If place is a system, let’s make it an open source one

This is a post that has been brewing for a long while, so sorry if it smells a bit. The basic concept hit me during FutureGov‘s excellent CityCamp London event, and keeps reoccurring as I have chats with people and read stuff online.

It’s not a post about technology, really, but rather taking some of the lessons learned from technology and seeing how it can be applied to everyday public services.

The way I see it is this – places, whether cities, towns, villages, or larger areas like districts, counties or regions, can be seen as systems. They have a number of different sectors and organisations working within them, all of which have their own distinct processes, but all of which also interact with one another all the time.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the system works as well as it does most of the time. These are complicated beasts.

So what about this open source business? Well, whilst in theory anyone can contribute code to an open source project, in general, not many people actually do. Instead, development is handled by a small core group, and most people’s effort is put into testing software and submitting bug reports.

This is the role I think citizens can play in redesigning local services – not necessarily producing solutions, but spotting the issues, the bugs, and reporting them. As Eric Raymond wrote in his seminal work on open source development, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, identifying problems is the hard bit, the bit where you need ‘many eyeballs’ – solving them should be straightforward for those that understand the system.

That’s not to say that citizens shouldn’t be involved in contributing ideas for improvements, but it shouldn’t be their only contribution. I suspect this is the reason why the success of ideation competitions across the world has been variable, as Andrea Di Maio has noted on several occasions.

A key part of the bug tracking process, though, is visibility, and this is what our public services lack right now as part of the feedback mechanism.

The bugs people identify are published on the web, categorised and tagged so they can easily be found. Other people try to recreate the bugs so they can be further tested. People suggest possible solutions, which the core development team may or may not take on board.

For place to work effectively as an open source system, then, we need an open, public repository of bugs that anybody can access.

After all, there are very few areas of service delivery that just one organisation has ownership of. Take anti-social behaviour – it’s a police matter, sure, but also a health one, an education one, a social services one. There are probably some community and voluntary organisations that have an interest too.

Any one of those services might have an easy solution to a problem, but if they don’t know about it because it was reported to someone else, then nothing is going to happen.

Likewise when people are submitting issues, or bugs, they don’t necessarily care which service they should be reporting it to. Which tier of local government? Is it a police matter? We shouldn’t force people to understand our hierarchies and structures just because they want to point something out that is going wrong.

Some people might be crying out ‘FixMyStreet!’ at this stage, and that site does go a certain way to answer some of the issues I’ve written about. But there are a couple of key differences. The first is the nature and tone of FMS, which the name makes clear. ‘Fix my street!’ yells the citizen. Maybe we should turn that around, and make it ‘How can I help you to fix my street?’ might be a more positive exchange.

Not only that, but while FMS provides a space for public responses to issues from the council, it doesn’t make the process of producing a solution an open one. It doesn’t open the conversation up to the other actors in a place, it doesn’t enable citizens themselves to contribute to the solution – whether through their ideas or actually physically doing something.

Here’s another example. Maybe someone reports a bug in the local public transport arrangements, getting from a village into the local town – there isn’t a bus early enough to get them to work. They could report the bug straight into the local council, in which case it would probably end up being pushed to the transport operator. But this misses the opportunity for perhaps a local private car hire firm to step into the breach, or indeed for a local resident to offer a lift. In the latter case, sometimes a problem in the system doesn’t need a system wide fix.

There are a number of challenges to open sourcing a place like this. A major one is the way that partnerships work at the moment, which can be incredibly slow moving, bureaucratic and not terribly collaborative. A more enlightened approach will be necessary – although in this age of public sector austerity, such an attitude is likely to be required anyway.

There is some tech required – the best place for the bug tracker is online, but throwing something together in WordPress or Drupal shouldn’t take anyone who knows what they are doing too long at all.

So this concept I think starts to tie together some of my thinking around coproduction, crowdsourcing, open source and my more recent outpourings on innovation and creative collaboration.

I’d be really interested in people’s thoughts. Please spot the bugs in what I’ve written!

Whilst the half baked thinking in this post is entirely mine, the bug tracker idea was originally blogged about by Tim Davies a few years ago; and the importance of visibility was made clear to me in a conversation with Nick Booth.

6 thoughts on “If place is a system, let’s make it an open source one”

  1. just an aside really: Governance is the biggest challenge in decoupled open source projects. And its relatively easy to verify that code works: social processes are a lot easier to hack.

    If place is a system, it’s an SOA one and local authorities are the Enterprise Service Bus.

  2. What would the scope of a given bugtracker be? If you’re using Firefox and you spot a bug you can find its bug tracker (so long as it’s not a bug with Windows, or a fault with your PC).

    It’s hard enough to know what’s district council and what’s county council, so it would have to be at a county level. But suppose it wasn’t council, but another public body? NHS, police and every other relevant organisation would have to be signed up.

    Good idea though

  3. Hey Dave,

    This idea is still definitely ripe for a pilot project – turning council minutes, FMS reports, and all sorts of other things into tracked issues. Know any LAs who might be up for prototyping it?


  4. Hi Dave

    It’s an interesting idea and one that should work but there is a single decisive omission in the code of the argument – politics. If the regions/sub/authority is a system then it is not as a coded system would be with rules and functions that execute as programmed (whether badly or correctly). To extend the metaphor it is rather all of those things with a large unpredictable variable playing an equal role in the overall process so that the result is unknowable and can only be predicted on the basis of probability and is often unknowable. This is the limit of bureaucracy and in this context it is emphasised. At the most basic level the political utility of transparency is missing from this model. It’s like saying that people really want the truth. But that’s not the truth, is it? It should be and would be if we were playing to how we would like to be, but that’s not how we are. The political risk would be too high and sooner or later (probably sooner), someone would use it for political gain (see banks, phone hacking and MP’s expenses for reference).

    I’ve spent 15yrs in the public sector in the UK and rarely seen anything like what you describe (i.e. hacker philosophy) work for long. The public sector works because of a few inspirational and dedicated people in key roles giving life to processes and hope to others through the integrity of their work. If that could be changed then maybe it would work. But then it would be a very different kind of democracy.

    There might be something in that.


  5. I have posted up a reply continuing our discussion on my blog http://partridgej.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/105/

    I note the comment above about politics getting in the way – but I think with enough impetus and public pressure behind an idea, the politics will suddenly fall into place. A different kind of democracy? – well maybe ideas like this might help to challenge some of the negative aspects (amongst lots of positive ones) of our current systems.

    1. To clarify, I agree with the principle. I’m totally onboard with the concept and have been pushing for Open Source/Open Data approaches (with some success). But we live with an adversarial political system where skulduggery and misrepresentation are tools of the trade. Agreed, Justin that sufficient will on behalf of the public does indeed align political will (see: France) but how often does this happen? Is it a workable day-to-day approach to concepts like ‘Total Place’? Agreed it would work well for technical and service delivery systems but everything is political at a certain level and with the introduction of elected Chief Constables even the political character of the police will be made overt. I guess what I mean is it works for some paradigms but not for others.

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