Monthly Archives: October 2009

Bookmarks for October 23rd through October 28th

Awesomeness off of the internet for October 23rd to October 28th:

LocalGovCamp Lincoln

Last Friday saw LocalGovCamp moving to Lincoln for the first of the follow up days. Learning Pool were happy to help out with some sponsorship of the event, which was marvelously organised and convened by Andrew Beeken of Lincoln City Council.

do councils need websites? #localgovcamp

The day was an enjoyable one, with plenty of interesting sessions, including one facilitated by Fraser Henderson on ePetitions – an issue I have a professional interest in – and commentable consultations by Joss Winn.

@josswinn talks commentable docs at #localgovcamp

Some great write ups of the event have already been posted up by Sarah and Andrew – and I’m sure there will be others.

The day was more obviously web focused than the Birmingham event, with many of the attendees coming from web teams. Nothing wrong with that – although the focus at times was more on making local government websites better, rather than making government better. Perhaps the fact that I have never worked on a web team means I’m a little distant from some of these conversations.

That the web will play an increasingly important role in the way councils and people interact with one another is a no-brainer. But more interesting to me than how that will work technologically is how it will fit within the culture and processes of local government – or how local government must change to fit with the new ways of working.

Another example was the session on hyperlocal blogging and local councils’ relationship with bloggers, which spent quite a bit of time discussing issues of judgements of quality and the need for editing and the relevance of the journalist in a networked society. Again, the real issue for me is the fact that outside the main urban areas, local newspapers are dying out and will continue to do so – and how will this affect the attitude local authorities have towards reputational risk, so much of which is focused not on the needs of the organisation or the people it serves but on what might appear in the local rag the next morning?

ePetitions are a good example. How hard is it to build an ePetitions system? Not very. What’s harder, and more interesting, is how you fit those ePetitions into the democratic and governance arrangements of the local authority.

This kind of ties in with the discussion on OpenSocitm about the future of the council, where I wrote the following:

I attended one of the Council of the Future sessions at the conference and found it a little unambitious. Indeed most of the things discussed were those that councils should be doing now – that many aren’t needs to be fixed, but it was hardly visionary stuff. I’m really thinking here of things like selling buildings, paperless office, EDRMS, business continuity, remote working, etc etc.

In fact, local government will be facing a crisis far worse than the current funding situation, which will be focused on staff and people. Look at the demographics of councillors – where are the next generation of people to take on the role once the current incumbents just get too old? Who will there be left vote for?

The problem is the same with officers, if not quite as bleak. There will be a massive churn in the next two years as expensive managers are pensioned off and younger, cheaper people will replace them – assuming those younger and cheaper people exist!

Perhaps this is a chance to rethink the roles played by councils and councillors – perhaps the reason why nobody is interested is because the roles are just wrong for this day and age – ties into Will Perrin’s point that government faced 21st century problems, has 21st century technology available to tackle them, but is lumbered with 19th century governance processes – and so no progress is ever made.

The things that should be discussed when the future of the council is considered should include:

  • Who delivers services – should the council be the retailer or the wholesaler of services?
  • How can councils work more closely with the private and third sectors, and community groups, in terms of carrying out its functions?
  • How can the council manage its information assets in a more open way, to encourage reuse by the community and the adding of innovative value that local gov isn’t able to provide itself?
  • How can councils become more entrepreneurial themselves to help bridge the funding gap?
  • How can customer service, communications and service design be blended into an iterative process to help make sure services deliver what users want?
  • What will the role of councillors be when nobody has the time to attend meetings in dusty town halls? Do we need to rethink the way our local democracy works?

Perhaps one framework to answer these and other questions might be to consider – if you were to start a council from scratch, right now, how would it work? What would it look like? What would you build first – an office or a website?

Am looking forward to these sorts of conversations at future events – and online, of course!

Policing 2.0: The Citizen and Social Media

While Andrew was so marvelously blogging Government 2010 last Thursday, I was at an event organised by the National Police Improvement Agency, giving a presentation which was an overview of web 2.0 and what it means for public sector services like the Police.

Here are my slides:

Also talking at the event were Will from Talk About Local, Sarah and Lauren from the excellent MyPolice (Sarah wrote a guest post here on DavePress about the project a while ago) and Nick from COI; along with several great representatives from the Policing world who talked about the stuff they are doing in the real world, with blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and even running virtual local meetings with CoverItLive. Inspiring stuff.

Check out all the tweets from the event here.

Massive props to Nick Keane for getting this going. With any first events of a type, the main thing to do is to whip up enthusiasm, and get people talking. Nick achieved that today, and I’m excited about whatever comes next.

Government 2010: Open Data, Mashups and Government Web

And open data! I’ve got to declare an interest here. I’m a cofounder of Timetric – so I, of course, think that open data is a really great thing and we need a lot more of it!

The panel for this session is chaired by Ewan Mackintosh, a 4iP commissioner, joined by:

  • Paul Canning from Public Sector Web Professionals, part of SOCITM: he’s setting up a professional body, and skills-development framework, for people who work with the web within Government. (There are around 5000 of them!)
  • Colm Hayden, technical director of information integration company Anaeko: their software can be used to join and connect Government backend systems, providing machine-readable integrated views onto Government data. They’re aiming to make projects like the Sunlight Foundation’s FedSpending.org possible. The best of those can then move back in as official Government services.
  • Stewart McRae, an evangelist from IBM. He started 35 years ago in the days of punched cards: it’s easy to forget, but (thanks to the PC and the internet) we’ve come a long way!
  • Chris Taggart of Openly Local, which is aiming to be the TheyWorkForYou of local government. He’s arguing that without access to data, people are (in a sense) disenfranchised.

Chris says making data available is about engagement: you can’t get to the “democracy” page on Birmingham City Council’s website without Javascript and cookies switched on. OpenlyLocal pulled the data out and rebuilt the site themselves, making it available to people using screen readers. (Paul Canning points out this has really bad political implications for the council.)

Colm suggests that you can never centralise all the data – but you can centralise the catalogue of the data. This then ties in with the Linked Data message. (In the UK, incidentally, that also means the data.gov.uk vision, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues!)

But what about Joe Bloggs, the ultimate user? Ewan brings it back to that: Channel 4 is all about the audience. People have to go somewhere where they can use the data. Stewart talks about a new media which is about data-mining: the next Google could be someone who hits a goldmine of an idea. Some way of building something about the around the data, and a brand to build around it. Over time, the most successful and attractive services will gather momentum, but there’ll be niche and boutique services.

Ewan asks: will this shakeout creating another aristocracy of the Web? The answer to that might be Linked Data, says Colm: as long as you can link all the versions and representations together, then you can still navigate all the different uses of the data. Also, how do you gain an audience for these Open Data products?

Chris’s response is that:

You’ll know that open data’s successful when no-one knows they’re using it.

Instead, you’ll just go to your local council website, which happens to use Open Data under the covers: it’ll go off to data.gov.uk or another store and run some queries, return the results, and those results’ll be useful. Ewan also speaks on the need to make the experience of using open data surprising and delightful; there aren’t that many people addicted to, say, mySociety‘s websites out there!

Ewan then asks the question: what stories get covered by open data and social media? The MPs expenses scandal and Trafigura were traditional investiative journalism; the US Airways ditching on the Hudson River in New York was broken on Twitter, but traditional media supplied the depth and context. Without traditional media, you wouldn’t have found out that no-one was hurt, or about the pilot’s background story. Chris responds by saying we’re in a transitional period: social, participatory journalism is only now beginning to find its feet.

Finally, unintended consequences – Stewart points out there’s a privacy concern, in that what if correlations can be drawn from open data to identify people? And transparency: Colm claims open data isn’t just about transparency, but also about building better services and better businesses, and Chris wants us all to be – in Ewan’s word – treated like adults, and open data is part of that.

Another fascinating session, and a tremendous day’s conference. I hope you enjoyed the live blogging: if you want more from me, join my at my blog, or my blog on data journalism (part of the day job), or on Twitter. Thanks for having me!

Government 2010: Social Inclusion Panel

This panel, chaired by Computer Weekly‘s Tony Collins, started with a call from the stage to stop twittering; sit there, and cover our eyes and mouth. That’s the experience of digital exclusion.

According to Martha Lane Fox’s research, 10 million people (a sixth of the UK!) have never used a computer; 17 million people (nearly a third) neither own one or have access to one. Stephen Hilton of Bristol City Council pointed this out right at the start of this panel; in a room full of twitterers and bloggers and digital natives.

The panel’s completed by John Shewell from Brighton and Hove Council, Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society and IBM’s Jan Gower.

Anthony points out that the Government’s heart is in the right place. However, it’s often seen in a rather narrow mindset, couched entirely in terms of economic rationales. He argues that digital inclusion should be done because, like all social inclusion, it’s simply the right thing to do. He warns us to avoid paternalism, too: different people will want to do different things online. Not everyone is a Guardian-reading middle-class liberal!

The panel are pretty unanimous about digital inclusion being only a part of a social inclusion strategy. As Jan Gower says, you need to be very clear on what the needs of all the parts of society are – we tend to look at the process first, rather than the individual, and looking at the needs of individuals first would lead to more humane, better-designed services.

One of the risks here is, as mentioned earlier, avoiding being over-prescriptive or even paternalistic. An example raised by Anthony: Sure Start started as a very local service, which was a strength – local communities knew best what their local needs were. As it was expanded, it lost its local distinctiveness and moved towards cookie-cutter approaches, to its detriment in both effectiveness and in losing the radical thinking originally involved. John suggested that local government’s role is to enable, not to dictate: this is how councils handle adult social care.

There are technological barriers too. Dave Coplin from Microsoft talks about bandwidth: shouldn’t we do more to get fast Internet connections into peoples’ houses? Jan Gower acknowledges that it’s the elephant in the room, but the problem is that any measure to pay for it is going to look like a tax. The politics is the hard problem.

Finally, what would we like to see from the next government? Anthony wants to see an understanding that devolving power means devolving it to individual citizens. Stephen wants the Government to drive the message that digital inclusion isn’t an IT issue; it’s a better council services issue, and needs to go forward at council chief executive level. John also wants to see strong leadership, but also wider participation and more investment. He believes it’s a massive opportunity, but it has to be seized now. Jan agrees: “if it’s a priority, make it a priority.”

There’s one more session today, and it’s on my home turf: open data, chaired by 4iP‘s Ewan Mackintosh. If there’s anything you’d like me to ask, ping me on Twitter!

Government 2010: Martin Greenwood of SOCITM on the Web channel in local government

Despite being a pseudo-statistician startupper, I was fortunate enough to meet a few readers of this blog at LocalGovCamp. Martin Greenwood’s giving a long keynote – 30 minutes – on the role of websites in providing local services. Here’s my notes.


When you phone your council out-of-hours, you’ll get a phone message. In December 2007, only 21% of councils referred you to their website in their voicemail message; it was 41% by December 2008, which is an improvement, but still isn’t really good enough. The only reason not to refer people is if you don’t think your website’s good enough – so how do we fix this?

An example of an excellent website is Salford‘s. It has extensive metrics – 16m hits in September! – but lacks the one which really matters; “did you find what you were looking for?”.

According to SocITM surveys, 17% didn’t, and 22% did only partially – and that corresponds to about 16,000 visitors! hat’s more, 71% of councils don’t participate in these SocITM website takeup surveys; they don’t even know the scale of the problem. In any case, this is a lot of people. 40% of those people would then, according to surveys, prefer to phone to get the information – that’d be 6500 phonecalls a month, or well over 200 a day. Each call is frustrating and inconvenient for customers. What’s more, it takes a lot of council resources, especially in a time of budget constraints – a phone call costs over ten times more than a Web visit to deal with (£3.22 vs 27p), and face to face meetings are 20 times more expensive.

The answer has to be making Council services self-service as far as possible: but these self-service channels have to work first time. To make this happen, Martin argues that this requires:

  • Clear priorities and strong governance in Web strategy
  • Integrated management of all customer channels (Web, phone, in-person)
  • Engagement with the customer community
  • A management structure built around customer service, not communications or ICT
  • A focus on the customer journey rather than “design and applications”
  • Active management of the Web service
  • Continuous improvement in content management
  • Systematic website testing: especially a focus on the tasks people are using the website for and on hard conversion metrics for task completion

This means Web teams will have to think differently: according to Gerry McGovern, the hardest challenge is understanding how people work, not how the website technology works!

Government 2010: Government and the Internet

This session’s chaired by Dominique Lazanski, alongside Hamish Nicklin from Google, Nominet‘s Phil Kingsland, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group and Phillip Virgo from EURIM.

They start with a question from the chair:

How does Government regulation help, or hinder, the growth of the digital economy in the UK?

Phil Kingsland replies first, with the observation that trying to regulate something inherently international like the Internet is intrinsically difficult. Thus far we’ve had self-regulation, and much of the contentious activity on the Internet isn’t in itself new behaviour – it’s been happening offline before too, and there are already laws which cover it.

‘Sometimes, bad things happen on the Net’, says Jim Killock, but like Phil he observes that what you do on the Internet is already subject to national law. What’s more, people self-police bad behaviour: just ask Jan Moir. From there, he goes straight to net neutrality, citing Skype as an example. Next up: digital music and price gouging by the established record labels, as a bridge to making the case for copyright reform, and from there to a generalised call for IP reform. We’re hitting all of the ORG talking points in order, and that’s his five minutes.

Hamish from Google has to follow that. He argues that the Internet has been so successful because it’s been free and open; he believes regulation can be a good thing as long as it accords with those principles. Very short and sweet!

Philip Virgo starts with a confession: he was one of the original architects of software copyrights in the UK. He then says he believes that they outlived their usefulness ten to fifteen years ago, which is quite a statement! He then talks a bit about global commerce – he transition from physical to electronic trading actually happened 30 to 40 years ago, and more recently it moved to the Internet. But, then, what is the Internet?

The man’s a quotemaster:

What’s the colour of the underpants of this wonderful emperor we’re talking about?

Anyway, he says it’s impressive engineering, overlaid with governance principles imbued with the spirit of Haight-Asbury circa 1967, overlaid with lots and lots and lots of lawyerese. (Sounds about right to me.) It’s also the latest evolution of the world’s most complex machine in the world – the global telecoms system.

We’re surfing the cyber-crud…

says Phillip. Apparently 22-player online football games are huge in Korea, but the Internet connections aren’t good enough here to support that – so instead, all they can do is download pirated music… (That’s a new argument for net neutrality, I reckon.). He’s worried about the way we’re ceding the lead – particularly in IPV6 – to China; he’s come back to that twice.

Jim Killock really doesn’t like the music industry very much. That’s probably not a surprise!

We’re moving onto the Digital Britain report now. Jim starts; on mandatory disconnections for illegal filesharing, which cropped up in EU legislation:

If you caught someone littering, you wouldn’t ban them from the street, would you?

Quality rhetoric, and he’s understandably riled by the lack of due process. Hamish from Google brings up technological solutions – can you prevent rights violations from happening? YouTube’s rights-detection software is an example here, letting rights holders dictate how their IP is used. Jim’s okay with that within a bounded service, but uneasy with that on a global scale: he calls it mass surveillance of the Internet for copyright enforcement. Spotify comes up; apparently it’s, singlehandedly, drastically cut P2P traffic.

And Twitter intrudes! Hello out there. @glynwintle asks about three strikes: everyone immediately dismisses it. Phillip Virgo now brings up teenagers in Lambeth eking out their money by getting songs from cheaper Chinese music download sites (which he claims may or may not be legal).

Phil brings up the Internet Watch Foundation, and the way they’ve managed to eradicate child abuse images from UK hosting, as a success for self-regulation. In general, in fact. he thinks the public interest is best represented by self-regulation.

Jim is worried that the government doesn’t get to the public interest because they’re too busy listening to industry lobby groups; Hamish wants to see the Internet stay open and free because that’s best for commerce.

And Phillip gets the last word. He talks about the children’s session at the Internet Governance Federation, saying they grasped the issues by the throat:

No-one over the age of thirteen should be allowed to vote on any Internet regulation.

And that’s that! Fascinating session.

Government 2010: Tom Steinberg, mySociety

Tom Steinberg of mySociety follows Adam Afriyie with the last keynote of the morning session. He starts with an announcement – that, with the Open Society Institute, mySociety are seeding similar organisations in Central and Eastern Europe – and a disclaimer: that his new advisory position with the Conservatives will not influence mySociety. After that, he tells us that he’s going to talk about two of mySociety’s projects: Fix My Street and What Do They Know?

Fix My Street makes it easy to report potholes, smashed phone boxes, broken streetlights and the like. It creates transparency – for example, because it asks people if the problems they report got solved, we know that the fix-rate for reported problems are about 50%. (And if the problem’s not fixed, it tells you which councillors you need to go and speak to!)

It was originally funded by the Ministry of Justice, but that money’s long run out: it’s now paid for out of mySociety’s own pocket. It also, though you might not expect this, has a pretty good relationship with councils, which is a lesson in itself: these kinds of things won’t necessarily be rejected out of hand.

What Do They Know? (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust) makes it really easy for members of the public to make Freedom of Information requests. That’s important because it empowers people, particularly if they don’t have the might of a full-on newsgathering organisation behind them.

One question he poses is where to take these services in the future. Tom suggests that they need to do a better job of explaining the compromises of government: for instance, in the case of Fix My Street, actually telling people when “we haven’t fixed this yet because we’re doing all of these other important things first”.

Finally, he proposes three conclusions:

  • Firstly, that it can be cheaper and more effective to create transparency by putting a nice user interface on top of an existing process rather than re-engineering the entire process. What Do They Know? works on top of the existing FoI infrastructure, so FoI officers don’t have to learn a new system – they can work the same way they always have.
  • Public data isn’t a good in its own right: it must have a social impact to have an effect. Almost all the websites mySociety operate need data which is under (trading fund) licenses, so even though the software’s open, you can’t run your own copy of mySociety software without buying copies the data.
  • Good sites are made by good people. Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving get name-checks here: Tom argues that until Government can attract really good developers, it won’t have great systems.

And, with that, lunch!

Government 2010: Adam Afriyie

Onto the last two talks before lunch! First up, Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, Adam Afriyie. He confesses straight away that he would keep closely to his notes — for fear of getting the sack.

Of course, this is a campaign speech, and the opening is an attack on Labour’s record on government IT projects:

Labour “slapped an ‘e-‘ in front of everything that moved”.

He argues that the Labour government has moved too slowly in response to upheaval in the computing landscape, and puts forward three Tory principles for IT policy. The power-word he’s using here is “openness” – he used it in every other sentence! Those principles are:

  • Big is not always better, especially because budgets are tight. If you run multiple cheap early-stage pilots and pick up the winners and scale those up nationally, it could make it easier for small companies (now I’m listening!) get access to Government contracts.
  • Open procurement, and smaller, more flexible projects and systems – which opens the market for open source. Claims £600m potential savings a year; and government look to the market for solutions. Dictate outcomes, not technologies. The Conservatives are, apparently, into cloud computing (arguing that it’s cheaper and greener).
  • Empowerment: for instance, the Conservatives are reporting their expenses claims, in real time, through Google Docs. Obviously Boris Johnson’s crime maps are a key talking point: Adam brings them back up, and Craig Elder (also of the Conservatives) was mentioning them earlier. In that vein, David Cameron has proposed a “right to data” – if Government data is not personally/diplomatically sensitive, it should be freely available online.

On the right to data:

This is the unfinished business of the Freedom of Information Act

This, and another buzz-phrase – “the post-bureaucratic age” – are soundbites which we’ll be hearing often between now and the general election.

Next – Tom Steinberg of mySociety.

Government 2010: the blogger panel

Iain Dale, Mick Fealty, Stephen Tall, Craig Elder from the Conservative Party and Adam Parker from Realwire kicked off the blogger session at Government 2010 with five minutes each. Here’s something on each of those! Mick went first:

To state the bleedin’ obvious, there is a sea-change ahead.

Mick observed that, thus far, the Internet has been very poor at generating nuanced, useful thinking or innovation: online consultancy is viewed as a box to tick rather than as something which helps better decisions get made. However, what blogs and social media have done well is quick, light response – agile responses to changing circumstances.

What he’d like to see is a move from ‘closed-source’ to ‘open-source’ analysis of policy. A lot of policy at Westminster level gets made in think-tanks, but that approach is just too expensive to work for local and devolved governments. Furthermore, think-tanks work in seclusion: they have no room for consultation with, or contention from, the public. He suggest that if that process could take place in fluid, moderated communities in public, then that could change how policy is made for the better.

Next up was Craig Elder, online communities manager for the Conservatives. He says that what’s going on now is “old politics on new media”. There’s a worrying feeling that what’s said on new media is not going to be taken seriously: with, for example, Number 10 e-petitions, everyone points at the Jeremy Clarkson for PM campaign, but that happens because of cynicism about whether anyone’s listening.

He thinks that we can change that through creating the sense that citizens are empowered, particularly through data – for example, online crime maps which let the public see whether the money spent is working. On the other hand, does the number of Ministers on Twitter herald a new age of engagement? Not really – in a sense, it’s “Twittering while Rome burns”. Is this really the best thing that ministers can do?

Trafigura, though is a testament to the interrogrative powers of the blogosphere: proof that there’s potential here, but it’s very early days yet.

Stephen Tall, of Lib Dem Voice, then spoke on the power of unofficial consultations – they get to different audiences from official ones, and some (like Facebook groups) have the potential to convert “slacktivists” to activists. Steve Webb’s been holding surgeries – with 200 participants! – on Facebook, and:

Official council consultations are crap, and no-one responds to them anyway.

Apparently. (He later pointed out that Whitehall publishing only the data it wants published won’t empower people: to do that you have to go local, go in depth, and publish all the data.)

Inevitably, Twitter came up again – the first Twitterer during Prime Minister’s Questions was Jo Swinson, who got flak for abuse of Parliamentary privilege. It’s subsequently taken off, though: there were 96 tweets from MPs during the last PMQs. Still: is this really a worthwhile use of MPs’ time?

Finally, he proposed three tests for whether social media projects are worthwhile. Are you able to get more information out to people in a digestible form? Are you genuinely engaging with them? Are you empowering them? That’s what really works.

And, lastly, Adam Parker, of Realwire, introduced himself as “Jarvis Cocker on Question Time, only without the talent”. Way harsh, especially after his first point: that it’s not social media’s fault if the conversations are dull! If we want people to be engaged, we have to first be interesting. What’s more, not everyone’s on the Internet, not that many people are on Twitter or read Iain Dale’s blog. So, social media’s biggest impact in the short to medium term is going to be where it influences, or sets, the mainstream media agenda.

In particular, when it comes to politicians and parties engaging directly with the electorate, he’s not convinced. Retail brands are being forced to participate in social media in order to defend their market position and brand image. In other words, they’ve got an economic incentive; will social media ever be a real force in politics until it hits politicians at the ballot box?