I have been sitting on this blog post for a while, as I was traveling for Gartner Symposia and dealing with a number of quite interesting news around both Government 2.0 and cloud. I understand that this may sound like a very late comment to the review provided by the UK Digital Champion for the future of Directgov, the UK government primary online information and services portal. In fact, the review was published in mid October and the UK Government’s (unsurprisingly positive) reaction was issued in November.
However I feel that it is still worthwhile to comment, as some of the changes suggested will take quite some time to be implemented.
What stroke me first was the title of the review: Directgov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not evolution. I found it quite intriguing after having been claiming for many years that government portals need a fundamental redefinition of their role and relevance (see here or here).
The recommendations from the report are as follows:
- Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
- Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services & content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties.
- Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.
- Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.
What I found revolutionary in terms of vision is the idea of Directgov being a wholesaler and not only a retail shop. The idea here is that third parties should be able to act as retailers and value-added “resellers” of online government information and services, also as a means to provide those where citizens are most likely to consume them. Finally an authoritative voice against the “one-stop shop” principle that has driven for way too many years the positioning and development of e-government portals.
I am not sure how many people remember that this is not new. Back in 2003, the UK government published an e-government intermediary policy that supports the same approach, with due differences of course, since open API were less fashionable at the time than they are today. But still, restating the principle is important and refreshing.
And this is as far as the “revolutionary” goes. The other three recommendations all revolve around greater centralization and control. Do not get me wrong, it is important to limit the proliferation of web sites that end up providing an inconsistent user experience and increasing costs. But there are risks.
While the review suggests that the UK government move toward a single consistent web service platform that would be used but not created by Directgov, it also suggests an even greater centralization under Directgov of several, currently distinct web sites.
Ultimately it makes sense to the user for all Government digital services to reside under a single brand. The user should not have to navigate the departmental structure of Government before finding the service or content what they need. On the web, this implies the adoption of a single Internet domain for central government. […] . Driving government content into a single domain could be achieved by stretching the direct.gov.uk brand to cover all other government content, for example direct.gov.uk/business and direct.gov.uk/news etc.
The review also provides a possible organization view, from the Transform report which was used to inform it, according to which consumer, business, department, news and engagement content should all be branded as Directgov, although different teams would be responsible for different content streams. The faith of departmental web sites would be to use common standards and common web services to deliver specialist content.
Other recommendations about appointing a CEO for digital and having a single team in control of user experience complement the above.
But the question is: isn’t there a risk that by destroying old silos, new ones are created? The distinction between transactional content and engagement content makes sense from an organizational perspective, but do consumers really see that difference? Isn’t it true that people are more likely to engage in the context of service delivery than if asked abstract questions about draft policies?
Furthermore, isn’t the recognition that government need to act as a wholesaler in conflict with tighter channel and user experience control? At the end of the day, different departments are accountable for information accuracy and for service levels. They should be able to determine which online information and services are most appropriate for intermediation or use by a third party. And Directgov should be seen as nothing else that one, albeit special, third party.
Where is the room for innovation, for departments who may be willing to overcome the rigid distinction between news and department information, between business services and engagement? Not to mention how some of the engagement may take place on those same external intermediaries, such as social media platforms, that may intermediate services.
What about the actual common web services? Should they be just government web services or should they include also services developed by intermediaries? Where is the government 2.0 flavor here, with the blurring of boundaries between providers and consumers?
The review is a useful starting point to shake some of the commonly held beliefs about the role of government portals. It is a pity it rushes so early to advocate for a degree of centralization and re-siloing that may stifle the innovation potential that open government and government 2.0 bring to the table.