There have been a bunch of comments (ok, a couple – maybe even from the same person) and more than a few emails asking what’s going on in e-Gov land. Why ask me I wonder but then I remember that this was originally in an e-government blog even if it is has more recently morphed into tales (tails?) of fish, running fun and religion to name but a few recent topics. Others have mailed me with things I should write about, and it seems churlish not to oblige.
First, something that fair warmed the cockles of my heart. I needed a .gov domain name the other day and I was pretty keen on having a top level one all of my own to match the name of a shiny project. Let’s say I wanted “shinyproject.gov.uk”. “Oh no!” said the domain name registrars, “can’t be letting you have one of those”. Instead they insisted that I have shinyproject.governmentdepartment.gov.uk. That is a good sign. A sign that domain names are not being given out like candy now and maybe even that new websites aren’t being set up every week with stinking great content management systems proliferating. I haven’t seen the total domain count for a long time, nor much information on progress on killing off .gov websites, but I hope that the latter is succeeding and the former is falling fast. As to CMS proliferation, I expect money is too tight to allow such fun.
Second, there’s a new kind of consultation in town. A bit of history first:
Back in 2001 we used to do online consultations within ukonline.gov.uk – we’d post the documents and, I think, even allow comments to be made on the site – certainly via email. We dropped the idea not long after (as we did with discussion forums) because of lack of traffic (although in the case of the forums it was because the moderation job just became too great with endless homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-pretty much anyone that wasn’t the person commenting points). Others took on the commentary job. CommentOnThis is certainly the best although it took seems to suffer from traffic problems – few people want to comment on the documents that they’re allowed to comment on perhaps.
Alongside this were various efforts: thebigconversation.org which the Department of Health tried in 2001. And I’m pretty sure the Labour Party had something along those lines not all that long ago – maybe even with the same domain name, or a similar one? Hard to tell – the website is now closed. And maybe my memory is faulty anyway. More recently some politicians tried 2020vision.org.uk, which seems to be defunct now.
And now, there’s an X-Prize for government – ShowMeTheMoney. No, ShowUsABetterWay.com – when I first saw the domain name I read it as ShowUSABetterWay and wondered if it was something from McCain or Obama. Instead, it’s a really neat idea – drawn from Tom Steinberg’s Power of Information report for the Cabinet Office. You submit an idea for how to aggregate (mash up in the vernacular) government content to create a useful service and you stand a chance of winning £20,000 – which you’d then use to refine and maybe even develop your idea. Oddly (when read alongside my point above about reducing domain names), if you want to fill in an entry form, you have to go to a completely different domain name – http://www.showusabetterwayentryform.co.uk – that’s just weird. Using .co.uk or .com doesn’t stop it being a gov website!.
In a brilliant example of joined up government – the Cabinet Office runs the competition and the Ministry of Justice is putting up the money. That’s great – and rare, even if it didn’t involve money. Kudos. Alongside the BetterWay, MoJ are asking for ideas on how to build democracy – also using a .co.uk domain name (http://www.buildingdemocracy.co.uk/) – It can’t be just me that finds that weird, surely? And, if you’re quick, you can have one of ten shots at up to £15k in that competition. Reminds me that about 7 or 8 years ago we wanted to incent people to file their tax forms online and suggested that we buy every one who did a lottery ticket – imagine the PR if someone who won the filed their tax online actually won a few million on the lottery! No one liked it and it didn’t happen.
To give you some ideas on what you might propose, they give some examples (and a pile of links to places to look for coding ideas too). For instance:
My idea – in fact, an idea that I at least partly purloined, was this (posted here in February 2003)
Matt alerted me back then to something he’d heard about a plan to create an 888 number – just like 999 but for those things that weren’t emergencies. That might mean everything from a cat in a tree to a pothole in a road to a zebra crossing light being broken. Nothing has emerged on such a number and, try as I might, I haven’t found anything that relates to it. Now, imagine if the 888 service was web, phone, SMS text, DTV and kiosk integrated – so that no matter what level of income you had or what devices you had access to, there would be a way to get to it. People would report issues to the 888 service, all of which would be logged. The output would be a colour coded map of your postcode, your street, your borough, your town or your county, showing the issues being raised in your area. So if a particular road had holes in it and the local people were suitably mad, they’d get together, contact 888 and the map would glow flashing red. The local council seeing that they had a community of interest that was on their case would despatch the road fixers. Take this a little further forward and say there’s a 777 service (or maybe still the 888 one) that lets you express concern about fox hunting, people who wear furs, drink driving or whatever … interest groups could drive their members and supporters to log their point of view via this service and rapidly drive up support (or ant-support) for any given issue. The 777 service could be restricted to topics du jour, it could require authentication (using an anonymous token, as used in voting) to make sure that no-one voted more than once on any issue, for instance.
Oddly, the paragraph above was wrapped in a wider article about consultation around ID cards and whether there was a better way to get more engagement on that topic.
So … it isn’t at all “all quiet in e-Gov land” – there are some busy people, with some good ideas. A trawl through the ideas already posted on BetterWay is worth the few minutes it will take. There are plainly some from the loony end of the idea range (building perhaps on Jeremy Clarkson for PM), but there are plenty that make you go “yeah, that would be good to have”. And with the iPhone app store flying along, maybe an interesting platform to provide them on too.