The revolution will not be comma separated

I had a fun day yesterday at the Civil Service Fast Stream conference, which was focusing on big society type stuff. I was running a session on open government, with a concentration on open data.

As a bit of fun, while we were talking I asked the members of the group to draw what occurred to them when thinking about open data.

Open data drawing

If you click the photo, you’ll be taken to the original on Flickr, which I have annotated with what I remember of the descriptions from the artists.

Once again, in a conversation about open data, I ended up coming across as being somewhat sceptical.

I’m all in favour of transparency in government, and I’m also very much in favour of public services publishing their information in accessible formats.

What I’m not so sure about are some of the claims made for the potential of open data to transform government, and its relationship with citizens.

I can’t see where the business model is for third parties to create applications based on this data, unless government itself pays. I’m also unconvinced that there are enough people around with the skills (and indeed the inclination) to either be effective armchair auditors or civic hackers all over the country.

I suspect the biggest users of open data will end up being journalists, and the work that newspapers such as The Guardian are already doing seems to support this. It’s a good thing, but hardly sees a great redrawing of the traditional ways of doing things.

The other area where I can see benefit coming from an openness around information assets and a different attitude towards data is in the use of it by government itself. I agree with Andrea DiMaio that if open government is to become a reality, it is going to happen through the actions of public servants themselves, rather than from activists on the outside.

So, transparency is important. There are opportunities around open data, as well as challenges. Right now, though, I struggle to see how dramatic change will happen as a result of publishing data.

I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, though!

A Masters in Public Technology?

Tom Steinberg:

There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.

I agree, though Tom’s developer-centric view of this should probably be widened for it to be a bit more inclusive.

Doing away with social media officers

Andrea Di Maio reports on the US Defense department doing away with dedicated social media officers:

No more specialized offices, no more social media silos, no more experts or consultants building new strategies. Social media is a tool, amongst many others, for public affairs professional to do their job more effectively and efficiently.

The next step is to realize that every single employee and soldier will end up using social media. Not for fun or as an additional task, but as one of the many tool to do their work.

This makes the point far better than I did recently.

Perhaps there is a role for a dedicated resource getting the use of emerging technology embedded in the working culture of an organisation.

The ultimate goal of anybody doing such a job, however, should be to make themselves unnecessary.

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…

Open government needs more skills

Apologies for the total lack of updates here. A recent burst of activity at Learning Pool has made thinking about what to blog about a bit trickier than usual. Luckily, the Public Sector Bloggers do a damn fine job taking up any slack.

Anyway, while I try and get back my blogging mojo, here’s a pointer to an interesting post from Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio:

In order not to fall into the trough of disillusionment government 2.0 must shift its emphasis from the organization to the individual, and from policy to operations. There is still time for that to happen, but we need to talk less about transparency and open data and do more around training, encouraging and rewarding government employees.

My emphasis added.

I must admit, the whirlwind around open government data has rather taken me aback in the last few weeks – blog post coming on that one – and it’s almost as if we’ve decided that government has social licked, and now it’s time to move on.

I suspect that is a rather optimistic view, rather as Di Maio does. I’m still regularly getting requests from across the public sector for both high level presentations on what social technology is; and for training on how to make the best use of it.

Further to that, the benefits of these tools are still very much just in the hands of communicators, web folk, and so on. That needs to change too.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that in the last five years significant progress has been made. I remember how lonely it was being a blogging local government bod back in 2005. That’s changing – but we need to make sure as many others are involved as possible before we move on.

Get your UKGovCamp ’11 tickets here!

A bit later than expected, but I’m delighted to launch the first tranche of tickets for the annual UK government unconference – UKGovCamp – to be held on 22nd January 2011.

This is the fourth event, which was kicked off back in 2008 by Jeremy Gould, then of the Ministry of Justice.

2011’s event will be bigger and better than ever. We’ve got room for over 200 attendees and more breakout rooms than you can shake a stick at.

This is thanks to the generosity of Microsoft, who will be our hosts for the day at their London HQ on Victoria Street in London.

Tickets are free, and you can register via Eventbrite.

Don’t forget to join the online group for the day over on the UKGovCamp site, ably hosted and maintained by Steph Gray.

SPONSORS!

For the first time, we are accepting financial donations to fund this event (and future ones) rather than just asking people to pay for stuff.

This means there is more opportunity to provide sponsorship than in previous years. Steph and I are putting together a sponsorship package thing, but all sponsors will get logos on t-shirts, get to bring a stand along and have the kudos of being associated with the coolest government conference in the world.

Open source and government

Another post I have been sat on and chewing over for a little while…

Charles Arthur in the Guardian highlighted an interesting area of discussion in the use of open source in government a little while ago. He reports on the views of Liam Maxwell, the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who’d like to see a move away from proprietary software such as Microsoft Office within local authorities.

Cllr Maxwell would like to see the Cabinet Office mandate the use of the Open Document file format within all levels of government. This would be as opposed to the file formats used by Microsoft’s products, as well as other systems in use in the public sector.

Cllr Maxwell states:

If one council goes to a service provider such as Capita and asks for a change to its Revenues and Benefits system so it works with OpenOffice and ODF instead of Microsoft Office, Capita will tell them to go away. But if government mandates it, then Capita or any of these other companies that do this work for councils could get it done in six months. It’s a dysfunctional market because it’s set by standards which are set at the centre.

A bit of background for the non-dorks out there. The Open Document Format (ODF) is a non-proprietary file standard for use in office productivity suites, which include things like word processors, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations.

The flagship software to use ODF is OpenOffice.org, as alluded to by Cllr Maxwell. OpenOffice.org was developed predominantly by Sun Microsystems as an open source office suite, which then fed into their proprietary offering, StarOffice.

Now, I am a fan of free and open source software and I try to use it wherever I can. But there is so much misunderstanding out there about the benefits – especially around cost – that I do worry about whether people’s minds are filled with free-as-in-beer.

Here are some of the issues with this particular proposal. I do want to make clear that none of these are insurmountable, nor am I in the business of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. I’m certainly no apologist for Microsoft, their software or their business practices. I want government to make better use of open source, just that it needs to do so with its eyes open.

The idea of the Cabinet Office mandating use of ODF sounds good, but the naivety to think that this would happen for free is remarkable – there’s no way those big boys would do that much work and not make customers pay for it somewhere down the line.

Then there is training – the idea that the majority of council workers could use OpenOffice as well as they use MS Office right away is rather optimistic. In my experience, folks can’t even cope with upgrades between versions of Word, let alone a whole new system! The costs need to added in: training, writing documentation, loss of productivity while people figure out how to do stuff, or what they can’t do anymore that they used to, etc etc.

Next up with OpenOffice is the Oracle issue – they’ve already made significant changes to OpenSolaris since they bought Sun and there is no guarantee they won’t do the same to OpenOffice. Part of the pro-open source argument is sustainability, but if the sponsoring corporation (which owns the IP and drives development) doesn’t want to know then it would be very hard in practice for the community to get things up and running again.

(Actually, we kind of know what is happening here, as a separate organisation appears to have been formed to managed a fork of OpenOffice.org called LibreOffice. Confusion abounds!)

Next, support. Where is the organisation that can provide support to large organisations when it comes to switching over office suites? It would drown a council ICT department and I can’t think off the top of my head of any company providing this sort of service at scale for it to be outsourced to.

Finally – do we even know if ODF is better than the current alternatives? Where’s the benefit for the switch?

Now what I have written sounds like a massive anti-open source rant, but it isn’t. It’s just highlighting some of the issues. I suspect, for example, that the total cost of ownership of an open source ICT solution – certainly on the desktop – would be roughly the same as the Microsoft (or whoever) one, especially when you take into account select agreements etc.

The arguments in favour of open source need to be on the basis that the software is better, more reliable and stable, quicker and feature rich, and that it works for the government context – adapted for the sector in a cost effective, maintainable and supportable manner.

This brings in a number of issues, around business models for suppliers, procurement, understanding of licensing, copyright and IP, having actual coding knowledge within organisations.

Learning Pool is also a good example of taking open source, contextualising it, then implementing, supporting and maintaining it. We were recently asked to come up with a few bullet points outlining our approach and experiences, which I drafted up as:

  • There are cost savings to be made with open source, but only when the vendor can provide a genuinely comprehensive service that includes implementation and support as well as code. Otherwise the total cost of ownership can spiral.
  • The argument for open source must be based on better, not cheaper, software. We benefit from hundreds of people tracking bugs, developing plugins and testing betas which helps give our product the edge over proprietary rivals.
  • The flexibility of cloud based applications saves significant amounts of time and therefore money in providing upgrades and new features to customers – who don’t have the bother of installing patches etc.
  • Building sharing and collaboration between our customers into the business model has achieved far greater cost savings than either the open source foundation of our software, or the cloud based delivery of it. The fact that we don’t just tolerate, but rather encourage, our customers to share and redistribute resources means government is redesigning fewer wheels every day.

Having said that, we use the LAMP stack which is pretty much a won argument on open source in many ways, it’s other technology, especially on the desktop, where the debate needs to be refined and informed.

Discussions around open source use in government have to be based on pragmatism: is the OSS solution as good as the competition? Is it comaptible with other systems? What are the training overheads? What are the support, maintenance and development arrangements?

The truth is that replacing enterprise IT systems with open source alternatives is a lot more complicated than deciding to build a new website in WordPress. I quickly Googled for ‘open source ERP’ (ERP is Enterprise Resource Planning, those big internal systems made by people like SAP and Oracle, that run HR, finance, CRM and everything else) this afternoon, and the top result was something called Openbravo. I tweeted about it, and none of my contacts – even the open source IT analyst folks – had even heard of it.

It’s probably not surprising that people procuring this stuff run into the arms of the traditional vendors and system integrators.

Guidance for councils on publishing data

LG Group Transparency Programme

The LG Group have today launched a feedback site to get views on the draft guidance that has been developed for councils on the based ways to approach publishing open data.

As the site says:

Many authorities already publish considerable data. The challenge now is to be systematic about this, and to adopt some basic digital approaches in making data public to maximise everyone’s ability to benefit.

The Local Government Group in collaboration with the Local Public Data Panel is publishing a set of guides to offer practical help to meet both immediate targets of publishing data, and to adopt approaches that will add most value for local people and public services over the longer term.

This is a rapidly evolving and innovative agenda, so the guides are not static, mandatory requirements but rather they are ‘live’ documents that are open for you to comment on and offer the benefits of your experience.

The live nature of the documents is down to the fact that they are hosted on Steph Gray‘s marvellous Read+Comment setup which allows for the rapid publication of commentable documents.

As well as being commentable the site also publishes all the content in open reusable formats through RSS – a great example of walking the talk.

As I discussed with Tim on the podcast, it’s vital to increase the levels of data literacy at all levels of government – explaining the whys and the wherefores as well as the techie stuff about licenses and formats. This guidance is a great start, and if folk across the open local government scene get involved and add the benefit of their knowledge and experience through this site, it should be even better.

It’s also an opportunity, of course, for councils to have their say on this whole agenda. Open data is no panacea and, approached in the wrong way, it could have profound negative implications. So even if you are yet to drink the open data Kool-Aid, get stuck in now or forever hold your peace.

Getting crowdsourcing right

Steph has a great post about crowdsourcing in government:

It’s human nature to want to work on your own projects, rather than those imposed upon you. It’s human nature to want to earn recognition, intellectual satisfaction and a good living from your work. So instead of asking civil servants to sift thousands of ideas and assign half a dozen to people around Whitehall to ‘take forward’, why not put proper money behind a few big challenges, and support civil servants, frontline staff and whoever-the-hell-wants-to to band together to spend time and money solving them?

Go and read it – it’s good!

Wisdom of Crowds

I’ve been working on this post – the one you’re reading now – for literally months. Steph has inspired me to get the damn thing finally published. One book I have found really useful is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is well worth a read.

There have been a couple of high profile attempts to crowdsource ideas and opinion recently by central government in the UK, which comes on the back of similar activities in other countries. Neither worked particularly well, and having had the time to ruminate on why that might be, I thought I’d put some ideas out there.

Getting this right is important, not least for those of us that what to see open government progress in this country; participation being one of the three major strands of what open government is.

So what can we learn from Your Freedom and Spending Challenge?

1. Are you asking people to do the right things?

Crowdsourcing in government is used for a number of purposes, but quite often it’s down to getting people to suggest ideas. One of the problems is of course that coming up with ideas is the easy bit – it’s implementing them that’s hard.

But some of the best examples of crowdsourcing on the internet just aren’t this open ended. Indeed, the success of these initiatives tend to be in providing people with small, defined tasks such as:

These can be seen as being ‘mechanical turk’ type activities and as per the quote from Steph above they are examples of not just people being asked their opinions in a one-off fashion, but groups of people working towards a common goal, contributing when and how they feel able.

2. Don’t keep rebuilding the same community

It strikes me, thinking about it, that building a new website, promoting it and getting people to engage with it, every time government wants to ask people stuff isn’t a very efficient way of going about things.

I remember reading Stephen Coleman’s The Internet and Democratic Citizenship and not really agreeing with one of its central premises, that we need an online ‘civic commons’ – a central space for all the internet enabled participation in democracy and government to happen. It just struck me as the sort of thing that government could well be very bad at – some sort of DirectGov for engagement and consultation.

But, then, maybe it does make sense to have the one place where as much of this stuff happens as possible sits. It means people only have to sign up for one site, could get notified of new exercises that might interest them, and so on. It might also provide the scale to enable a full time community manager or two to be appointed, which would help massively with some of the moderation issues that these sites sometimes run into.

3. The role of expertise

One of the big questions around crowdsourcing is the issue of expertise. It’s fine asking Joe Public what he thinks about something, but quite another to expect him to have considered views on what might be esoteric and complicated subjects.

Perhaps this is where making use of existing communities could really come into play. When you are looking to get the views of people who really know what they are talking about, perhaps the best thing to do is to go to where those people are already hanging out and talking about this stuff. For those interested in this approach, the Meet the Communities event should be well worth attending.

4. Quick returns

The Cathedral & the BazaarGoing back to open source software development, one key thing Linus Torvalds, who led the Linux project, did to encourage participation was to ensure there were quick returns from contributors. Eric Raymond, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, noted that Linux gave contributors the stimulation of being involved in something cool and important and gave fast feedback and results, sometimes more than daily.

It strikes me that  number of attempts at crowdsourcing in government don’t have anywhere near a short enough timescale for feedback. Throwing ideas and contributions into a black hole that a civil servant at some undefined point in the future might take a look at, and might get in touch with you about, isn’t to me a particularly thrilling proposition.

Any more?

So there are my four takeaways for people wanting to run government crowdsourcing exercises. Anyone got any others?

(Before I go, do visit Catherine Howe’s blog, which is full on ruminations on this stuff, as well as hundreds more great book recommendations!)