Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
CB, MR ANDREW
MONDAY 13 MAY 2002
60. Layman's term.
(Mavis McDonald) There were three million hits in
(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 possiblecontinuing
the analogyto 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 languagethe
site is also in Welshor 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
(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.
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
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
(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
(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
(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
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
75. If this article is correct and it turns
out that the project is scrappedand the article indicates
that decision has been takenit 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
(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 projectand if this project
is going to be scrapped, then something must have been going fairly
badly wrong by the time the gateway review was doneI 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
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