The sheer breadth and complexity of information and technology policy became all too clear at 2020PST’s roundtable yesterday morning. Leading officials and activists met to discuss the next stage of open government and online self-services. This brought us into the territory of – amongst other things – the Coalition’s ‘new politics’ of transparency and accountability; cost efficiencies and cuts; social and digital inequalities and the prospect for more personalised, responsive, citizen-focussed public services.
Many, many important points were raised, but four in particular stood out for me:
- Culture in government, Whitehall and public services - lack of awareness/understanding of the power of online ‘self services’ to deliver high quality for less is the primary barrier. There is often a presumption that many public services can only be provided face-to-face and alternatives are ‘too cheap’ to deliver quality outcomes and too risky to implement. Similar arguments apply with regards to open data. Determined leadership is vital, but the business case for online service delivery and open government needs to be made. Only then can we expect to see ingrained cultural attitudes and practices begin to change.
- Provider capture and vested interests – often there are strong incentives acting against the diversion of citizens to lower cost channels. While models of funding which ‘follow the user’ can help to support choice and competition in public service delivery (in theory generating cost savings and increased quality), they encourage default face-to-face interaction when alternative channels might be more appropriate and cost efficient.
- Scale – the issue of scale often brings to mind the age-old debates of local vs central procurement of IT systems, software and shared services (for example) and delivery/administration (e.g. housing benefit). But it also demands we consider the level at which we are trying to engage users and achieve certain outcomes. For instance, are we trying to enable communities – whether for a locality or other common cause – to work together more effectively via social networking? Or transform national public service institutions and systems? Do we need to employ different tactics and strategy to achieve both of these aims?
- Public voice – how can the public voice demanding online access to information and services be rallied to push government and providers? How do we ensure (and reassure the public) that it is as easy and secure to log on to public services as it is to access internet banking?
Much is already happening in response to many of these four points. The progress of data.gov.uk and the Coalition’s commitment to publishing data online is a good start. But the withdrawal of funding Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web science institute is a major blow. More than ever – at a time of cuts and cost savings – technology should not be thought about as an expensive ‘bolt-on’ in the hope of making bad services slightly better. Not least because in practice this (by lack of coherent integration and design) often makes matters worse. Instead, it’s about using existing and emerging (typically low-cost) communication technologies to enable citizens to work with public services in a way which enables better outcomes at lower cost.
But I’m at risk of sounding too tech-evangelical. What is needed is to build the evidence base and let the argument speak largely (and loudly) for itself.