I love The Economist. Like The New Yorker and Mother Jones it has a style of journalism that is highly readable, exceptionally good at distilling a complex subject into interesting chunks, enormously educational and impossible to read in the time period between issues. I wish I could write like that. A guy I was at school with is one of their editors – I met him at a conference in the USA, quite by chance (in fact, I met him twice there – and there were about a million people there); I’m very impressed, he was a talented guy then and is plainly even more so now. The problem with reading those 3 magazines is that I always end up with a backlog – there’s only so much reading you can get done on a crowded tube.
The February 16th issue has a feature on e-government headlined “The electronic bureaucrat.” I’ve just got through it. First, kudos to Jeremy Gould for being marked out as a guy with an excellent blog – and, whilst it doesn’t say it directly, one of the few on the payroll civil servants with any kind of a blog let alone an excellent one.
I thought there were some great threads to pull out and, cheekily, I’ve followed some of the bullets with slides from my collection of moderate hits, 2000-2004:
1. Inevitably e-government doesn’t exist by itself. It must merge and conform to the physical word. The example is for those looking to get a visa for America: you apply online, pay money online, get an email confirmation, print it and then take it to the embassy in London (or doubtless elsewhere) where they check the barcode, allow you access, and let you collect your visa. A brilliant melding of a process that needs you to be there but doesn’t need you to be there the whole time.
2. Governments don’t face competition. In fact, the sentence is “Governments rarely face competition”. Alistair Darling besieged by non-domiciled bankers who are all off to Geneva in the light of recent taxation demands may beg to differ. Competition exists at multiple levels. Local authorities compete for businesses to site themselves within their boundaries; regions compete for investment by big companies; cities compete for banks to put their HQ in town; countries compete for the big capital projects, major manufacturing plants and so on. This hasn’t yet visibly manifested at a transaction level – but years ago I used to tell the Inland Revenue that if they made it easy for companies to set themselves up (PAYE, VAT, Corporation Tax, overall regulation etc) then they would attract new businesses because the cost of set-up would fall and that would be attractive. That hasn’t changed. Sure, the average person isn’t going to move to a new country just because the online services are better there (unlike if the tax treatment is felt to be better), but they are going to change their behaviour if the online service is very much better than the offline (and I say “very much better” because slightly better doesn’t overcome the inertia that is present with the status quo).
3. Personalisation is important. This is rule 1 of 3 by a chap from PA Consulting. Frankly I think he’s off-base and even if he’d said it in 2003 rather than 2008 he’d still have been off-base. He says government should be like online shopping and record your preferences, that it should be available round the clock and that services have to be easy to use. He wants government sites to be “beautifully designed.” Personalisation was a massive sink-hole from 2001-2004, chased by every department looking for a website as a “must have” feature, even if no one actually knew what it was. It didn’t mean anything then and it doesn’t mean anything now. You interact with government on so many levels and with so many personalities that most of the time, you’re someone new each time you come back. Reminding me of what my tax return looked like last year doesn’t help me if I’ve changed job, saved money, spent money, bought shares, sold shares or whatever. As to being around all the time and being compelling, yes, I agree. But then everyone agreed with that in 2000. Beautiful design – I’m already thinking of parrots hanging from trees – won’t attract the customer. Many travel sites that I use every day are still nearly impossible to use – a rant for another time – but you use them because they’re the best way to get the job done. Government needs to show it can get the job done and better than the offline equivalent. The online VAT form in the UK is still not attractive because the offline system is so fantastically well done. Fill in 9 boxes – and probably 6 if you don’t trade across EU boundaries – and you’re done. The only way to make that easier is to do the sums for me. Aha! Maybe we’re on to something there.
4. i-government is the most prevalent form of e-government. That is, putting everything you possibly can online is still very common. In the early days of the web this was called shovelware or brochureware. And it is still depressingly common. It’s better than not having it online, but it doesn’t deal with the massive and inevitable duplication, the confusion that entails when different pages (let alone different sites) appear to contradict each other and, as The Economist says, it doesn’t mean that when you do eventually interact, your service will be any better.
5. Websites are closing down. This sounds like good news – and Lord knows I’m a huge fan of reducing websites (see many, many posts here – but I haven’t yet seen the evidence. The statement in the article is that 551 of the 951 central government websites “have closed” – i.e. past tense. Not will or are planned to, but have. if it’s true, that’s a brilliant step forward and I’m delighted. When the guys in OeE put direct.gov together, the expectation was that other sites would be starved of visitors and so would eventually shut down through lack of traffic. Closing them down before that is even better. It narrows the information sources and forces the main player, direct.gov, to be more authoritative. If it isn’t, people switch off and don’t come back. It’s like the French Encyclopaedia, Quid, no longer being printed – if there’s a better source (Wikipedia in this case), people go there. But as to 400 sites closing, I’m sceptical – show me the money as Jerry Maguire might say. There’s a sidebar here on the search engine in direct.gov which is hardly a new topic for this blog; I’ll deal with that another time. It does appear, though, that the DG search team have read the article because the search terms used to illustrate the point now claim the third spot (as opposed to not being in the top 100).
6. The digital have-nots number in the billions. My late and very dear friend, Angela Vivian, campaigned tirelessly (ok, so she tired everyone else out, but she was, herself, tireless) on this very topic for years. Whilst internet access has increased in the UK it flattened out in the high 50s percent (nudging 60% now, but only just), as it has in other developed countries. In less developed countries, it hasn’t even got to the high 5s or 10s. The Economist refer to a Southern Indian State, Andhra Pradesh, that appears to have achieved enormous things with a project called “e-seva” – essentially, public service offices where Internet access is available and transactions can be completed (paying bills such as electricity and telephone, where the service is still doubtless nationalised and so part of government – just like banks in the UK). It’s an impressive looking set of services and with only 119 centres they see 110,000 transactions a day. The population of this state is over 75,000,000 – not very much bigger than the UK, and certainly economically different. I believe that this total of transactions is greater than that carried out in the UK at present, assuming they’re all carried online in India (and I suspect they’re electronic at source – like a cheque process in a bank: the customer gives the paper, which is immediately rendered electronically and from then on the transaction is 100% online).
7. Proving. No scratch that. Defining the benefits remains hard. The UK is rightly given praise for trying to figure out a model for what an e-government project brings to the party. Whilst I was around when that was being done, it was nothing to do with me; but it needed to be done and was done pretty well. Other countries have tried (e.g. Australia) and found similar things – there’s a general sense of e-government is better but if you try and pin down whether the public sector is smaller or the economy has benefited, well, you’re going to struggle. Some of that is because figuring out the true transactional costs offline is already hard; and quantifying the saving and putting pound notes on it is even harder.
8. It isn’t about the technology. There’s a great story about how the new mayor of the District of Columbia has shaken up process after process inside the operation of his city, tied in a single portal (dc.gov – hmmmm so much for that whole problem we had once with 2 letter domain names; in the UK he’d have been pushed down DoC.gov), splahed out on some plasma screens, used google apps (and thrown away all of their own servers) and are even looking at iPhones instead of police radios (do it – apple stock needs the juice). Alongside the technology, such as it is, they’ve rationalised the hiring process, stripped out every redundant step and made bureaucracy a dirty word. I just have no glib answer to that. It just sounds awesome. DC may be the heart of government for the USA but it has long been a poor and disenfranchised area with high crime rates (I think this year is the first time they’ve been invited to vote in the presidential primaries even). There is no slide that goes with this set of achievements.
9. e-Government is only the beginning. There is so much left undone from the original vision – join up, citizen focused, simple government, direct access government. It doesn’t matter which party conjured up the words, the intent was always the same. Make government more accessible to the citizen – in both directions.
The online version of the story appears to be but a shadow of the offline version – the Economist (note, it’s http://www.economist.com, not http://www.theeconomist.com) is a subscription play (once it’s owned by the Murdoch family, they’ll unwind that I’m sure. What? It’s not going to be owned by them? One day maybe).
It’s a great article overall. It distills several years of learning into 16 easy to read pages. It has examples drawn from all over the world, although those from the UK tend not to be the most positive. Did we really need another story about the NHS and are ID cards and the NHS spine – not a £12.4 billion project by itself fact-checkers – as if it were the only global example of data aggregation?
That said, it’s a backward look, i.e. mostly a catalogue of what people have done rather than what they could do. But by highlighting some real bright spots – the folks in DC for instance – the writers tantalise us with what we could do, if we got it together, crashed through the barricades and made it happen.