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Tuesday, March 4

Tories and standards and walled gardens

Shane McCracken @ Gallomanor has thrown me a sideways question. Sideways because he's linked to me from "some others in local Govt IT" (n.b. Shane, I'm 'web' not 'IT', there's a difference) whilst discussing David Cameron's call that 'councils should be publishing data using common standards so that the public and other groups can re-use the data to compare councils and provide services'.

He links to the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) and Simon Dickson's comments - which I'll sum up as 'it's difficult'.

Basically, Cameron is on the right track but probably for the wrong reasons.

I've consistently argued that the problem with egov in the UK is it's 'walled garden', that it operates without consideration of the wider web, doesn't behave like the wider web and - largely because of a lag effect caused by bureaucracy and lack of marketing knowledge - ignores the wider web where most web users are. Search being the most obvious example.

Cameron is talking correctly when he aligns with the Guardian's 'Free Our Data' campaign in terms of the uses this information can be put to, including commercial uses. The Guardian has detailed how the problem isn't generally interoperability but freedom of access - 'walled gardens'. Obviously if other well-funded interests want information they can help/fund breaking down interoperability.

eGif, which most Council web operations experience as simply adding numbers to pages which specify which service is described, is a good example of this because it appears to be mainly about DirectGov. The pointlessness of which is a constant moan because DirectGov is not how most people find those services. However others could make use of this data, which is mostly already there.

The far bigger picture though is Cameron's assault on the Walled Garden (I'm reading it that way). Here, he is attacking an attitude which is all-pervasive (and I mean all) within eGov - the rest of the web is irrelevant, policy is out of date, traffic isn't important, expectations are low. This is exacerbated by a seeming desire to head to the frontier (e-democracy) when the basics on which the rest of the web operates aren't in place

Cameron talks about They Work For You and is presumably another person who loves MySociety's good works. I do too but in the wider scheme of things they're a blip. He should talk about NetMums etc. instead and how they should/could be using government data.

I wrote last year about a new online service which was ignoring it's key online audience to promote itself. That service talked about all sorts of data compatibility issues being barriers. This reminds me of my recent exchanges with the BBC over it's blog comments technical problems.

Neither of these issues were primarily about tech, they were really about communications and marketing — everyone has tech issues online, even Google sometimes, but they know how to not lose audience when they have them. They made things usable and they explain what's happening when they're not - they have to.

With the BBC the technical issues weren't communicated - users were left floundering.

With the major eGov project it was the same. Because the component government bodies making up the project operated on slightly different timescales it was actually about harvesting contact points (text/email) from users and sending reminders when to sign up. A simple challenge which numerous commercial operations have already dealt with but because of the government mindset and a tekkie viewpoint simply wasn't thought of.

In fact the experience for me was an eye opener because of the blinkers which people had on - I was coming from a commercial web background and this was seen as irrelevant, even hostile, when I was just trying to help.

If Cameron wants to go for the government's web stance - hurrah! I have met a few Tories now around eGov and have always found them to come from the right place. Even when they appear to have 'savings!' brightening up their eyes. My experience of Ministers and their lackeys is the direct opposite. Deliberate ignorance and patronising arrogance.

The plain fact is that the operation is not properly led and never has been. There's been no consistency or real vision. Blair was a technophobe and Brown appears to be one too. Who they've appointed has been the equivalent of 'Northern Ireland Minister' rather than something more prominent. This has been going on for years.

This is also why I've highlighted what's happening overseas and this would be my suggestion for Cameron — point to embarrassing counter-examples, of which there are many, where a much poorer country is doing something we can't get right. That'll get you in the Daily Mail and therefore the government might pay attention. Promoting MySociety (much as I adore those lovely boys) ? Not so much.

Alright, Shane. You set me off. Job done :}


  1. Anonymous5.3.08

    OK, from now on, I'm going to restrict my blog posting to single lines. Goodbye WordPress, hello Twitter. :)

    So in that new spirit: you're basically right. 'Walled garden' is too polite a description, though.

    There are undoubtedly cash savings to be made, if we adopt a more wider-web-friendly approach to things: open source, blogs, syndication, sharing. And maybe that's the most obvious way to motivate most politicians.

    But I hear good things about Tom Watson at the Cabinet Office. Granted, it's a fairly lowly position, but it's Ministerial nonetheless. Plus Brown's new political strategist, David Muir, is a pro user of Flickr - which surely suggests some familiarity with 'best practice' at least.

    The more Cameron makes an issue of this, the more likely Labour are to take it seriously. That's almost a win-win situation for people like us.

  2. hah! sorry simon, no offense intended ;/

    I'm intrigued to know what's a less polite description than 'walled garden'?

    It's definitely a win-win. That's why, despite not being a Tory, I like them attacking Brown and Darling on this for the Luddite Neanderthals (that's less polite) they are and hope they do more.

  3. Anonymous6.3.08

    I thought you'd have a view on it. I didn't realise I would set off quite such a post.

    How do we storm the walled garden?

    Examples from overseas as you mention is good. What else? Post-Barcamp Jeremy Gould and others have been trying to educate civil servants in Whitehall. Is there more that can be done at the local level? Is education the problem or is it resources? Is it directives from Whitehall?

  4. It's definitely leadership. And calling spades spades.

    The overseas experience is relevant in another way. My experience within eGov is that we tend to accept crumbs when in lots of places overseas they have cake, meaning leadership.

    A 'webbie type' here or there sortof with someone's ear, someone who's read a Power of Information precis, is not some sort of progress when the reality is staring us in the face.

    Basically I'm saying a little more rebellion would help. it's difficult for people like yourself and Simon but if we all gang up - which we are starting to do - we can change things.

    Some of us can strop louder than others - that's fine, that's what coalitions are, I've been in a few - but we need to unite and tell our bosses/leaders that the future is now and to stop holding things up.

    This is why I'm so pleased that BarCamp happened and I think Jeremy's worth his weight in gold — we're getting there.