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UK Gov’s Digital Revolution: Digitise, Personalise, Economise

Gordon Brown’s speech last week on “Building Britain’s Digital Future”, covered a wide range of topics, but focused particularly how digital technologies such as the “semantic web” could drive a radical reshaping of government and its interactions with citizens.

He outlined his ambition for Britain to be the world leader not only in the digital economy, but also:

in public service delivery where we can give the greatest possible voice and choice to citizens, parents patients and consumers; and the world leader in the new politics where that voice for feedback and deliberative decisions can transform the way we make local and national policies and decisions.

Linked data

Mr. Brown explained how the concept of Linked data and the semantic web has ‘the potential to be just as revolutionary as the web’.  He went on to say:

in both the content and delivery of public services the next stage of the web will transform the ability of citizens to tailor the services they need to their requirements, to feedback constantly on their success, to interact with the professionals who deliver them and to put the citizen not the public servant in control.

As part of this, he announced £30m in funding to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science – headed by  Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt (expert in web science) – to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web. The idea is to ensure the UK is at the cutting edge of research on the semantic web and other internet technologies.

Digital revolution

Brown outlined three steps to ensure the UK realizes the ambition to become a leader in the next stage of the digital revolution: digitise and improve the digital communications infrastructure; personalise service delivery and government interactions; and harness the power of technology to economise .

  • Digitise – Make the UK a leader in the provision of “superfast broadband”.

The prime minister said access to broadband was a fundamental freedom in the modern world, and would save government billions of pounds while at the same time revolutionizing how people access public services.

Superfast broadband is the electricity of the digital age. And I believe it must be for all – not just for some.

[...] Faster broadband speeds will bring new, cheaper, more personalised and more effective public services to people; it will bring games and entertainment options with new levels of sophistication; it will make accessing goods and services immeasurably easier; it will enrich our democracy by giving people new ways of communicating complaining and challenging vested interests.

  • Personalise – Seize the opportunities for voice and choice in our public services by opening up data and digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government.

He announced that from 1st April, ordnance survey information will be made freely available to the public and 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.

[..] we must use this technology to open up data with the aim of providing every citizen in Britain with true ownership and accountability over the services they demand from government.

And in doing so we can put in place the best most personalised but universally accessible digital public services in the world, and harness the power of technology to economise – shaking up Whitehall and making us the most efficient, open and responsive government in the world.

[...] The new domesday book will for the first time allow the public to access in one place information on each set of data including its size, source, format, content, timeliness, cost and quality. And there will be an expectation that departments will release each of these datasets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.

Any business or individual will be free to embed this public data in their own websites, and to use it in creative ways within their own applications.

Along with opening up data Brown also set out a raft of measures to create personalised web pages for everyone to engage with government services. It’s called Mygov and is seen as a replacement to the first generation of online citizen interaction with government i.e. e-government:

Mygov will constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government – making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping. 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.

[...] Online, Mygov will give people a simple “dashboard” to manage their pensions, tax credits or child benefits; pay their council tax; fix their doctors or hospital appointment and control their own treatment; apply for the schools of their choice and communicate with their children’s teachers; or get a new passport or driving licence – all available when and where they need it.

[...] This bold new approach will transform the way services are delivered but, more importantly, it will be the vehicle through which citizens will come to control the services that are so important to their lives and communities. With Mygov, citizens will be in control – choosing the content relevant to them and determining their level of engagement.

  • Economise – The Pre-Budget Report we set out the government’s 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.

The prime minister explained how restructuring and reform government departments should provide for major savings on running costs – while providing better services to the citizen. This transformation will be driven through the use of new digital technologies which can enable the change from a “paternalistic, closed Whitehall to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalise shape and ultimately control their services.”

He explained how the government is  committed to achieving £4bn of savings from back office functions by 2012-13. To drive this forward, the government intends to establish a number of business service companies that will handle the routine back office functions of Whitehall departments. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as held up as an example of how this could work:

The prototype for this new approach already exists – the shared services centre in the department for work and pensions, which already supports 140,000 staff in three departments and plans to take on four more in the next year. DWP also has plans to establish its shared services as a trading fund within the next twelve months, and will explore in parallel the scope for bringing further commercial expertise into its work.

Deliberative democracy

While the majority of Brown’s speech focused on harnessing new technology to refashion the structures and workings of government, he also envisaged how it could “open the door to a reinvention of the core policy-making processes and towards a renewal of politics itself.”

Digital government can open new ways of enabling people to influence and even decide public policy (check San Francisco’s recent example of such Policy consultations).

[...] Since it was established at the end of 2006, the number 10 e-petitions service has received more than 70 thousand petitions. There have been more than 12 million signatures placed and the Government has replied with more than 8 million e-mail responses.

Each week I record a podcast and use twitter most days. Number10.gov.uk carries out daily conversations with more than 1.7 million followers. There have been almost 2 million views of our images on flickr and 4.3 million views of our films and videos on YouTube.

Perhaps, as a reference to the US government’s recent citizen engagement initiative – as part of the Open Government Directive - he explained how he was inviting people to directly share in the task of government that is there to serve them.

And I am today tasking every department to identify the far wider scope for deliberative engagements with the public, specifiying the outcome expected from such engagement.

It’ll be interesting to see how departments gather together the scope for such an exercise, and whether they go to the same lengths as US government agencies in crowdsourcing ideas.

Future

Gordon Brown has signaled his determination to harness new digital technology to reshape government and create a new generation platform upon which citizens can engage more efficiently. However, with an election expected to be announced next week, it’s unsure whether he will still be in office to see these ideas implemented.

Nevertheless, many aspects of the speech above are also contained in the Conservative’s recent Technology manifesto e.g. the release of more government data, improving broadband speeds and utilising more ‘Open Source’ software to reduce IT costs. Whoever wins the next election it looks like the central tenets of Open Government – transparency, participation, and collaboration – will become more and more integral to the delivery of public services and the efficacy of government departments.

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