This post brings together two chapters of the recently published report Social by Social: a practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact.
Commissioned by NESTA, it provides a collection of tools to engage communities, offer services, scale up activities and sustain public service projects both from inside and outside government. It also gives insight into some real world examples of the use of social technology in making change happen, two of which I draw on here – Will Perrin‘s take on ‘What this means for government‘ and my article on ‘What this means for public services‘ as a whole.
Whatever digital engagment, We.Gov or Gov20 means to you, there’s no doubting North American and European government has come a long way over the past 18 months in better understanding and implementing social technologies for social change.
Reaching the wider collective consciousness for the first time in the UK back in March 2008 on release of the interim Power of Information Report, social tech came of age during the course of the 9 month Power of Information Taskforce. As the Taskforce itself said at the time of publishing its final report, “the Taskforce brought together a group from government, industry and the third sector who all share a passion for using ICT to enable better public service delivery.”
As in the US, led by inspiring organisations such as the Sunlight Foundation, much of the review focused on what is seen by many as the foundation of open and social government – the release of public data for transparency purposes. As Will says in his Social by Social article:
Citizens are taking control of public sector information and repurposing it in a process known as data mashing. Clever coders are getting better and better at bringing meaning and clarity to vast quantities of incomprehensible information... Political leaders’ interest in what was an obscure geeky area has been redoubled after the expenses scandal, where very large quantities of previously unpublished data were unexpectedly made public and analysed by journalists. Changes to Freedom of Information and the 30-year rule as well as 21st Century interfaces such as Whatdotheyknow.com will bring more and more data out for analysis. The 2011 Census will even have its own API. Data mashing and the new semantic technologies will create far more transparency and analysis by machines for non statistical people.
Widespread data mashing will be a step change in transparency. The public sector needs to engage with people who might mashup its data and be prepared to respond to unexpected outcomes. In America Obama has seized the agenda with data.gov and in the UK, the Cabinet Office has brought in Sir Tim Berners-Lee to advise on opening up government data. But both countries face a huge challenge to bring data mashing to the entirety of the public sector.
Coupled with the release of data for transparency and (online) public service improvement purposes, online social media have brought about a change in how citizens in the UK have been able to interact with government. While again facing the same issues as laid out by Will above (ie not widely known about or used), steps are being taken in pockets of government to pilot new approaches to online engagement around public services and public policy. The recent Digital Britain report exemplifies the possible, published in a variety of formats including a commentable version, providing a forum for discussion and a range of communications channels including a Twitter account.
However what none of this does is fundamentally address the current (gaping) power inbalance between the government and its citizens. These initiatives, while a step in the right direction, remain very much on the government’s own terms, merely allowing citizens to comment on late stage policy documents published in incomprehensible and unengaging English. As such, many of the well documented cultural challenges (whether weak leadership, complex procurement or a lack of incentive to take “risks”) remain barriers to true and system wide change. Policy making remains very much the preserve of the ‘expert’, in the main only drawing on online tools for PR and political purposes to give a sense of listening and engagement at a point in the process which is too late for any true change to be made.
Thankfully this painfully slow and measured top down change is being challenged and turbo charged by truly disruptive, rapid and needs driven change from outside of government. While data may be the foundation to open government, Gov20 means technology that disrupts from both inside and outside of government, working hand in hand to make change happen. As I put it in Social by Social:
For many the speed and scale of this change is not enough and outside of government change is taking a very different form. Change is emerging from the bottom up, with citizens coming together around shared needs and interests and self-organising to resolve the challenges they face together… Communities of purpose (whether by geography or common cause) are coming together to take on what may have previously been seen as the role of the government in public service delivery, or otherwise acting to publicly hold the government to account on its service delivering… Enabled by the power of the web, public services are beginning to be rebuilt from the bottom up, formed around real rather than perceived need and with people speaking for themselves in their own words and through their own experiences and passions.
These nimble micro public service uninstitutions, from School of Everything to Enabled by Design to Patients Opinion (given a helping hand from iniatives such as Social Innovation Camp and Talk about Local), are redefining public services as we’ve come to know them, socialising them in the true sense of the word.
Without any shadow of a doubt, change is happening at an ever quickening pace driven by the power of the Internet. Whether driven by The Gov or We .Gov:
The web provides limitless possibility in every direction and it is now up to the government to work out how best to shape and support ‘public services 2.0’ – and define its own role within it.