Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The .GovApp Goldrush

Last May I looked at iPhone apps delivered by governments. Almost inevitably, Utah had been first but there was already an "open.gov.alike." I challenged direct.gov to do the same (at launch in 2002 it rendered a version with cutdown content to fit any mobile screen and we'd enhanced that over the years to deal with newer phones, using CSS that detected which browser was accessing it, but an App, well, that's a whole new thing.

At the time, though, I missed the obvious point which was to define that moment as the starting gun for the goldrush. Just as departments had rushed to put websites live in the years from 2000 onwards, it should have been obvious that the same would happen for apps.

Now, a year on, the BBC published this story:

BBC News has learnt that the Government has spent tens of thousands of pounds developing iPhone applications. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that development costs ranged from £10,000 - £40,000.

The most expensive application was a proposed Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) app that provides "a masterclass for changing your wheel".

Documents seen by the BBC reveal that the DVLA Motoring Masterclass app would cost £40,000 and would also work out fuel mileage, act as a hazard light and track RAC patrols.

By the end of May there were over 53,000 downloads of the Jobcentre Plus app, although critics have asked why someone who can afford both an iPhone and the expensive running costs would need a Jobcentre Plus app.

But very quickly the guillotine has come down on this line of spending - and many departments have said that they have no plans to even start:

However, a number of government departments said they had no plans to develop iPhone applications, including the Department for Culture. Media and Sport, HM Treasury, Northern Ireland Office, Scotland Office, Government Equalities Office, Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Development.

"Future spend on iPhone development will be subject to strict controls: only essential activity, approved by the Efficiency and Reform Group, which is chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will be allowed".

One department was unable to provide information:
But the Home Office declined the FOI request for information on its iPhone apps, saying security concerns "prevent us from supplying information".
Earlier this year I wrote a couple of posts about what gov should do with mobile apps:
1) Can gov do beta? On how .gov might deal with negative feedback over its apps on iTunes2) Apps on the move - suggestions for other apps

I find myself, therefore, torn when I read the BBC's article. Surely we want:
Our government to be where the people are. My dear, late, friend Angela Vivian talked often of putting her JobCentrePlus kiosk in the local pub- because that's where the unemployed people are (a very John Dillinger-styled quote).
Services that are easy to use, that require no thinking, that don't tether people to a PC at their desk (remembering that we have more phone penetration than PCs in the UKs and that whilst the bulk of those phones are not smart phones, they will be
Innovation at many levels in government, including in the way services are offered, the way data is opened up, the joining up of services and so on
Migration from call centre operations to self service, whether on a desktop or mobile phone so as to reduce costs
But we certainly don't want a wildly diverse ecosystem of departments writing mobile phone apps, learning the lessons over and over again. Which leaves us with two options
All mobile apps are written by the direct.gov team and so consistency of brand, presentation and capability is maintained. Spend can be tightly managed and audited, code will be reused and lessons learned each time, making the next one slicker. But direct.gov doesn't own the integration with the back ends of [m]any government departments, so will be reliant on those departments opening up their systems for access. Direct.gov is also not the likely route for local government applications (which formed the bulk of the apps in my "apps on the move" post above)
Or

Government writes no apps and continues the policy of making its data available by making its APIs available. If opening data is hard, opening APIs is even harder - imagine the risk you take if you allow a 3rd party app developer to access you tax information. Imagine also the flak that government will come under if services developed are shoddy, lack features, are unstable or insecure and so on.

Neither solution is ideal but, on balance, I favour the former. At the same time, I favour controls over what gets built and why, to ensure that there are no vanity projects - ie that each app fits a real need that is backed up by strategy and underpinning data.

The remaining problem then is which phones to support? From the sounds of it everyone has so far gone for iPhone presumably because that's where the customers are (although I remember seeing announcements that directgov would be supporting Android).

When we put Self Assessment online, all those years ago, we started with the most common tax forms (the ones that 7 million of the 8 million odd taxpayers needed). We didn't put the complicated ones in - those that dealt with foreign income, multiple homes and so on. We also only supported Windows. We had plans to support everything eventually of course.

But not long after launch we received a formal complaint from a Welsh Mac-using vicar. It turns out the clergy have a special tax form, just for them. And, of course, we hadn't got as far as Macs or the Welsh language (in contravention of the 1995 Welsh Language Act of course)

Inevitably, the mobile app teams started somewhere. And all those who weren't at the same start point naturally complained. They will have to broaden their offer but I am sure that was the original plan. With the new controls on app development, it may be some time before we see further innovation (or even expansion of the range of platforms supported). Personally I think that will be a shame.

Having cautioned government to think hard about venturing into mobile services in 2003 because of a range of difficulties, I was proud to see directgov step into the fray with their initial offer.

1 comment:

  1. One one part I have to agree.  If they have to do any apps, do it once and do it right.  But the nagging worry I have is not to app or not to app but whether the new technology shines so bright that they forget the underlying problem.  Self Assessment is still an online unjoined up set of paper forms.

    Apps offer a new insight intothe direction the future of interaction with government needs to take.  Trying to put paper forms on the wbe was stupid but at the time it was a huge leap forward.  Apps with small screens need to be simple.  They have to be, the technology allows for nothing else.  And rightly so.

    Maybe now is the time to ask a different question.  Not what apps do we need to make our existing services work mobile but what does government need to be like to enable our customer base to work through an app.

    If we ask the right question perhaps this time we may get the right answer.

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