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Gordon Brown and Tim Berners Lee: Back to the Future?

By Andrea Di Maio | March 23, 2010 | 8 Comments


On March 22nd the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, delivered a speech that confirmed the ambition of the Digital Britain report and provided a few bold highlights about what government will be doing with technology. A few examples:

First to digitalise – to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home;

Second to personalise – seizing the opportunities for voice and choice in our public services by opening up data and using the power of digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government;

Third to economise – in the Pre-Budget Report we set out our determination to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.

And he went further:

over the period ahead I want to go much further in harnessing the power of technology to refashion the structures and workings of government – delivering efficiencies not simply in the back room; but also looking at how the new technologies can open the door to a reinvention of the core policy-making processes and towards a renewal of politics itself

Tackling the future of electronic service delivery, he said:

Our goal is to replace the first generation of e-government with a much more interactive second generation form of digital engagement which we are calling Mygov

Today you can book and pay for a holiday online in minutes. Why can’t you do that for a blue badge for a disabled person? With Mygov you will.

You can deal with your bank when and where you want, at any time that suits you. Why can’t you do that with your Jobcentre? With Mygov you will.

These days websites tell you what other services or products might interest you. Why don’t government websites do that? With Mygov they will.

Maybe I am just a cynical analyst, but all this sounded a bit déjà vu (or, better, déjà entedu) to me. Personalized government web sites have been around for quite a while: Norway has had one for years and some Danish municipalities that I met recently have their too.

What Brown missed, again, is the realization that people do not need a new fancy web site and don’t necessarily care about government per se. They want to have access to government information and services seamlessly integrated with information and services they care about every day, through their most natural point of entry to the Internet. That could be Google or Facebook or another social network, but definitely not a government portal, even if on steroids.

Some verbiage in his speech hints to radical changes:

This open, personalised platform will allow us to deliver universal services that are also tailored to the needs of each individual; to move from top-down, monolithic websites broadcasting public service information in the hope that the people who need help will find it – to government on demand.

And rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs. This does not require large-scale government IT Infrastructure; the ‘open source’ technology that will make it happen is freely available. All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control.

and also an article published on TimeOnLine during the weekend claims that

The Cabinet Office is working on plans to allow people to buy their car tax discs from Amazon as well as order prescriptions and apply for benefits online

which would be a step in the right direction, but was not mentioned at all in Brown’s speech.

An article published on the TimesOnLine on March 20thanticipating Brown’s speech and announcing that dot-com entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox would help advise Downing Street, got an interesting series of comments from readers bashing on the whole idea of MyGov and pointing to how what Brown was about to say is not really that new.

Another part of Brown’s speech was about their open data initiative and the role that Sir Tiim Berners Lee had in shaping it. Besides (the British response to Obama’s , Brown also announced that:

from 1st April, we will be making a substantial package of information held by ordnance survey freely available to the public, without restrictions on re-use. Further details on the package and government’s response to the consultation will be published by the end of March.

[…] in the autumn the Government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.

The programme will be managed by the National Archives and it will be overseen by a new open data board which will report on the first edition of the new domesday book by April next year. The Government will then produce its detailed proposals including how this work can be extended to the wider public sector.

Brown seems to be so enthusiastic about all this that he even said:

Underpinning the digital transformation that we are likely to see over the coming decade is the creation of the next generation of the web – what is called the semantic web, or the web of linked data.

I never thought I would hear a prime minister talk about the “semantic web”, something on which several EU-funded projects have been trying to demonstrate the transformational potential for government with only modest success so far.

But Brown went even further, by announcing government funding to this research

Today I can announce the first funding for the next stage of this research – £30m to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science – based here in Britain and working with government and British business to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web.

It will assemble the best of world scientists and researchers and be headed by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the British inventor of the world wide web – and the leading web science expert Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Undoubtedly a big victory for Tim Berners Lee, who also happened to be interviewed by TimesOnLine on March 20th. One statement he made about e-government sounds a bit disappointing though:

“I don’t want to go to a government office to do a government thing, it should all be online,” says Sir Tim. “That saves time for people and it saves money for the Government. There will come a point where you don’t need all the physical offices any more.”

Haven’t we heard this over ten years ago, when the whole idea of e-government became fashionable?

There are certainly promising elements in what the UK government has been doing over the last year or so and the work spearheaded by Tim Berners Lee has been pivotal to this. However the strategy seems to be looking for an almost impossible balance between greater efficiency, more choice and decision-making power to citizens and desire (or necessity) to retain control.

The result may be for the UK to remain stuck into its ambition to be seen as a leader in e-government (and now government 2.0) without ever really making it.

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  • Hi Andrea

    I jined your post of a few days ago about “focus not frills” to the PM’s speech in my own blog on the matter. What concerns me is that no-one is still bothering to ask the citizens about their priorities. It’s a good job there’s not much money being spent!


  • Dear Andrea,

    You state that citizens “want to have access to government information and services seamlessly integrated with information and services they care about every day, through their most natural point of entry to the Internet. That could be Google or Facebook or another social network, but definitely not a government portal, even if on steroids.”

    My answer to that would be “yes, but”.

    While I fully agree – and this trend is even more present in the Education landscape – I think that these are two steps in the same way.

    Yes, we could definitely open the architectures and provide data, content and services to third parties’ platforms without middlestepping on a government portal.

    But the latter might be the natural – hence, the realistic – way to do it and just make it happen, even if it takes more time and money.

    In my own mental schemes, I can see a transition from an analogue administration to a web 1.0 government website, to a “widgetised” one-stop-shop portal, to a broadly open and distributed presence.

    In my own mental schemes, I see absolutely no government dismantling their websites in benefit of open data and services to be accessed from Facebook.

    Even if desirable 😉

  • John Kost says:

    Andrea is indeed a bit of a cynic, but unfortunately right on, as usual. While PM Brown is to be commended for his well-worded proclamation on these subjects, and the fact that if this stuff were actually delivered it could lead to a massive improvement in public services in the UK, the fact remains that accompllshing most of this through the UK government would take far more effort than even he appears to appreciate.

    The UK government’s IT capability is horribly constrained by the massive and relatively old legacy systems it is forced to maintain. Adapting government processes to web 2.0 technologies is well worth considering, but would largely require either scrapping or revolutionizing the legacy systems that support these processes today. But, it’s not that IT leaders in UK government don’t recognize the need to do this. The problems are more systemic that, among others, includes:

    – lack of engagement by Permanent Secretaries in forcing programs and departments to work together to become “citizen centric”
    – lack of understanding by Permanent Secretaries that they are the linchpin to success here and that whether they know it or not, are the ones most standing in the way of success
    – antiquated approaches to procurement further constrained by EU procurement rules
    – the siloed mentality of how money and people are allocated to UK departments

    Her Majesty’s government in the UK is blessed with some really clever IT leaders. But their ability to innovate is constrained by having to support business processes and legacy systems that Her Majesty’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria, would have recognized. It is not a technology problem!

  • Maybe there’s an ambitious project: to be a leader in e-gov in Europe.. Undoubtedly a big victory for Tim Berners Lee, yes, and a step forward too compared to the Obama’s Opendata project.
    In the UK there’s more than OpenGov.. there’s LinkedOpenGov..
    “There will come a point where you don’t need all the physical offices any more” : no more physical office is not equal no more workers.. (i believe) .. anyway, i think it sounds impressive as same as impossible to happen.

  • @Titti – Throughout the brief story of e-government, the UK has always been very bold in its vision and in its statements, although not always equally strong at delivering on the vision. It is a good thing to push the boundaries, even if you know that nobody will ever make it.
    On the other hand, I am skeptical about the semantic web spin for two reasons. The first one – as I said – is that there have been projects and efforts around this for a long time, and the outcomes so far look pretty modest (besides subsidizing a line of research of course). The second one is that one thing is to face a government semantic interoperability problem in the context of joined-up government (is a given data understood as – say – an address by all agencies that need to process it), while another thing is to publish raw data that may have different meaning and different values for different users, because use cases are not predetermined by government (as they are when you deal with joined-up government), So something that is an “address” for government could be just a “location” for a citizen who is building a mapping application.

  • Davied says:

    Andrea, I get the impression that you’re saying: “Nice words, but don’t even start, because you’re not going to make it anyway.”

    I think politicians have two roles: when in power, they need to govern and direct government in the right direction. Which is quite a difficult task as you pointed out. Things don’t always work out as promised.

    But secondly, they need to lead, show the way, present a vision of where we ought to go (and when this vision is inspired by the likes of sir Tim, all the better). This vision is necessary to make their first role work, but also gives others a guiding line to focus their actions on.

    So, I am pleased with this vision, because it shows politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs, citizens, etc. what’s possible (we, of course, already knew, but we’re quite the minority) and what they can hold government accountable for.

    If you don’t have a dream to compare current reality to, how can you strive for something better?

  • @Davied – I do not disagree at all that political leaders need to do exactly that: lead. However the history of e-government shows that great vision needs to be matched by ability to execute. Now, providing yet more funding to semantic web research is certainly important but not key to make open government a success. The point John makes in an earlier comment is an important one: the environment for this change to take place is complex and has lots of legacy. You can’t just paint it in web 2.0 and hope it goes away.

  • @ismael – I fully agree that government portals will never go away. The matter is how much more money will be spent to make them cool but pretty useless front offices, rather than widgetize them and let users choose