate, although we try and make attempts to get there. Are the people responsible for putting these programmes in place, the project leaders, the IT specialists, senior enough within Departments that they have enough influence to ensure that the IT projects are fully evaluated, do not get taken off-line? We still have to IT skill a lot of people in the Civil Service and if they are not, what strategies are you developing to ensure that we do get these people at senior level?
  (Mavis McDonald) There has been some concern over the last two to three years about whether we did have enough skills at the more senior levels. We are able to buy in people on short-term contracts or second people in to augment the in-house skills we have. We have also had a significant thrust on the training available in project management at the operational level and we have changed the senior Civil Service competences so that we are looking for much sharper delivery skills and risk management skills. The Office of Public Service Reform and the OGC currently work together on a programme for improved programme and project management which is targeted delivery at the more senior people within the Office. One of the things we are conscious of is this fact that the way the Civil Service works is that you move on and up now more frequently by applying for posts rather than being moved, but you might often move not because you are headhunted outside or because you are walking away because of a disaster but because you want to be promoted. We are looking at systems of incentives which will acknowledge that people are doing a good job by staying and seeing a significant project through. There is quite a lot of work in hand to address the issues, but we need several different routes through to be able to do it, including, I suspect, we will need to buy in additional skills for a little while longer yet.

  65. You still recognise it as a problem yet to be overcome but you are working towards this.
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

Mr Rendel

  66. You were saying just now that you thought your capacity in your service was quite good and that you did not experience some of the problems other people hit on 11 September. Obviously Government can be hit by something sudden like that at any moment, which can suddenly throw up demand. It can also be hit when you put up a new system and suddenly everybody wants it and that happened with the census data which was put up earlier this year. What action have you taken to try to make sure that you do not hit the same sort of problems of lack of capacity as we had then?
  (Mr Pinder) On Departments' other systems, I guess the question should be directed to OGC, whose gateway review will, amongst other things, look at the capacity and the capacity planning of a particular site. Of the sites for which I am responsible, which are the UK online portal, obviously our own site the e-Envoy site and the Government gateway, we make sure that we estimate demand, but we then add in a very substantial contingency and then we also make sure that if we get that wrong, we have the upgrade facilities to increase the capacity of the site. It would perhaps be wrong for me to comment in detail on the Public Records Office site which was responsible for the census, but I suspect there, there were some design issues which made it more difficult to respond to the completely unprecedented scale of demand for that site than it would be when just scaling the site up. The nature of the site and the complexity of the site made it rather difficult to respond quickly.

  67. What lessons have been learned? Have lessons been learned? Have you been putting out anything to other Departments to warn them about capacity or is that not your responsibility? Is it for someone else to do that.
  (Mr Pinder) Ourselves and OGC would want to make sure that any lessons which were learnable from that particular problem were learned.

  68. I am sure you want to. What I am asking is whether you have done anything about it?
  (Mr Pinder) Yes, we have. We have not yet got the site back up again. Once the site is up the story is complete and then we want to have a proper look at what the difficulties were, whether they were foreseeing the demand or whether there were other difficulties, what lessons we should be learning. Currently the site is undergoing testing before going live again and when that is up and has run for a successful period of time, we shall want to look at the whole process and see whether we got it right. Clearly we did not and what should we be learning from that?

  69. May I ask about an article which appeared in The Observer yesterday, which you no doubt saw, about a programme called Libra from the Lord Chancellor's Department? Apparently they have been forced to abandon this. Are you aware of this?
  (Mr Pinder) I am aware of the project and I am also aware of the article.

  70. Is it correct that they have been forced to abandon it?
  (Mr Pinder) I do not know. I think that is not true, but perhaps OGC have better information on that.
  (Mr Barrett) I believe that the Lord Chancellor's Department are in the process of making decisions about the future of Libra. I do not believe they have made a decision to abandon it.
  (Mavis McDonald) None of us is directly involved in the day-to-day handling of this which is why we sound so vague.
  (Mr Pinder) Libra is not a project which is directly to do with e-government facing out to the public. It is an internal system for the Lord Chancellor's Department. I am therefore not particularly familiar with the details of it.

  71. I should have hoped that Ms McDonald would at least have been aware of the project and whether a decision had been taken. What you are saying is that you are simply not aware whether a decision has been taken or you believe it has not.
  (Mr Barrett) As I understand it, a decision has not yet been taken on the future of Libra, but it is under consideration by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

  72. It is the sort of project which is quite big, apparently some £300 million. Do you know whether the recommendations we made in January 2000 were all adhered to with that project?
  (Mr Barrett) I do not know that. The project would be subject to gateway review.

  73. Has there been a gateway review of it?
  (Mr Barrett) There has been a gateway review on Libra. The lessons learned from that, which would look in particular at recommendations —

  74. Do you know when the gateway review of the project was done?
  (Mr Barrett) I can give you a note on that, if you wish.[5]

  75. If this article is correct and it turns out that the project is scrapped—and the article indicates that decision has been taken—it would be interesting to know later on, if the decision is to scrap it, when that decision was actually taken, given that you three do not appear to think it has been taken yet. I would want that confirmed if that is correct.
  (Mr Barrett) I am sure that as of last week the decision had not been taken.

  76. Last week?
  (Mr Barrett) It had not been taken before last Thursday.
  (Mr Pinder) The latest information that we have is that the decision has not been taken.

  77. I have to say I am surprised that if you read the article at all you have not been updated today about this particular one. I should have thought it was a very important project in e-government. We are not going to get very much further with this in the present circumstances, but it would certainly be interesting to know when the gateway review was done and what the results of that gateway review were, because if it is now scrapped then the interesting question is why the gateway review let it go through. It looks as though the Government may have wasted a considerable amount of money on this project, possibly up to £300 million which is not a pittance. I though the gateway process was supposed to stop this sort of thing happening, to make sure that it was caught early.
  (Mr Barrett) The Libra project has been going on since 1997 and the emerging findings from the gateway reviews across the whole of the central civil government are that where early gateways are done you dramatically improve the chances of success.

  78. Even if a late gateway is done and something is going badly wrong with the project—and if this project is going to be scrapped, then something must have been going fairly badly wrong by the time the gateway review was done—I would have thought the gateway review ought to have stopped it.
  (Mr Barrett) It may be that was one of the factors in the evaluation which is going on at the moment about the future.

  79. If so it has taken apparently a year after the gateway review.
  (Mr Barrett) No, the gateway review was relatively recent. I cannot tell you the exact date.

4   Note by witness: There were in fact three million `page impressions' in April 2002. There is some confusion between the technical terms `hits' and `page impressions'. Counting `page impressions' is a much more meaningful way of measuring web traffic, although the term `hits' is widely heard. A `page impression' stands for one page of data presented on the screen. A `hit', however, represents one element of a page-this could be a logo or separate elements of a table, for example. One page can consist of many elements and therefore generate a high number of `hits'-especially if it is a complex or graphically intensive page. Back

5   Note by witness: I can confirm that the Libra project at the Lord Chancellor's Department underwent a Gateway Review form 26 to 28 February 2002. Back

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