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What key trends should Government bear in mind when designing digital services?
We offer the following six pointers.
It is important that a government committed to openness should support initiatives in Open Data (making government data available for others to build services on) and Open Content (maximum use of Creative Commons licensing of Government Documents).
Data should not be forcibly centralised for web publication. Subsidiarity and the use of distributed systems with look-up tables is increasingly modern practice, even if not always practised in UK government (e.g. MIAP, now known as the Learning Records Service). Network technology continues to advance rapidly. While there is little appetite for the sharing of specific data across government, we believe that there is a strong case for sharing data across government, for example for changes of address or name, or the death of a citizen.
3. The web document as the real document
Publication of government documents on the web should increasingly take priority in such areas as formatting where print versions still have priority often to the detriment of the web presentation. We need technical formats that permit ease of use for the citizen who rarely accesses anything other than the web document (for example the two column designs that cannot easily be read on screen should be avoided as should unnecessarily large file sizes that can and will increasingly cost the user to download as mobile charging models become more common).
This area of making departments aware of the fact that their information will be most accessed through web interfaces. and that web-based citizens are thus the main class of user needs a lot of attention, with staff development to ensure that the fundamental shift that is taking place is fully understood in government.
4. Authentication and authorisation etc.
Appropriate levels and systems of validation and verification are needed aligned with the transaction taking place. For example if a citizen wishes to pay a parking fine then this should be possible without having to apply for a password via post. These levels of security should map onto the nature of transaction with different models applied. With high stakes transactions we would expect to see two-factor authentication in use where non-repudiation is required (usernames and passwords struggle to stand up to legal challenge). Citizens and agencies must have confidence in e-government. The current system of extensive delays if you forget your login and password involving two lots of physical posting are unacceptable: there are better and more secure alternatives. This is another area where a better systems result from giving users more choice.
5. Customisation and inclusiveness
Directgov needs to keep up to date with advances in this area. For example more facilities in support of accessibility ( where the site is currently not bad but where more can be done in speech recognition and synthesis and in the use of machine translation) and the provision of smart style sheets that can adaptively render a site in response to a users preference and method of connection (e.g. when using a mobile device or a low bandwidth connection). Keeping good profiles of users to improve responsiveness to the individual is becoming easier and should increasingly be a hallmark of services provided through Directgov.
6. Software engineering and project management
To keep pace with current developments in web delivered services we recommend that Directgov is developed in a more agile, iterative fashion, with each three year project (say) split into (say) 12 four month phases. This would enable a Directgov site/service to keep pace with current practice. The focus should be on modular rather than monolithic development, with self-contained smallish components that can be absorbed into other systems, multiple entry points, and with proper test-suites built in. Alongside this staff- and citizen-users (i.e. those on each side of the front line) should be at the heart of all developments.
Give all unemployed people the use of a smart-phone and some £ credit or free access with that phone to certain gov websites, and close down all the jobcentres.
The web is changing fast and the pace shows no sign of slowing – so, like anyone else who builds things online, government must keep watching and responding to all trends if it is not to become irrelevant.
One significant trend not mentioned in other responses is that the web has enabled people to become active contributors rather than simply passive consumers online. Citizens gain a voice they did not have before, and increasingly expect to be able to engage with public services as active, thoughtful collaborators, not simply as “users” or “the audience”.
This poses big challenges to both government and public services, but it also creates new opportunities to engage with, improve and perhaps even transform the public realm – just as Wikipedia, through the voluntary contributions of many, has transformed the possible size and currency of the encyclopedia.
The web makes possible new forms of digital gift economy in which people are willing, given the right conditions, to help one another and contribute for the common good. Our experience at Patient Opinion – seeing people share often distressing experiences so that health services can learn and improve – is one example of this.
Government must understand, study and perhaps consider how it might support the trend towards an active, contributing citizenry online, especially in relation to improving public services. It remains an open question, however, whether and in what settings government itself should aim to be the author of such online initiatives.
Since technology is moving so quickly, and nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future (not even highly-paid consultants), I think the key issue is to ensure that whatever is done is not predicated on a particular way of looking at the world, which might turn out to be inappropriate (imagine asking this question about key trends just before the Web came along, and trying to solve it with computer technology of the time.)
The way to do this is through truly open standards – those that are open to all, and are made available under a Royalty Free licence if there are any patents involved. This will create a level playing-field that will allow all players in the computer sector to create solutions in response to changing needs and technologies. It will allow older solutions to be swapped out, and new ones to be brought in, with the minimum of disruption. It will also promote a competitive environment that will tend to reduce costs.
As well as this overarching strategic approach to dealing with important trends, there are some more specific areas that seem to be gaining in importance. However, it must be stressed that these will need constant review, since IT is as much driven by fads and fashions as any other domain, and what seems the way forward now may turn into a dead-end in five years’ time (push services are a good example of how wrong pundits can be.)
So alongside open standards, open source is clearly emerging as one of the most powerful forces in computing today. This is not to say that open source be used for every project, and in all circumstances: there may be particular requirements that simply cannot be met using such software. But given the flexibility that open source offers – and freedom from lock-in to one particular manufacturer’s set of technologies – it should always be explored as an option, at least.
Open data complements open standards and open source, but is different from them. Again, the power of making non-personal datasets freely available means that new systems should be designed with a view to making such data useful for as wide a class of players – governmental, corporate, NGOs and individuals – as possible. There should be no attempt to second-guess what those uses might be, since this will probably distort the way the data is made available. Better simply to maximise availability and to leave it to others to exploit that.
I urge the government to look to two technologies
1. Use open standards, free of royalty. This ensures that anyone can interact with the government’s digital program, in a clear way, and without having to pay a fee to a third party.
2. Always use open source software. Where a government service requires software it should be free and open source. This gives two benefits. First the barrier to adoption is at a minimum – no money to third parties for the tools required. Secondly, being open source, others can contribute to improving the software. This latter reduces the costs to government, and seems a practical example of the “Big Society” philosophy.
As an example, my small business cannot currently use the full facilities of online tax filing without buying specialist software. With an open source solution, based on open standards, that cost is removed, and the potential for continual improvement of the software is readily available.
I’ve offered some thoughts in my response to Questions 2 and 3 that also reflect on future trends. Specifically, give more thought – real, deep, tested thought – to whether some services are suitable for digital delivery at all. Don’t try to solve all political problems and philosophical citizen/state problems by defining them as digital ones (the issue of digital identity management is a case in point here).
And above all, be flexible in how and where services are delivered. Directgov describes itself as “public services all in one place” – are we not now at the point (or even some way past it) where this should be “public services all in the right place”?
Disclosure: as Question 1.
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