Whilst away I got through a few good books, one of which I’d recommend: Snow Crash. It’s a book about the future … or, funnily enough, a future that we might have had if the Internet had gone that way. The author, Neal Stephenson, projected his idea of what the online community might develop into based on where it was at the time he was writing. I’m guessing that was sometime in the late 80s (the paperback I have is dated 1992) which would mean that Compuserve was probably the way online for the few people that were online or perhaps a few other bulletin boards, notably The Well. The online experience then was all about community chat rooms, text based and low bandwidth. So Stephenson imagines a world where those restrictions are gone – where you can don an avatar of your own design (provided you’ve got the processing power) – but he placed inside a world not dissimlar to the offline one, a world where you still have to walk around, where you interact with people in bars, where trains run to get you between places that are far away and so on. So the online world wasn’t much different from the online world (assuming you miss out the occasional sword fight and the fact that you can walk right through people while online). His online world is called the “Metaverse”.
Stephenson’s extension of so many offline concepts into the online world made me wonder if we have our kind of metaverse model in developing online government. We have taken many of the things we do offline and delivered online equivalents. In the offline world, government is ubiquitous (there are hundreds of tax offices, benefits offices, job centres), designed differently at every iteration (brands, colours, experiences); government is staffed by people who both speak and do government – it has its own lanaguage – but these people are, for the vast part, efficient at helping you navigate the system so that you get what you want; government makes you wait for things, sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks and, finally, government is principally reactive – you tell me who you are and what you want and I will get it for you, you visit another part of government and go through the same experience.
My sense is that the move offline to online probably has to go through this kind of a replicative stage – a place where there’s relatively little imagination or innovation. Introducing radical new concepts or services without an appropriate way of signposting them, managing them and handling the followups would be unlikely to deliver any great benefits and would lead to confusion on the part of the citizen as well as government staff. Suppose, for instance, that the first online service a government delivered was a one stop website where you could type in your profile and it would list every benefit that you could apply for, fill in the forms based on your profile, send them off, tell you what was coming, set up the bank deposits and so on. Technologically, that’s a big step but doable (given money, staffing, messaging standards and so on). But what would happen when one payment didn’t make it – who would you phone? Who would you write to? What about if more information was required later? Who would ask for that? How would they contact you? So the online government metaverse must, initially, look a lot like the offline one – because otherwise, too many processes change in parallel, too many upheavals are made, too many systems need to be changed.
What that means to me though is that we must never lose sight of the fact that this is what we are doing. We must never take that as the end point. Every change we make, every new system, every new process must be designed so that it can be manipulated into a more holistic, cleverer process at the next iteration – because if we have to throw it away or dismantle it to put in place the next one, we will constantly be in a state of change, confusion, risk and overspend. That means that things take a bit longer now because they have to be designed with the future in mind. I’m not sure enough people are doing that now. It also means that the vision of the next generation metaverse must be held – both the technical architecture of it and the business design (the organisational setup, the processes, the check points and so on).
For us not to think through the implications of those redesigns means endless tinkering with the status quo with few of the breakthrough changes that need to be made being feasible – because they are simply too big to do in one go.