Category Archives: Government

Keynoting at UCD 2013

This past weekend I went to London for the UCD2013 conference. I gave the Saturday morning keynote (to about 75 people, I think) on usability in government systems. This was a fairly visible talk — more so than last month’s one to City University Human Computer Interaction Design, and I spent a lot (a LOT) of time preparing the slides, wanting to get the visuals right (not too many words) and the content organized appropriately for this audience. I had three main goals:

  • Show the number and diversity of stakeholders in government systems — the direct users and other people affected by them (and implicitly by their usability)
  • Convey an idea of the number and variety of government systems other than public websites
  • Explain the challenges and the rewards for UX professionals in doing government work

Ultimately, I hoped to raise awareness of and interest in this area of UX work.

I put more time into this presentation than any I had ever given before. A large part of that was due to finding and documenting photos of UK government users and systems that were Crown Copyright and available under the Open Government Licence*. Another large component was getting the attributions right, because they had to be in the notes before I uploaded the slides to SlideShare.

It went well, I think; what amazed me was that even though I was still tweaking that morning and hadn’t had a chance to run through it aloud, it turned out to be exactly the right length. It was also well received: one person told me that my talk was the reason he had attended the conference (wow!) and he and one other said it had prompted them to order the book.

I enjoyed myself, met some very interesting people, and learned a few things.

And here is my presentation on SlideShare.

On a side note: I also found what may be a solution to my work situation — an “umbrella company” that becomes your employer. You arrange the work assignments and this company bills your clients, pays you your share, and handles your income taxes and national insurance payments. (National Insurance is like Social Security and health insurance rolled into one.) One of the guys I met said he uses consultants from this company in his business and it works well. I contacted the company and they said they have a lot of people who are here on student visas. I feel optimistic.

*Note to UK government officials: I think I have met the OGL requirements for using the photos in my presentation. If I have erred in any way, please let me know and I will make whatever changes may be necessary.

A fairly fruitful, if long, visit to the US Embassy London

Today was the day I had set up a month or so ago for visiting the US Embassy in London (mostly the IRS office there) to ask some questions that I didn’t think I could address over the phone. I took a very fast train — Newcastle nonstop to London, 280 miles in 2.62 hours — an impressive average of about 107 mph, and I arrived at King’s Cross shortly before 10am. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take my cell phone into the embassy, and my post-visit trip to where I would be staying could be done via a single train trip from St. Pancras International, which is right across the road from King’s Cross (London has a crapload of train stations, let me tell you) — so I dutifully if regretfully tucked my phone into my bag and left said bag (locked, of course!) at King’s Cross Left Luggage (at a cost of £9!) for the duration, and I hopped on the Underground to head for the Oxford Circus station and then to walk about 2/3 mile to the embassy.

I should have taken the phone with me. Not to take it into the embassy (their website was right about that) but to leave it at a local place with the other stuff I hadn’t realized I couldn’t take either. It turned out that not only could I not take a cell phone into the embassy, I also had to ditch (temporarily) my pedometer, my bank security code generator, and a USB stick that I had forgotten was in my handbag. I had to take those to a pharmacy about a block away and pay them £3 to stash a small plastic bag with my forbidden electronics in it. So I could have given them my cell phone with the rest of the stuff and thereby kept it with me while I was going back and forth from King’s Cross. If I ever have to visit the embassy again, I’ll do that.

I finally got to enter the embassy about 11. There were a few people outside directing prospective visitors, asking them what they were there for and whether they had an appointment. They were wearing jackets that bore the CSC logo, so of course I had to engage them on that. (CSC is the US-based company for which I work on a casual/zero-hours basis.) I went through security (my bags passed this time) and told the receptionist that I had come to see the IRS, and she directed me to a door at the bottom of a short flight of stairs.

The embassy’s IRS office is small. They have three windows and room for about 8-10 visitors to sit, and you have to remember who’s next because they don’t give out numbers. When I arrived it was fairly full, but with three people working the counters the wait wasn’t as bad as it could have been; I probably waited about 20-25 minutes. When I got to the counter I found I was talking to a manager; with the more-or-less-shutdown of the government, most of the staff had been furloughed, and apparently he was filling in. He was able answer most of my questions but had to direct me to someone else for one of them, but she finally answered it and I left that office.

While speaking with the IRS, I found out that the Social Security Administration also has an office in the embassy, and since I had business with them as well I went back to reception and the lady there gave me a number. This time I had to wait about an hour. The three people in front of me were all there to apply for social security numbers; each had been born in the US but hadn’t lived there since childhood and wanted to live and work there now. The desk guy took their documents and told them what additional documentation he needed. Then he said that because of the shutdown he couldn’t tell them how long it would take to get them a number, as there was no one to process the application.

My case was a little easier. I just had to fill in a couple of forms (one of which was for a change of address) — which I could have done myself but I needed SSA’s advice on it — and once I got to the window it took only about 10 minutes. At the end, he told me that they were my local SSA office and I should feel free to come back any time I needed in-person assistance. The “office” is one window in a large room of 12 windows, and it serves the Veterans Administration as well, but it’s there and willing to provide what help it can.

I finally got back to King’s Cross and retrieved my bag about 2pm. The visit had cost me about 3.5 hours and about £16 (about $26) in storage and transportation.

A closing note: I was impressed that everyone in the IRS and SSA offices took the time required to meet the needs of those who had come for help. They had to have been frustrated because of the shutdown, but they didn’t take it out on the US citizens who had come to get their help. They were patient and friendly, and they apologized for keeping us waiting. These people reinforced my confidence in the overall population of US civil servants, and I offer them kudos and thanks.

Update on the IRS office in London

The IRS page on the US Embassy London website is now saying, “As of October 1st, 2013, due to sequestration, the office will be open for walk-ins, but with a reduced staff. Thank you for your patience.” I’m going to go tomorrow, take a couple of books, and hope for the best. Cross your fingers.

I won’t have an update until after I leave, though, because they don’t allow cell phones in the Embassy and I will have to stash mine somewhere (probably in my suitcase at Left Luggage at King’s Cross).

How the US Government Shutdown affects me

As I mentioned in my last post, the tax implications of being an American living abroad are complicated. So I figured I should get some advice from the experts — i.e., the IRS. (My accountant has a few clients who live abroad, but she says the IRS knows a lot more about this than she does.) I also have some questions for the Embassy, but the ones I have for the IRS are urgent, as my 2012 tax return is due next Tuesday. (Yes, I filed for an extension.)

Fortunately, the IRS has an office in the US Embassy in London. I have a visit planned for Thursday, in advance of a talk I’m giving at City University London on Friday. I bought a train ticket for the day before my talk, so that I could ensure I had time to visit both the IRS and the embassy.

This visit looks highly unlikely to happen. I checked the IRS London site the other day and read, “In case of sequestration, the office will be open for phone service and walk-ins, but with a reduced staff. Thank you for your patience.” So I was hoping to visit anyhow and get my questions answered, but prepared for a longer-than-usual wait time. I called their contact number a short while ago, though, selected the option to speak to a person, and let it ring for seven minutes before I gave up. Seven minutes. I think I can conclude that there’s nobody there. And there’s nobody to make even that small change to the website, to alert people that there’s nobody there. So now I am going to London a day early for no reason, taking a whole work day away from the university. Yes, I can do some work remotely, but there are decided advantages to being able to get to the university when I need to.

Worse than that, though, is that I now have to file my 2012 tax return without getting my questions answered. And of course if I miss something or make errors, I’m the one who will have to pay the penalty and interest. You may say I should have done this sooner; but that would have cost me a separate trip to London — probably about $150 even if I made it a day trip. You may say I could have done it by phone before the shutdown, but I am very skeptical that a phone call could have provided all the information and help I need.

This government shutdown — which I blame entirely on Speaker Boehner and a minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives (plus the Koch brothers, gods rot them) — is costing me time and money and is creating stress in my life.

Many other Americans are experiencing effects that are far worse than mine — they are not getting paid at all; they are not getting childcare, healthcare, housing, environmental cleanup, food safety inspection, drug safety inspection, and all the other services that we have democratically agreed that we will provide for ourselves and that have been suspended by the shutdown. But my point in writing this blog post, relatively small though the shutdown’s effect on me personally may be, is to emphasize that the impact of this travesty — and yes, it is a travesty — extends far beyond the shores of the United States. Far beyond.