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British Flavor of Government 2.0: Few Gold Nuggets Lost in Legacy

By Andrea Di Maio | December 09, 2009 | 4 Comments

web 2.0 in government

This has been quite a week, with US, Australian and British governments issuing their reports and directives on government 2.0. As usual, the longest and most comprehensive report comes from the UK, with its “Putting the Frontline First: smarter government”, as a sequel to the impressive Digital Britain report published last June (see an excellent post on the latter by my colleague Nick Jones).

Consistently with the UK government tradition, the report is very well structured, although a bit wordy. I suspect that, if I had British rather than American editors for my Gartner research notes, their average length – and the average length of each sentence – would probably be about twice as much.

It reiterates some of the themes addressed in previous years, such as “increasing back-office efficiency to release resources to the frontline”, as well as some of the traditional lines of the UK e-government plan, like single point of contact and more “joined-up services”. The report also blends the lasting impact of the Power of Information Review with the overseas trend of having a single access point for public data (

Although this report is both more generic and less impactful that the Australian one, it contains a few very good points.

The first one is the one about encouraging greater personal responsibility. The report suggests that

Opening up information is an important step to empowering citizens to drive improvements in public services. However, it is the actions people take on this information that will improve life outcomes for themselves, their families and communities

This rightly puts the availability of public information in the context of what “general citizens “ (rather than political activists) can use it for.

Another excellent point is about what we at Gartner call pattern-based strategy. The report says that

Approaches such as predictive risk modelling can help to identify the different groups in society that will most benefit from targeted support

and mentions cases the areas of health care and benefit fraud as early examples.

Other very good points are the following, which highlight the potential of government 2.0 to engage the public in service delivery and not just on political participation:

[…] involving those who use services in their design and delivery. Websites such as and the NHS Choices website are receiving feedback on local services in volumes never experienced before. Web 2.0 takes this a stage further by offering communities the chance to pass real time comment.
[…] public servants can mobilise people to help each other. Millions of dedicated citizens share their valuable skills through peer support and volunteering. They can act as sources of advice to others in similar positions, for example through the Expert Patient Programme.
[…] civic society can help deliver public services itself. Investment in local social enterprise has grown significantly over the last 10 years, and there are now 62,000 social enterprises in the UK

A vision that puts together the ultimate goal of citizen engagement (to better serve themselves) and the use of predictive analytics is definitely compelling and going in the right direction.

Unfortunately I am less hopeful when it comes to execution.

The desire for control transpires from the report, by indicating Directgov as the primary channel for online engagement, and by setting government in charge of deciding how and when established civic organizations could be engaged.

The report says nothing about online communities (such as groups on social media) that complement the work of established civic organizations. Nor does it say anything about how government employees should engage on social media to discover, understand and ultimately liaise with those communities. Nor does it say anything about how predictive analytics will have to rely also on information created and rated by those online communities.

However it is fair to say that the report starts scratching the surface of what real engagement actually means. If the UK government will be able to do what the Aussies are doing by encouraging employees to engage on line on citizen’s turf, it may be close to a breakthrough on government 2.0.

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  • Gary says:

    I think you have mistaken a desire for consistency and trust with a desire for control. Directgov must change, that is clear. The public are empowered by the move to the ‘3rd generation of public services’ as the PM described it. This moves services such as Directgov and NHS Choices away from monolithic central portals, to become the facilitators of the coherent digital service from government – ensuring that, yes, there is always a good place for those searching the web for the UK public services, but more importantly, facilitating government departments to open-up their digital content, data and applications to all. This can be via partnerships with 3rd sector or commercial organisations to improve reach (Government should not expect the public to search around the web … the services located should where and when they are needed – see the deals that NHS Choices has in place with organisation such as Boots for example, a big step forward) or by allowing local innovation through making data available in a freely available format.

    However, it is not good enough to expect those innovations to flourish and fulfil a public need on their own; government cannot abdicate its responsibility to provide modern and effective public services accessible by all. Therefore, there is a need for services, such as Directgov and NHS Choices, to take innovation back in and make it more broadly available.

    Finally, on engagement, this is the first step to empowerment. Much of this engagement is already happening, especially in health with NHS Choices. It is not however, only through NHS Choices, there is a vibrant digital community on healthcare issues and quality of services, and NHS Choices engages and works with it. Encouraging Civil Servants to ‘engage online on the citizens’ turf’ is too simplistic, many already do, but without coherence, consistency and trust in that engagement its value is low. The real value comes from making something from the engagement, be that continuous improvement of public services, or informing policy for the future. The engagement moves to empowerment.

  • Doug Hadden says:

    These observations are not entirely accurate or useful. For one thing, one should not make conclusions about writing style differences among countries. I suspect that the British might view American writing as inelegant.

    The issue of loss of control, security and privacy risk etc. exists everywhere. We could interpret the task force report from Austalia as recommended a command approach through the creation of a special organization.

    Government 2.0 is a significant culture change. Execution, in the UK or elsewhere, has followed a pattern of uneven adoption. Not unlike other new technologies in the past.

  • @Doug – I should apologize for my cheap joke about English vs. American. However in full disclosure I should also admit that I’ve married a professor of English literature who keeps telling me how great a language English is, and keeps criticizing most of my editors’ edits (let alone my own, poor use of the language): so maybe there is some subtle Freudian implication in what I said 🙂
    On a more serious tone, I totally agree that gov 2.0 implies a culture change and nobody really knows where it will lead. I do believe it is different from technology in the past, because it carries a socialization and a commoditization component at the same time, which challenge established processes from multiple perspectives.
    Concerning my points on the loss of control etc, my contention is that the Australian approach seems more effective by looking at employees at the center of gravity for engagement, whereas the British strategy still looks at the relationships between “institutions” (including civic organizations). I did point out in my comments that the attempt of identifying a particular agency to lead gov 2.0 implementation is a weakness in the Australian approach.

  • @Gary –

    I acknowledge that Directgov is already changing and I had a few chances to discuss with them about how they see their future. It is quite clear to me that they will morph more into a platform for information and services to be available, hopefully departing from the more prescriptive “life event approach” that most of Europe has followed with very little return.

    It is nice to see more people talking about “services located should where and when they are needed”: I was being laughed at back in 2001 when I was passing the exact same message but both government officials and vendors were not willing to listen to this simple truth.

    I do strongly disagree, though, on the second part of your comment, where you say that “encouraging Civil Servants to ‘engage online on the citizens’ turf’ is too simplistic, many already do, but without coherence, consistency and trust in that engagement its value is low”.

    I recognize that in some cases the public sector has successfully engaged with external communities, but I would argue that (1) this has happened in very few cases and (2) even where it seems to be working, the disruptive impact of web 2.0 and social media may change the balance of engagement.
    For instance, new actors could emerge that are – today – below the radar screen of NHS Choices: they may challenge the established digital community, or cause this to morph into something different. Today it is incredibly easy to create a Facebook group that grows to hundreds of thousands members in a matter of days: how would those voices be heard?

    My contention is that the only way to detect these weak signals and establish sustainable engagement is to empower employees to do so. Not in any confused fashion, but by applying value frameworks like those I covered in earlier posts (e.g.