Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of direct.gov felt like a signing-off report to me but if it wasn’t, and she stays on, here’s what either Martha or perhaps the new CEO (digital) needs to grapple with:
1) Lubricate interactions with Government
The easy transactions are online already. Take up is mixed. PAYE and VAT are doubtless nearing their maximum potential as a result of Lord Carter’s March 2006 report mandating the move to electronic channels by 2012 for all businesses. Self Assessment is perhaps halfway to the maximum despite the fact that something like 50% of returns are filed by accountants (who you would expect to be ensnared in the Carter recommendations too). Then there’s “tax disc online” which is, I think, one of the few transformational services available – not only did it do away with the visit to the post office but it also joined up DVLA, car insurers and the MOT system so that you needed only one interaction to get your tax disc (I’m still not sure why they haven’t gone the final step and removed the need for a physical tax disc but perhaps that’s all about spot checks by bobbies patrolling the beat). Once you move away from those flagship services, though, I suspect that take up is much, much lower. The reason, in my view, is the high level of friction that government(s) generate.
Completing an online transaction requires too many steps. And the lack of cross-departmental trust means that those steps are repeated for every transaction. This makes for very high friction that discourages people from moving their complete set of interactions with government online. To break through this requires not only a better model for proving identity (The Government Gateway started this and G-Digital looks to be trying to complete the journey although I’m uncertain how) but also a rationalisation / simplification of the data items required by government. Years ago Andrew Stott (I am sure it was he – when he was in DWP rather than in his role as Director of Digital Engagement) told me that there were only 53 items of information needed by UK government to handle everything that was needed. 53 items isn’t a lot, but it is more than I would have thought (once I list out name, address, last address, date of birth, tax number, national insurance number, I start to run out of things that might be needed). But it isn’t hard to imagine a “page” – a secure place that you feel entirely comfortable with – holding that data where you can selectively send it to government departments that request it. Once one department has endorsed the validity of the data you gain credibility with other departments who then start to trust your data more and more. If you are paying money to government rather than receiving perhaps the trust level is higher. Back in 2001 I used to call this the “Green Shield Stamps” authentication model – the more stamps in the book, the higher the trust and the more transactions you were able to carry out. Perhaps the “page” for the data is held by someone you trust – your bank, Tesco, your home insurance company … even Amazon?
Having the transactions available online will not do anything to drive take up until this data friction is overcome. At the same time, government will have to overcome the infrequent interaction problem – many people, me included, touch government only rarely. Personal tax once a year, council tax once a year, passport every 10 years etc. A second aspect of friction to overcome, then, is the infrequent interaction. The longer it is between interactions, the higher the friction to overcome to make the next transaction online – because you have to remember how to navigate the page, remember your userid/password and so on. Those things are second nature for a site you visit regularly – except when they carry out a redesign (after years of being entirely consistent, how flummoxed were we all by Microsoft’s “ribbon interface” for instance? – but if you’re only on a site once per year, you might just reach for the paperwork because overcoming the inbuilt friction is too difficult.
2) Are you in the mobile business or not?
Not long ago there was a lively debate about whether direct.gov should be in the mobile application business (and if it was, for which platforms). Stefan Cz took this debate a step further and asked who, actually, should be building government services (which attracted some thoughtful comments, particularly from Steph Gray).
My own view is that, yes, UK government should be in the mobile business but only a limited number of platforms should receive direct support, perhaps the top 3 by UK market share – with some novel measures introduced to support both the chosen platforms and others. It should also be in the business, as Martha’s report says, of publishing APIs (or schema formats) that allow others to access the data. It’s a big ask for someone to string a set of transactions together in a reliable way – and a bigger ask for that someone to be outside of government (and so dependent on an as yet relatively undeveloped [very] rigorous change control and notification process for changes to such APIs and formats that would need to operate across government, rather than just in a few silos, such as HMRC).
It is, though, time to say what government’s position is in the mobile market. Developer? Interface builder? Content provider? Open source advocate? And then for which platforms? iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Android, Symbian, Palm and Windows? Or some subset assessed through market share? And if only the top 3 as I suggest above, what happens to new entrants or new platforms?
Number 10 appears to be clear – they’re developing and providing content feeds, for the iPhone:
I think cracking the mobile market is going to require some new approaches. Plainly government can provide content and can publish APIs that 3rd parties can support. At the same time, government should develop applications, make them available at no cost, and publish the code for others to make use of. On top of that, perhaps some kind of X-prize type competition should be started that provides cash prizes to those who develop well-reviewed applications. £5,000 for the top reviewed application that solves a given problem – the list of problems needing solutions to be crowd-sourced or identified by government representatives themselves. Those who take existing applications and make them work on other platforms (outside of the top 3) would be eligible for prizes too – this would perhaps help ensure that new platforms could also receive early support.
3) Commentary, Petitions and Forums are difficult – so what to use instead?
Long ago I learned that running forums, consultations and suchlike in government was an awful job. No matter whether we left moderation to the community or ran pre or post-moderation, it didn’t work. We either rapidly deteriorated into Godwin’s Law scenarios or no one showed up to comment. Pareto’s Law neatly applies online although rather than 80% lurking and 20% participating I suspect it’s more like 98%/2% – and the 2% tend to be opinionated and strong-minded inevitably. This week’s announcement that “voters could get to shape laws which go before parliament” struck me, therefore, as an interesting move.
The Downing Street Petitions site, developed by the clever folks at MySociety, has been dormant since April 2010 when it was suspended ahead of the election. Some of the petitions setup had laudable goals although doubtless . Here were the top 8 as at the point of closure with over 3.5 million “votes” between them (those need not, I believe, be unique votes):
With over 12 million people watching the X Factor, 3.5m votes across 8 petitions isn’t perhaps a great result. The responses to some of the more peculiar petitions suggest that there is a large degree of misinformation that is acted on too. For instance:
On the Red Arrows: “This allegation is not true. The Government has not banned the Red Arrows from the London 2012 Olympic Games. The organising committee of London 2012 will decide what to include in the Opening Ceremony and other celebration”
On the Mosque: “With respect to the proposal associated with a site near the Olympic development in Newham, we understand from Newham Council that there is no current planning permission or application for a mosque and Newham Council do not expect a planning application in the near future. “
I wonder how many of the nearly 800,000 people who supported those petitions checked back on the response?
Allowing comments can get difficult too – here’s one from the Number 10 website
And one from the iTunes store reviewing Number 10’s iPhone app:
Personally, I think government is better off leaving these campaigns to existing social networks. Let people who want to campaign organise that campaign on Facebook or wherever else, let them get PR through volume of traffic and interest. Making space available on a government website will guarantee coverage of the more obscure, irreverent and idiotic ideas. Government websites are also exactly where the people aren’t. They’re on social networks – perhaps increasingly just on Facebook, it’s true. So government should look there if it wants ideas on policies (that said, I’ve worked with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known whilst in government, and I haven’t noticed a shortage of ideas for policies – so perhaps one should be careful what one wishes for).
4) What have I missed?