Harry Metcalfe

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On £585 favicons…

Feb 4th 2011
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Tech, Thoughts

Much noise has been made in the last couple of days about Reading Room charging the Information Commissioner’s Office £585 for a favicon – the small graphics that appear to the left of the URL in the address bar when you visit a website.

This story provoked a rather predictable outburst on how Government spends far too much money, and doesn’t get value for money*. It’s a perspective that’s expressed frequently — most recently for the police.uk’s £300k price-tag.

Often Government does pay too much. We all wonder why BusinessLink costs £36m a year. But this isn’t one of those cases. Reading Room charged £585 for the ICO’s favicon, and most people seem to be objecting to that figure on the basis that it would have taken them 5 minutes to do it, and therefore, that Reading Room must have charged £585 for 5 minutes work.

But, as anyone familiar with the delivery of actual government projects will know, absolutely nothing ever just takes 5 minutes. Not when you have the client, two government organisations and two or three other contractors to deal with. Not when you’re working within a delivery framework that requires multiple levels of approval before anything goes live. Not when government has deliberately taken a “belt & braces” approach to contracting — ironically usually done to aid accountability, but which invariably creates procedural bloat and extra cost.

There’s a huge difference between making a favicon and making one for a big organisation, with lots of people who need to give input and approval. There’s a huge difference between making an informational website that you think is good, and making one for an entire country, maintained by an entire government. There’s a huge difference between your website and your Government’s website: because in any activity, time and cost increase with the number of people who are involved.

The real question here isn’t why this specific favicon cost £585. That’s pretty clear: Reading Room charge £600/day (which is competitive), spent a few minutes making the favicon, and the best part of 7 hours making sure everyone was happy with it. Which, I strongly suspect, is exactly what they were asked to do by their client.

We absolutely need to work on making government more agile and getting better value for money. And it is starting to happen, as dxw’s success over the past three years illustrates. But blind invective won’t accomplish that.

Suppliers need to help government understand the true (small!) nature of the risks that online technologies present. And we need to show government how it’s possible to do things quickly and cheaply on the web.

And I think that practical help and understanding will get us there much more quickly than premature outbursts of uninformed anger.

Edited to add: @threedaymonk has an excellent writeup on this too.

*I have to admit to partaking in that in a small and light-hearted way.


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14 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    I actually think the £300k for police.uk is exceptionally good value for money, given what’s been delivered and the amount of time it must have taken to produce it.

  2. Harry says:

    @Paul – I think it’s not an unreasonable amount of money to have spent on a website with’s police.uk’s scope/audience/complexity.

    But I’m less sure that in this particular case, the money was well spent. I pretty much entirely endorse this:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/02/uk-crime-maps-developers-unhappy

    But that’s really a criticism of the Police and Home Office’s strategy, I suspect, and not of the agency that built it or the price.

  3. Paul says:

    There do seem to be problems with the data collection – it’s the presentation which I think is done well. Presumably the data collection methods can be refined gradually over time to create a more useful service.

    Although they really need to fix the ‘whenever a new set of data is uploaded, the previous set will be removed from public view’ issue.

  4. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether Reading Room should have charged £585 for a 32×32 graphic. If that’s commensurate with the work involved, then they absolutely should bill for it.

    My problem – and I don’t think you’d argue with this – is that government has allowed a process to build up, which turns a five-minute job (£6.96 pro rata) into a seven hour job (£585).

    You involve intermediaries because they are going to ensure you get the right service at the right price. I wonder the extent to which this happened in this case – especially when you have Margaret Manning asking ‘What commercial entity has Capita running its IT?’

  5. Harry says:

    @simon:

    I *mostly* agree with that. Except that sometimes that process is justified. When there are serious risks, financial stuff, personal data, etc – then that kind of process can be necessary.

    But yes, fairly obviously, it’s not necessary for an informational/corporate website.

  6. Harry says:

    @paul: As far as I’m concerned, it’s almost useless. Because it maps reported crime, not actual crime.

    So, really, they’re not crime maps. They’re crime report maps. Which, imo, are worlds apart.

  7. Janet E Davis says:

    Well-written post. I agree with it.
    I must admit that I was bemused that anyone should get upset about a favicon for a large organisation costing £585. Spending a total of around a day from start to client acceptance of something like that seems reasonable to me.
    Trouble is, people see adverts by ‘web designers’ claiming to build ‘customised’ websites for your company for only £70 and think that it is cheap to design things.

  8. Stuart Bruce says:

    The other point worth making is that this isn’t an example of public sector ‘inefficiency’. In my experience the layers of checks, approvals and bureaucracy in many very large commercial companies would be as big if not even greater.

  9. [...] On £585 favicons… – Harry Metcalfe There’s a huge difference between making a favicon and making one for a big organisation, with lots of people who need to give input and approval. There’s a huge difference between making an informational website that you think is good, and making one for an entire country, maintained by an entire government. There’s a huge difference between your website and your Government’s website: because in any activity, time and cost increase with the number of people who are involved. [...]

  10. @HalifaxSlasher @VideoNasty sounds like this: http://t.co/rV39hzvZ

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