If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.
Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.
But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.
My view on this comes in two main flavours:
- It’s probably best to concentrate activity on making sure existing web properties render nicely on a decent range of mobile platforms than focus on native apps
- It’s also very difficult to justify the development of (still) currently pretty niche native applications on smartphone that have the reputation (perhaps undeserved) for being the playthings of tech-obsessed media types
That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for the native mobile application in government, just that government probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Another problem, taking local government as an example. If we’re honest, that’s where most of the services are based that would be of use to most people in a mobile application. If every council were to create an application, whether on iPhone, Android, Blackberry or whatever, this could lead to considerable fragmentation and irritation to the user. Quite a few of us are in the boat of using services in different areas, whether transport, education, waste etc, and having a different app for each of those could get irritating.
The answer is I suspect in open data. In fact, mobile apps is one of the areas that the whole open data thing really makes sense to me (as explained here, I’m no data buff).
Here’s how it could work. Some people sit down and think about the services that would really benefit from having a mobile interface. Then the bits of government that want to be involved make sure they publish the relevant up-to-date data in a usable format.
It would then be up to the commercial sector to do something with that data. The obvious solution would be for someone to produce a platform that pulls in all the data, then spits it out as per user preference within one application – so I can have waste collection dates for Cambridge and bus timetables for Peterborough (say) all in the same app. The supplier then makes their money by selling the application, advertising, or some service arrangement. The important thing though is that government isn’t spending money on the development of, or having to sell, the thing.
Am sure there’s a lot of holes in this – not least in terms of how the app developer is ever going to make any money out of it – with your average app developer making just a few hundred pounds a year. However, if it is something citizens feel they want, or need, then perhaps the market will help decide how information is best delivered to people.