Themes for 2011

2010 has been an interesting year for the internet. Where will 2011 take us? Here’s a slightly apocalyptic set of thoughts.

Wikileaks, privacy and security

Anybody who has thought for even a moment about the implications of the internet and the web will have known that something like Wikileaks was always going to happen. It was a case of when, not if.

What Wikileaks tells us is that the internet makes information free – as in speech, not necessarily as in beer. When the tools for publishing content to a worldwide audience are free, and the channels for promoting it as fast and efficient as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it becomes pretty clear that something significant has changed.

As John Naughton wrote recently,

The only rational attitude to online systems is cautious scepticism about their security.

It forces us to question how we define security and privacy online. My take is to assume you have none, and proceed on that basis.

Culture

A further theme, in addition to questions about security, privacy and identity will be culture and the sociological effects of the information revolution.

There are a couple of elements to this. One is the idea of cloud culture, which Charles Leadbeater explored in his pamphlet. The other is along the lines of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, based on his idea that Google is making us stupid.

I already outsource an awful lot of my memory to the internet. My dad asked me the other day if I was ok with some plans we’d arranged. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But I emailed you about it the other day!” he exclaimed. Because I had an email, I’d forgotten all the detail within it.

Is this any different to outsourcing arithmetic to pocket calculators? I’m not sure. But when the cloud could disappear at any time, it’s good to have a backup of your online memory somewhere.

Cloud culture will continue to have an increasing role in our lives, whether we notice or not. Books are moving to the cloud, whether we read them on Kindles, phones or tablets. Services like Spotify mean we don’t even bother downloading music tracks any more.

Where next? Particular set in focus next to the cuts, where do libraries and museums fit into all of this? Can they be moved into the cloud? Sure, seeing a painting or a sculpture in real life is a better experience than seeing it on a screen, but is it so much better that people will pay for it? How do we feel about our cultural heritage being managed and curated by Amazon, Google and Apple rather than governments or charities?

It ties in neatly with one of my favourite, if very short, bits of writing about the internet and culture by the late Gordon Burn, in his book Born Yesterday:

…an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now.

(This post gives a little more context.) Are we really only collections of shards of personality and culture? Does it matter? Even if it doesn’t, it’s good to be aware of what is happening to us.

Relevance

The cuts brings me onto my third and final theme. What do the cuts and the internet have in common? They question relevance. In a world of instant publishing, limitless availability of content and always-on connectivity, and where budgets will be cut wherever not cutting them cannot be justified, how do you stay relevant?

The circle closes here, because the Wikileaks story is a great example of how the internet reduces the cost of the distribution of information to zero, which has a significant impact on those organisations which depend on information distribution as their raison d’ĂȘtre.

Think of newspapers, television, and record labels. They thought they made news, programmes and music. Actually, they were in the logistics business.

The same is true of a number of roles and functions within public services, who will see a twinned and overlapping attack as a result of both the internet and the cuts. If the internet can do what you do cheaper, why are you needed?

To stay relevant, in 2011 public servants will need to reassess what they do and why they do it. Learning and Development people, for example, might currently spend a proportion of their time training people – but why, when all the information anyone needs is online? Why do we need communications professionals, when, with the tools at our fingertips, we are all communicators now?

The same could be said for an awful lot of roles within councils and other organisations. It’s going to be up to individuals to start defining their relevance over the next few months, to become facilitators and enablers, not merely doers.

Those that successfully figure this one out will come out on top, I think.

Whither open government in 2011?

Ingrid has published a set of five rather grim predictions for next year. Go and take a look, and make one of your new year resolutions to stop them from happening.

Here are some thoughts from me on what might happen next year. These certainly aren’t predictions, and are more hopes really.

1. Collaboration grows up

Big changes within organisations, lots of layoffs, knowledge retention becoming a big issue, a growth in partnership working and shared services, greater involvement of the civil sector in service delivery and a focus on making the most of existing talent should all point government organisations towards making better use of social technology as part of operations, through social intranets, collaborative extranets and the like.

It’s certainly something we at Learning Pool are hoping to support people with in the new year. We’re working with the Improvement Service in Scotland, supporting a project to promote agile and flexible working in councils north of the border and will be contributing to a knowledge management seminar in Scotland in February, amongst other events.

I’m also in the process of writing a guide to the use of social technology within the organisation, which I am hoping to have finished in early January!

2. Online communities are taken seriously

I’m increasingly convinced by the arguments put forward by Catherine Howe on her blog about the idea of online civic spaces. There needs to be some structure around online conversations in democracy and public service delivery – albeit not too much.

Where a number of government organisations in an area want to engage with people on a reasonably regular basis, I’d like to see them either getting involved with an existing online communities, or developing one platform for all such interactions to take place. Keep it informal, barriers to entry low, but enable a community to be built up, relationships to be formed and a body of evidence to be developed.

Rather like Let’s Talk Central, the project we worked on this year with Central Bedfordshire Council. I’d love to work on one of these on a local or regional basis, with councils, health, police, fire and rescue and other organisations on board and contributing.

3. Technology and innovation works its way up the food chain

I’m getting more requests to talk about social media and related technology to groups of senior managers and chief executives. It seems like if Ingrid’s fear that this stuff is going to get siloed into communications departments is to be prevented, it is by ensuring interest at the top of the organisation.

Language is a vital thing here. People at the top are going to be less interested in means and far more engaged by the talk of ends. Focus on benefits rather than operational details. It’s easy (but wrong) to label this activity as a frippery that’s inappropriate for these austere times – convince those at the top that it is necessary and hopefully stuff will get done.

4. A much needed focus on public sector employees

There’s much that one can disagree with Andrew DiMaio about, but one thing he has consistently got right is the need for those with an interest in reforming government to focus on the role and needs of the people who work for government, or at least those that will be left after the cuts.

A much maligned group, especially in certain sections of the media, public servants do an incredible job in increasingly difficult circumstances. They aren’t perfect, and it’s fair to say that some are much more able than others, but nonetheless they all require support and credit.

5. A revolution in local democracy

A real one from the left field from me here. This isn’t going to happen next year, or any year soon, but it’s something I have been increasingly thinking about during the last few years. The way our local leaders are selected and operate is broken and I don’t think real change can be effected until a new way of running democracy at this level is found.

It strikes me that the way things are currently done is profoundly exclusionary both in terms of the requirements of the role of councillor and the way that they do business.

Firstly, the workload of a councillor is far too great, and means that the only people with the time to do it justice are those who are retired or who for some other reason do not have to work. In other words, people are getting elected because they have the time to do the job, not because they would be good at doing it.

Another aspect of this is that councillors are expected to have an interest and knowledge across a huge range of different policy areas, which is, I think, somewhat unrealistic.

So, right now we have too few people doing too much. We need more people doing less each. So, more councillors please, who each cover fewer issues, concentrating on the stuff they are good at.

Whilst we’re at it, let’s change the way the whole thing works, with fewer meetings, more online decision making and conferencing. Fine, there are gazillions of points of process and procedure that would need working out, but it strikes me at the moment that local democracy and governance isn’t terribly strong, nor interesting, and it could do with a thorough overhaul.

OK, so this really isn’t going to happen in 2011. But I can dream…