As some of this blog’s readers might know, back in January 2001 I wrote a research note entitled “Why Today’s Government Portals Are Irrelevant”. In that note I said that “the infrequent nature of G2C interaction and the possible role that intermediaries and aggregators in the private and nonprofit sector may play, casts doubt on whether government portals will evolve in the same way. It is more reasonable to assume that citizens will be more willing to interact through their horizontal portal of choice, or through private-sector vertical portals that can offer attractive propositions, e.g., by bundling public information or service provision with other services and information to add value. Government-managed portals may soon become obsolete”. There was no web 2.0 and little personalization at the time, but one could already see the issues that government portals would face.
In the last few days I have had a chance to discuss and research about the never-ending issue of the relevance of government portals.
First, I have been looking at a number of US state portals, and I have found that some start taking an interesting spin. Some post their video information on a YouTube channel as opposed to their own portal. Others have defined Facebook profiles or presence in Twitter, so that citizens can follow them as fans or friends. Others are putting photo archives on Flickr, allowing people to tag content the way they like. These States recognize that users are more willing to consume information outside the portal boundaries, that they do not feel that the government portal is the most natural conduit for the information they want. On the other hands there are still many States with a more traditional approach, which just take baby steps toward web 2.0, by supporting social bookmarking or exposing a few blogs.
While writing this post on a plane, I am re-reading the Service Tranformation Agreement document published last year by the UK Cabinet Office, together with the latest progress report about their transformational strategy. Amongst many interesting achievements, they stress the objective of retiring as many web sites as possible and conveying all information and services on a citizen-facing portal (DirectGov) and a business portal (BusinessLink). While this looks like a sensible move from the point of view of providing a single point of access, increasing information consistency and decreasing cost, it seems to run contrary to the whole idea of letting citizens choose their channel. Ironically, a separate initiative under the government transformation program is looking at implementing the recommendations from the Power of Information Review, stresses the importance of unleashing the power of information for citizens and businesses to mash it up in ways that governments cannot plan or even imagine.
Now, while in principle the fact that information is available only through a couple of portals would not prevent its mashability, these portals aim at providing citizen-centric services and information according to a government view of what citizen-centric means. Therefore granularity and availability of information may not match what people and communities expect.
Going forward it will be interesting to observe which direction different portals take. Will individual agency and department web site completely vanish? Or will they ultimately prevail over centralized government-wide portals? And how will the latter respond to increasing demand for different ways to access to and combine information and services?