One of the heartening trends that I've noted in recent years is a gradually opening up of government around the world – in both directions. As well as making more data available, the UK government too is also beginning to realise that the public wants – and can – help by providing input on the things that affect and matter to them.
Here's a good example, which comes via Martha Lane Fox:
Following the announcement that Directgov has joined Cabinet Office, I'm leading a review of the service to assess how it can be transformed and redirected to further drive efficiencies in the online delivery of public services.
I've asked a small group of advisors from business and the public sector to assist me with the review, and I've asked Transform to gather feedback from users and anyone with a view on Government digital service delivery on how things should change. It's not often you get the opportunity to step back and assess how things should be different, so I'm interested in all ideas – particularly the radical and off-the-wall.
I have to apologise for the fact that I'm only writing about this now, with today as the last day on which such comments can be submitted (sorry). But the good news is that there are only four questions, and that you can input your comments direct on the site. Lots of people have done that, and I've found the suggestions of a surprisingly high standard – which goes to confirm why this kind of exercise is worth doing.
I hope you might be able to squeeze it in before ending the week – it's an important area, and we should make the most of this opportunity. I've included below my answer for Question 4, which is the only one that I felt I had anything to say (I rarely use Directgov, so it would be inappropriate for me to pontificate about its current usability etc.) This is also probably the best question to encourage the government to support openness at all levels.
Question 4: Trends in digital delivery
What key trends should Government bear in mind when designing digital services?
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.