How many armies does an e-government need?

clip_image001Whilst @large over the last few weeks, four apparently unrelated events fused together in my mind to create an idea for governments that might make for both some fun and some real business benefit. These are the four events:

1. Since I first heard about it, probably when I was 10 or 11, I’ve wanted to visit the Terracotta Army near Mount Lishan in China. The nearest I’ve got so far is the exhibition at the British Museum. I’ll take that for now – seeing the original Tutankhamun show in London was the pre-cursor to seeing it all for real many years later after all. There are many astonishing things about this army – the scale of imagination to originally envision it, the incredible craftsmanship to produce such individualised warriors (coupled with an enormous army of people to make them), the bureaucracy and managerial process to create it (I won’t dwell on the facy that most involved were probably killed right after completion), the damage done to it not long after the first emperor died and, now, the reconstruction effort that means we can at least see some of the pieces pretty much as they were in 210BC – this last thought is only truly appreciated when you see the stills of how things were when they were found: millions of fragments piled one on top of the other with little to differentiate them. It felt like there were 100s of people in the Reading Room at the British Museum on the day I visited, snaking in long lines from exhibit to exhibit but I suspect they restrict each visiting slot to 50 or 100 people at at time. It’s truly an impressive draw, although one that leaves you longing to see the entire spectacle.

2. A few weeks ago I was amongst the first to know about a newsworthy event – and I found out through public sources rather than through some devious internal channel. It turned out to be a big story but I suspect few realised it at first. I happened to think of going to wikipedia to see what it said about the event. It was silent, entirely unaware, it seemed, that anything had happened. I took the liberty of adding my footprint to the armies of those who have gone before, and edited the appropriate page with the updated information. I sat back, pleased that I had added a [very] little knowledge to humankind. Within 15 minutes, seemingly dozens of others had updated the site, refining the information I posted, adding citation and links to other sources. The space that this news topic occupied could initially have been seen as very niche, yet a veritable army of people were apparently looking for something to happen so that they too could be editors of their own newsfeed.

3. I went to a meeting with some people who know do, loosely at least, some of what I used to do in the Cabinet Office. Of course, they’ve more than moved on from what I was up to – it’s around 2 years since I left. But a lot of the topics we discussed were ones that I’d spent time on before; ones that I’d commissioned work on, even paid money to allow government to action them in perpuity. I took along a document that my team had produced, with a vendor, in late 2002 when we were looking at rebuilding ukonline (now directgov) for the 3rd or even 4th time since its launch in early 2001. The document was bristling with great ideas on how to engage the citizen more, how to expose more of government to the outside world, how to structure websites and transactions so that they’d have the most impact and what areas to concentrate on first. It was a great piece of work and whilst we’d acted on some of it, I was sure that more than 50% had been left undone for time, money or capability constraints. In truth, armies of consultants, IT vendors, outsourcers and business process experts compile hundreds or even thousands of such reports every year for government as it merrily spends around £3 billion/year on consultants.

4. Lastly, I was looking for some figures to tell me how much use was being made of Freedom of Information requests. When I first thought about this law, in 2000, I was expecting it to be the offline equivalent of the 1901 Census website – something that would knock government out as it responded to potentially millions of both frivolous and fact-seeking requests filed by armies of citizens and, especially, journalists. As far as I can tell, it’s done nothing of the sort. But the more I hear about FoI the more concerned I am about whether we’ve taken the right approach in the UK.

So taking those four un-related things into account, I wondered:

  • What if government took facebook into the inside? What if we ditched every intranet there ever was in every government department and allowed everyone to create, instead, a facebook page for themselves? The same tools and applications would be available; groups joined would be centered on areas of expertise & experience (desired or actual) and room to play would be allowed to – no point in making it all business, there needs to be some kind of trade. Straight away, links would form between people doing similar jobs in different parts of the government (or different parts of the same department but spread around the same country); experience would be shared; job-postings would be easy to find and could be matched by a talent inventory that could draw on all 4-5 million public sector employees (that number could be anywhere from 250,000 to 7 million depending on how you cut things). Now I’m no great fan of facebook – truth be told, I don’t really get it – but I get its potential, in a slightly different context, to replace the intranet – to be a place where people look up contact information, find people that might know something that they need to know, exchange holiday photos, date, arrange to meet or whatever they need to know.
  • What if government took a licence for wikipedia and built an internal version? What if that site became the place where all reports from every consultancy that’s ever worked for government was published? Where people edited topics that they were interested in and added statistics, links and sources that were verified by the armies of others that were also interested in those topics? What if this became the hub of knowledge were people found out how to do their job, what they could do to develop in their job, where they would find information from others doing the same job, where they could see what consultancies and others had recommended could be done to a given process, function or organisation in another, related part of government. Or even a completely unrelated part of government. Many of those reports, the many hundreds every week, month or year, end up gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere. The very best are 50% implemented with the remaining actions getting swamped by the pressure of time or money, or the clean sweep of a new broom coming in with different ideas. That leaves perhaps a billion and a half worth of ideas left unimplemented every year. That’s a lot of intellectual property left on the shelf. And let’s not wonder aloud, at least not here, how much of those reports are repeats of what has already been bought and paid for by a government department somewhere else.
  • Next, what if we took every FoI request – and its response – and published it online with a simple search application, driven by google or windows live or any other engine- so that before you asked your question you could see what else had been asked that was similar; you’d then either just use that information and not bother to ask your own question or you’d refine yours to get a better take. Smart journalists would use the search tool to bring together previously unrelated questions and draw even more conspiratorial conclusions. Smarter ones would phrase their next question to take advantage of the freely obtained knowledge that they already have to find something new. Government would respond, one would hope, by getting smarter about its operations and processes and would use this leverage to drive greater change and efficiency.
  • And lastly, maybe all of this would be turned inside out and put online, not just FoI requests, but reports and consultancy work that government had paid for, so as to act as the single greatest source of pressure for change and, dare I say that ugly word, transformation (the single best example of which continues to be Optimus Prime in Michael Bay’s recent Transformers film). The deluge of information would be enormous. The fragments of data would require an entire army to stitch it together into meaningful conclusions. But, let’s be honest, government itself is never going to have a big enough internal army to do this stitching but, the outside world, those who want to be part of an open-source government, now maybe they’d have the willing, the time, the intellect and the energy to sort, distill and publish the very best pieces – and government, of course, would pay for such pieces once and once only. Sadly, the name YouGov is already taken by a very clever chap called Nadhim Zahawi, but maybe he’d be open to offers. Failing that, we could always go back to, the vision of access to government coined in 2000 following the [necessary] demise of

This way, the vast body of knowledge that government accumulates year in, year out would be available not only to all of government but to all those with interest in what it says about where their taxpayer pounds, dollars or even, one day, renminbi. After all, it was that first Emperor of China, who unified the country, standardised currency & axle lengths and introduced many other reforms (and yes, I know he killed the 700,000 people who worked on his tomb, but bear with me – the metaphor nearly works).

Over the next 7 years, some 40% of government’s workers will retire. They’ll take an awful lot of knowledge with them. Not all of it will be useful, but figuring out which is and isn’t is a job for a distributed network of staff and citizens who can argue amongst each other, for a while at least, about relative value – promoting those items that their successors need to hold on to and relegating those that they don’t. And, in 100 years or 500 years, what better place for those who come after us to look for how things were done back in the early days of the 21st century.

The nice thing about these projects is that they could be started individually and cheaply. There’s no need for a huge infrastructure, no need for a complicated requirements gathering process, no need for expensive outsource deals. There just needs to be a bit of willing for a few senior folks in a few key departments who want to give it a try – who want to be bold (but not too bold) and take a step in a new direction. Along the way there would be pitfalls, there would be screw-ups but there would be successes too. And those successes would quickly build as more players came to be involved. Just starting one of these projects – say, facebook as government’s intranet – might go further to creating some joined up government than anything that has gone before.

9 thoughts on “How many armies does an e-government need?

  1. Not sure about the facebook idea for Governments but certainly retention and sharing of information is a key issue for all Government departments. All reports produced not only by expensive consultants but also by knowledgeable public employees should be assessed at the point of submission whether it is fit to be published internally, department wide and government wide. A suitably indexed repository will work wonders reducing the occurence of consultants producing similar reports only two offices apart. CG

  2. I work in local government. Before FOI came in there was confident talk about putting all the questions and answers on the website etc. FOI came in, and (no surprise really) lots of questions about expenses, annual cost of hospitality (alcohol and food), trips abroad etc. No prize for guesing what happened to the FOI on the web idea.

  3. No surprise I guess Michael. It\’s a shame though – if you know everything you do is going to be published, you end up doing things expecting that and it should make for a better deal all round. I think the \”public\” at large needs to understand better how government spends its money – and getting excited about hospitality bills or travel and expenses is not going to help government cross the Rubicon and explain it all. the fraction spent on dinners and dancing is neither here nor there in the scheme of things, not even when you look at Sir John Bourne\’s recent problems; it costs what it costs and if, say, Sir John prevented the loss of further millions with his timely audit reports, then his expenses were money well spent. but that is not a simple conversation to have with the \”public\”

  4. Alan, I agree with all you say, second sentence especially, which I think captures something of the culture change we need. With best wishes to you for 2008.

  5. Thanks for the link Matthew. had some trouble reaching it, so here it is again in case others struggling that, use the google search box on the computerworld error page that shows up and type \”9095638\” and that brings up the article, titled:Top Secret: CIA explains its Wikipedia-like national security projectIntellipedia lets spies post and edit content wiki-style, and includes YouTube and Flickr versions

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