Sunday, September 12, 2010

Question 4 - Trends in Digital Delivery

I missed the cut-off for responses on the directgov review website so am posting my thoughts here and will email them separately to the directgov team. The comments on this question share many similarities, suggesting only open source be used (others say mostly open source), most support open standards, one says "give all unemployed people a smartphone and some free credit for accessing certain gov websites", one more says essentially that not every service can be digital so don't try for 100% and those that you do put online you should put in the right place. One more says:

Government must understand, study and perhaps consider how it might support the trend towards an active, contributing citizenry online, especially in relation to improving public services. It remains an open question, however, whether and in what settings government itself should aim to be the author of such online initiatives.

A real spread of responses then, from the thought-provoking don't force everything into a digital model, to the consultant-like blockquote pulled out above, to the banal mantra of open source software roolz. There was though, in the 26 comments left, two common thoughts: mobile, open standards / APIs.

Here, for what they're worth, are my thoughts on the trends that directgov should latch on to:

- Increasingly content is being rebadged and reused (not only through retweets and other social links but through white label websites and RSS pulling as evidence by the recent launch of the directgov content API). I've said before (probably 1,001 times) that I see no point in government authoring the same content hundreds, or thousands of times and hence am an ardent supporter of a single central government website that holds the definitive citzen-facing version of any given content (recognising that super-specialist content to do with e.g. accountants is best left to HMRC). The 309,000 instances of "disability living allowance" that google throws up today shows many in e.g. surrey county council, edinburgh, renfrewshire, hounslow and others. Sadly the number of instances is up from just 9,000 in 2003 and 122.000 in 2007. One definitive source, then, who makes their content available to others if they need it - with the accent on "if they really need it"; just borrowing content so you can boost the pages on your .gov website is hardly worthwhile (I really have no desire to comparison shop government content - no one is going to look for the best version of "disability living allowance"

- Content will increasingly need to be made available in multiple formats and styles. The proliferation of screen sizes and browser styles will mean an ever increasing number of style sheets that ally with the content to ensure that whoever is looking at the content gets the best experience.

- With content increasingly being made available, raw data has now followed and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. Plainly, people will have to use the data to warrant it continuing to be made available given that there is an inevitable cost of opening up the data and then keeping it available but so far, so good. This data will be made available in accordance with published standards, open ones whereever one exists.

- Content through apps. The debate over whether government should be in the app game or not continues elsewhere on the web (most eloquently by Stefan Cz at Public Strategist). My own take, as written before, is that government should be in the app game. At the same time, government isn't the only player in the app market and 3rd parties can often do better jobs (my current favourite is FIPlab's "London Cycle" - with something as good as this is, I see no point in anyone, let alone government, trying to do another version until or if FIPlab drop the ball).

- Transparency is an increasing part of the modus operandi of this government and there will be an increasing push for information to be made available that wasn't previously made available. The round robin PQ on the cost of government websites that has now turned into an annual review by the COI shows how this can happen. Government should get out ahead of this and publish what a site costs, what pages are being visited, how many people are visiting, where they're from, how did they get to the site (direct, via google/bing, etc) as well as stats on operating systems, browsers and mobile or desktop. Couple this with what the team looks like that runs each website, how many authors there are, how many editors and so on and quite soon the anomalies of government on the web will show up, helping drive an increasing focus on the cost of delivery and, specifically, where government is finding itself outflanked by other sites or providers who are doing what government should do only better.

- A long time ago, we ran open forums on ukonline.gov.uk. We ran them first without moderation, then with post moderation, then pre moderation and then we closed them down. The problem was that Godwin's law, or variants of it, was universally followed. That is, within a few iterations of a post and its comments, everything would descend into increasing acrimony, and racist or other -ist comments would follow soon after. In restarting ukonline and then developing the model for directgov, we did a fair amount of research into bringing those forums back - because we thought that people who had been through complex processes (one of the models we looked at in detail was that for statementing a child - a 6 month process - as we had people on the team who had been through it) would be better able to guide others through it than government people would and that no amount of text on a website was a substitute for one to one guidance from skilled practitioners or people who cared. I'd like to see this thinking resurrected harnessing the social network trends. The forums need not be on a government website, indeed perhaps they should be anywhere but on such a site. They could be on facebook or on some or all of the more specialist social network sites; they'd be supported by government staff who would have the goal of getting people through the process and who would be measured based on feedback left by those they'd helped. But, in reality, it is likely to be the people who've been through it that prove the best at helping others.

I don't, though, believe that open source is an emerging trend or one that government needs to slavishly adopt. It should do what it's always done and use it where it makes sense, just as we did in building ukonline and directgov in 2001/2/3/4 and just as we didn't when building the government gateway in 2001 (for which we got no end of vitriole).

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