Brown’s big picture of the digital future

Gordon Brown’s speech, describing a vision of Britain’s digital future, is stirring stuff, with its pledges to make Britain a world leader in terms of digital jobs, public service delivery and ‘the new politics’.

The announcements and commitments came thick and fast – from the £30m to create an Institute of Web Science, to be headed by Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, to confirmation of the release of ‘a substantial package of information held by Ordnance Survey … without restrictions on reuse’, to a ‘Domesday Book for the 21st century’ listing all non-personal datasets held by government and arms-length bodies, to an iPhone app for Number10, to an API on Directgov content ‘by the end of May’.

And then there’s MyGov – ‘a radical new model making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping.’ On the face of it, this seems – finally – like recognition that citizens’ expectations have jumped ahead of government’s delivery in the last decade. There wasn’t much detail in the speech – but it sounds to me like the first hint at Vendor Relationship Management, where the citizen shares his/her data up to suppliers. That’s certainly where the Times seemed to be pointing on Saturday, when it described the creation of a ‘paperless state’:

The aim is that within a year, everybody in the country should have a personalised website through which they would be able to find out about local services and do business with the Government. A unique identifier will allow citizens to apply for a place for their child at school, book a doctor’s appointment, claim benefits, get a new passport, pay council tax or register a car from their computer at home. … Over the next three years, the secure site will be expanded to allow people to interact with their children’s teachers or ask medical advice from their doctor through a government version of Facebook.

As I’ve written here before, I’m convinced this has to happen at some point. We build up personal profiles on Facebook, and allow Amazon and Tesco to analyse our purchasing habits – in return for much improved service. I just don’t think it’s sustainable on any level for government to continue to demand that we fill in lengthy forms, whether on paper or online, to get what we’re due.

But of course, that’s a huge government IT project, isn’t it? And by definition, that’s doomed? Well, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line which suggests things might be changing:

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.

Blimey: recognition that open source is ready to deliver the most visionary of government policy.

And with my WordPress hat on – do I ever take it off? – I can’t help smiling at his pledge that ‘no new [government] website will be allowed unless it allows feedback and engagement with citizens themselves.’

Of course, the speech has to be seen in context. Without ever mentioning the Tories, the speech was quite unashamedly party political in places: portraying the differing views of broadband expansion, or trying to match or trump Tory pledges on data transparency. It was also the speech of a Prime Minister staring at a huge public debt problem: and with neither tax rises nor spending cuts being palatable, that really only leaves technology-driven efficiency savings.

And it’s the context that’s stopping me getting too excited about it all. We’re probably a fortnight away from government pulling down the shutters for a month. In six weeks, Brown may or may not be Prime Minister, and may or may not be in a position to deliver on these promises.

Comparisons with the Tories’ technology manifesto are inevitable. In this speech, Brown blended small-scale but symbolic measures, like a Directgov API within weeks, with big-picture principles such as VRM. It’s both shorter- and longer-term than the Conservative document – attempting, perhaps, to outflank Cameron, Maude, Hunt et al on both sides at once.

But whilst they may differ on certain matters of implementation, both are heading – rushing actually – in the same basic direction. On the face of it, no matter who wins, we can’t lose.

Did we just win?

We’ve all learned to be cynical about government announcements – but I’m reading through today’s ‘Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government’ paper, and I can’t help smiling. We certainly aren’t in a position where the PM can make a policy declaration, and it all falls into place by lunchtime; there are some vicious battles ahead. But there can’t be much doubt, surely, that the tide has now turned in favour of open data, accountability, transparency, third-party innovation, and technology which is both smarter and cheaper.

The paper’s ‘action points’ list looks like an agreement to do many, if not all the things we as a ‘gov 2.0’ community were asking for. A few highlights:

  • Establish common protocols for public services to exchange information
  • Consult on and release valuable public sector datasets – including mapping and postcode, Public Weather Service, detailed government expenditure, various transport and health datasets
  • Enable a single point of access for government held data through data.gov.uk (to launch Jan 2010)
  • Launch a public consultation index through Directgov (although we’ve had this before)
  • During 2010: Ensure public consultations have online tools for interactive dialogue (er, WordPress I guess?)
  • During 2010: Ensure the majority of government-held data published in reusable form
  • By 2011: Publish all comparative data on www.data.gov.uk and ensure that it is sufficiently consistent to enable cost comparisons to be made across services
  • For the longer term: Reduce consultancy spend by 50%, and communication and marketing spend by 25%

And there’s plenty more, deeper into the report: prototype building, ONS data into data.gov.uk, ‘direct’ involvement for users in service design, local breakdowns of stimulus spending, a whole section on ‘Harnessing the power of comparative data’, and a pledge for ‘the majority of government-published information to be reusable, linked data by June 2011’. In fact, I’m struggling to think of anything on the wishlist which hasn’t been ticked off.

It’s important to see this in the widest possible context. This is just Whitehall accepting the reality many of us recognised long ago. This is a Labour government looking for causes around which to build its general election campaign; and of course, trying to steal something of a march on their rivals and likely successors: see Cameron’s pledges of June this year.

And it’s reliant on existing institutions, contract-holders and vested interests coming round to the new way of thinking. Like forcing Ordnance Survey to surrender their data. Escaping the restrictions of costly outsourcing arrangements. And embracing the tools and methods of the new ways of thinking, just as much as the mindset. Past performance doesn’t give much cause for optimism, perhaps: but at least there’s evidence of a desire to take the fight to people like OS.

The naming of the document is intriguing: having been known as the ‘Smarter Government’ paper for some time now, it emerges with the classically anodyne (and ultimately meaningless) title of ‘Putting the Frontline First’. Clearly, they were too nervous about presenting their vision as too technologically-driven – understandable, I suppose. But that’s precisely what it is.

Downing St reopens its email function

no10mailbox wide

Rejoice, bloggers! Downing Street has started the rollout of its (apparently?) much-missed function to send an email to the Prime Minister.

There’s been plenty of commentary on the function’s disappearance last summer, from Tim Ireland to Francis Maude, much of it coming from the slightly naive position of ‘how hard can it be to set up an email account’? Of course, that part’s dead easy. But what do you do when that account receives hundreds or thousands of messages daily?

I’ve spoken to the Downing Street team about this in the past; the problems with the old ‘just an inbox’ system went beyond sheer volumes. And unfortunately, the classic corporate response – ignore the lot of them (and yes, it does happen) – isn’t an option when there’s the considerable risk of missing something tremendously sensitive: an email, let’s say, from a soldier’s widow.

It’s based on a web-to-email form rather than a plain email address: no shame in that, it’s what Obama does. However, unlike most (including Obama, by the way), it’s done over https, giving an extra layer of security for those messages whilst in transit.

Before you get to that form, though, you’re shown a list of subjects you might be emailing about: and if one of these is relevant, it directs you to somewhere more suitable. Isn’t this obstructive? Yes, of course it is. But it stops you before you waste your time typing a message which won’t get the reply you want. That’s got to be a good thing overall.

Once over that hurdle, the email form is perhaps surprisingly short: all it asks, in terms of personal information, is a name, postcode and email address. Enough for you to get a reply (if they choose to send one), and enough for them to see if any subjects are particularly hot in certain areas. The message is limited to 1000 characters: too tight for Dizzy, but at least there’s a live character count on the screen.

Before your message is properly submitted, you get an automated email asking you to verify your address. Again, perfectly normal online behaviour, with benefits to both sides: it filters out the anonymous rants, and double-checks the recipient’s address in the event of No10 wanting to reply.

Then, behind the scenes, I hear there are a few tools to help them cope better with the volumes: the ability to group emails by common subjects, workflow management, and so on.

A lot of the commentary, it must be said, has been purely a hook on which to hang wider criticism: ‘a beleaguered prime minister retreating to his bunker,’ to quote Francis Maude. It didn’t take any account of whether the former function was actually working. For anyone.

The new system – built outside WordPress, incidentally – provides added security, greater efficiency and reliability, But most importantly, it provides a much better likelihood of your email actually getting a decent response. Which is the whole point of having such a service in the first place.

No10 blogging from Brussels summit

Time to unleash another Puffbox production for 10 Downing Street. Gordon Brown’s off to Brussels to chat about this and that (mostly that, I guess), and as with the trip to the US in April, they’ve sent a member of the No10 web team to report on proceedings. I’ve been working with them to develop a blogging platform, based very much on the April site, but with a bit of Friendfeed-inspired feed aggregation.

The site, at eusummit.govblogs.co.uk (for reasons which will soon become apparent), is based primarily around a WordPress blog – but also attempts to bring together No10’s other activity on sites such as Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. Plus, with David Miliband also attending, we’re ready to integrate any articles he publishes on his own blog.

The plan is to try and get as much video content as possible, to give a flavour of how the European Council actually works on the ground. But as ‘Your No10 Correspondent’ acknowledges, we just don’t know what he’ll be able to get.

Once again, it was an aggressive development schedule – measured in hours rather than days! – and I’ve had to use some cheeky work-arounds. (Accessing and filtering the Foreign Office’s blog content was especially tricky, for reasons I won’t bore you with.) But I hope it’s another example of how a few RSS feeds, a bit of PHP code, and a little lateral thinking can tie up these various best-of-breed tools and services into a single coherent website.

Brown comfortable on camera?

Just a quick return to the subject of yesterday’s speech by Gordon Brown to the Google Zeitgeist conference. Having failed to watch the Windows Media stream on the No10 site, I was glad to see the speech posted on the event’s YouTube area. And it’s remarkable for one reason: look how relaxed Gordon Brown seems, for a man supposedly at political rock-bottom. Granted, we could do without the ‘watching tennis’ head movements, but be fair to him – he’s only got one working eye. (Hat-tip: Dizzy.)

PM hails Google’s model of globalisation

Gordon Brown’s big speech at Google’s Zeitgeist conference this morning saw the unveiling of a new initiative involving the MetOffice, British Antarctic Survey and Google Earth to visualise the (potential) effects of climate change worldwide. It’s quite nice, but ultimately you’ll load it up and go ‘hmmph’.

More interesting perhaps was his citing of the lessons learned from the growth of Google’s industry for ‘how we build not simply a successful global economy but a global society’ – openness, non-protectionism, flexibility, inclusion.

He paints an optimistic vision of the future, based on a campaign in favour of globalisation. We get a few familiar tales of empowerment through technology, including yet another reference to crime mapping. And references to overturning protectionist monopolies will have gone down well with the Googlers in the audience, no doubt. 🙂

It’s interesting to compare Brown’s words with David Cameron’s remarks to the very same conference, two years ago. Both reflect on the positive side to globalisation, but whilst Cameron’s focus is more domestic, Brown is talking (again) about the global economics of it all. ‘Zeitgeist’ is certainly the word.

Questions to the Prime Minister!

Downing Street’s journey ever deeper into new media continues… as Sky’s Joey Jones observes, ‘cyberspace probably seems the safest place for Gordon Brown right now.’

And on the day he addresses Google’s Zeitgeist Europe conference, apparently to announce ‘a number of areas (plural? hmm…) where the UK Government and technology giant Google are planning to work together’, he also becomes the latest politician to invite questions from YouTubers. See their London Mayoral efforts, or the US-based YouChoose for other examples… or indeed, the Rolling Stones.

I’m not entirely sure about these ‘ping-pong’ video interviews… they’re certainly better than the mock-TV studio efforts which Labour have tried before, but I worry about a channel where the questions are often longer than the answers.

You’ve got until 21 June to record and submit your question, with responses to follow ‘at the end of June’… although they’re describing it as ‘regular’, so there should be further chances later.

Web as a weapon: visionary stuff from Gordon Brown

It didn’t generate much media coverage, but there were some stirring words in Gordon Brown’s speech on Saturday to the Church of Scotland general assembly. One of the recurring criticisms levelled against him has been a lack of a defining vision: well, try this one for size.

The greatest arsenal of power today is not nuclear or biological or chemical but people – the discovery of our capacity to come together across borders and oceans and to stand together as one. And what I want to argue is that the joining of these two forces – the information revolution and the human urge to co-operate for justice – makes possible for the first time in history something we have only dreamt about: the creation of a truly global society.

A global society where people anywhere and everywhere can discover their shared values, communicate with each other and do not need to meet or live next door to each other to join together with people in other countries in a single moral universe to bring about change. I believe that these vast and swiftly summoned movements of people coming together can now become the most powerful weapon for justice ever put in human hands.

It’s great to see a politician, the Prime Minister indeed, going a step beyond the ‘information revolution’ phase, and talking about the impact on society and human relationships both nearest and distant. Steadily we’re seeing The Establishment start to recognise how far the transformation goes. But one wonders if the PM will feel it even more directly after the Crewe by-election on Thursday night: the Tory bloggers, like the party they support, are pushing as hard as they possibly can.

Interestingly, what little media coverage there was – particularly in the Scottish papers – has been overwhelmingly positive for the PM; in stark contrast to virtually everything else from the nationals lately. ‘If Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of a better Britain, then his speech yesterday would have confirmed this son of the manse as the man Britain believes is right to run the country,’ writes Scotland on Sunday’s Kenny Farquharson. The Sunday Mail was even more direct: ‘On his home turf he showed that he is still the man to lead Britain.’ It’s not all bad out there.

Cameron’s online challenge

David Cameron takes his ‘be my friend’ campaign to the Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, with a piece about the internet ‘transforming our political culture’, and how young people are more political than ever – just not via the old-style channel of political parties. As I noted last week, he’s presenting this new concept of being a ‘friend of the Tories’ as membership-lite:

We understand that for many, the idea of signing up to a party as a full “member” doesn’t fit with what they want. For example, they might support us on some issues, but not others. By becoming a “friend”, they can campaign for action on what they really care about.

I’m still to be convinced: it’s still just party membership, albeit with fewer strings. But the most interesting aspect of the article is its final paragraph, a naked challenge to the PM:

I don’t think Gordon Brown understands the changes that are happening in our world. He’s still too attached to the old politics – where power and decision-making lies in the hands of a few at the very top. My generation, however, instinctively understands these changes. And I’m proud that it’s the Conservative party that is leading the way.

And whether you like or dislike him and his party, you have to agree with that statement. Over on the red side, what’s Labourhome’s top story?

In a move brokered by Amicus Unite Deputy General Secretary Tony Dubbins, the Grassroots Alliance has agreed to back Mike Griffiths for General Secretary, having secured the withdrawal of “wildcard” left-wing NEC candidate John Wiseman, the Labour candidate in Westmoreland & Lonsdale.

I feel engaged already.

Cabinet Minister for digital inclusion?

A timely piece from the BBC’s Ashley Highfield on the ‘digital divide’. It’s timely, because as of this week, Britain has a Cabinet-level minister with responsibility for digital inclusion – Wales secretary Paul Murphy. This news appeared to come as a surprise to BBC Wales’s David Cornock when it emerged at PMQs this lunchtime. Mr Brown announced:

The new Secretary of State for Wales has responsibilities in addition to his responsibilities for Wales. He is overseeing the British-Irish Council, he is responsible for the joint ministerial committees on devolution, he is the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, and he is responsible for data security and information assurance. Those responsibilities are in addition to his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Wales.

All of which is very timely, for reasons I’ll reveal here tomorrow. (Although if you attended my session at Barcamp, you know already.)