Blog post

Do You Still Think That Government Portals Are Relevant?

By Andrea Di Maio | November 09, 2009 | 5 Comments


I have been preaching for a while that investments in government portals need to be critically reassessed, as citizens look for different and more convenient ways to access. My position on this, dating back to 2001, well before anybody would even spell “Web 2.0” was based on the simple observation that governments cannot easily provide a compelling value proposition either offline or online. This position, suggesting that government portals risk being irrelevant, has been fought by several clients, most vendors and even some of my colleagues.

As I’ve always said, government can be relevant in areas where their is no other easier or more natural way to get to its services and information, as well as in cases where government has a consistent tradition of high customer service and intimacy, as it happens in places like Singapore or some of the Scandinavian countries. Even there, though, the emergence of peer-to-peer networks, where information can be socialized before or while interacting with government, is going to have a disruptive impact.

I was not surprised then when I read about an initiative by the citizens of Birmingham in the UK to develop their own web site and to ditch the expensive official one. The council has not been lucky, since their web site went over budget and behind schedule, but this is just a sign of the times.

As citizens have increasing access to technologies, most of which are designed for consumer use, they will be more and more able to self-organize and turn into legacy also the most recent government channels.

One of the (unintended?) consequences of the open government movement and of web sites like could be to accelerate the irrelevance of many government web sites and portals. Those who do not believe this may be the case yet, better take a look at the Birmingham Do-It-Yourself site.

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  • Per Olsson says:

    If government portals would adapt information and architecture after the actual visitors and not the writers AND if they changed much faster so visitors could actually make good use of the services they would have a meaning and be relevant.
    But today it feels like many of these portals are out there because everyone expect it to be there without really knowing why.

  • Sarah Bourne says:

    The footer of the Do-It-Yourself site says, “may contain incorrect or out of date information.” Indeed, the most recent activity I could find on that site was from over a month ago.

    And this is the problem with the idea that government sites can be replaced by volunteer efforts: the volunteers move on. They have other things in their lives competing for their time and attention, such as paying jobs and a home and family life. It’s hard to sustain interest in trash collection schedules and the like when the existing site does at least an adequate job of handling this information.

    While parts of some government sites get neglected from time to time, they eventually get taken care of because it’s somebody’s job to make sure that it does or because something has substantively changed.

    Government portals are mostly about providing services. The open data movement, on the other hand, is about making better use of the data government collects in conducting it’s business. There is tremendous potential value, but government can’t afford to pursue all potentialities. This is where volunteers’ excitement, energy, imagination and fresh perspectives are most needed. Their efforts can produce better ways of viewing and using data, but that isn’t the same as replacing official portals.

  • Jeffrey Levy says:

    Sarah nailed it.

    I also believe that in many cases, the gov’t is a more trusted source than random people. Not in all cases, but often.

    Not that our sites are perfect. We need to do better.

    But gov’t sites irrelevant? Not a chance.

  • Why not outsource government portals to commercial entities and allow them to profit from targeted advertising via audience profile building?

    There would be an ongoing commitment to the portal and a commitment to accurate information provision potentially greater than a government might have.

    I believe we’d see faster and cheaper development and better use of modern technologies – plus it would push back on government departments who can be slow to update out-of-date material.

    We live in a radical time – it is time to consider radical solutions. Why assume that it takes a government to provide an ongoing valid information source? Commercial entities and not-for-profits like Wikipedia have also demonstrated the ability to deliver this – often to a higher level of functional excellence and accuracy than government has managed to achieve.



  • @Sarah & Jeffrey. You make a great point about volunteer efforts to be transient in nature and the need for government to be there, as the provider of last resort. Actually, I have never said that governments have to abdicate on their responsibility to provide (as much as possible) accurate data and services, but that the ways to access and consume that data and those services may (and will) not be limited to government controlled channels. This calls for a serious re-assessment of how much money is spent in building government-wide portals vs. how much effort is put in monitoring the emergence and relevance of online communities that may provide a better or just a complementary channel for constituents to get data and services (see my previous post at