The New Boy

Mike Bracken (photo: Guardian)So Mike Bracken, former digital boss at Guardian Media Group is the new Executive Director for Digital for the UK government. Welcome, Mike. In times as tough as these for the public sector, it’s a real coup to have recruited someone of your calibre to the role.

The post was recommended by Martha Lane Fox in her review of Directgov, to give some real clout to the task of improving UK government on the web. Things have moved on since, of course, with open for comment and Beth Noveck due to be working on open government issues here too.

People who know Mike say he’s a delivery guy: able to make stuff happen in corporate environments, with a track record of building great developer teams and supporting practical innovators like Rewired State and even MySociety. He’s seen the supplier side too at IT firm Wavex so will be an interesting match for the big systems integrators when the contract arguments start, with Ian Watmore as his wingman.

Mike popped in to say hello to a little field trip group I organised back in February to see how Guardian Media Group approach their digital platforms, trying to understand how an Alphagov-ish vision of a mega-platform might work. I think I asked him then whether he felt a single government platform – bigger even than The Guardian’s digital estate – would simply cover too much stuff to ever be made workable. He didn’t seem fazed by the idea; government just another big corporate bureaucracy to wrangle.

[blackbirdpie id=”71234171762262016″]

And he’ll need those wrangling skills. There are vested interests big and small that will fight a more agile, streamlined, potentially in-house digital delivery model, especially if it changes back end processes too., for all its shortcomings, is blazing an exciting trail but has a long way to go to swallow the existing supersites and assimilate the dozens of rationalisation programmes underway. There are proverbial hares running throughout government on digital issues, from Skunkworks to the Government Digital Service, the Transparency Board to the Efficiency and Reform Group, the Government Communications Centre to the news-driven goals of the Number 10 digital unit – not to mention departmental restructuring and the perennial risk of getting dragged into pet projects of the centre. And these are not boom times in government, so hiring new people and investing in new platforms will be a tough sell every step of the way.

A former colleague of Mike’s blogged some slides he presented on one of the Guardian’s most audacious technical projects, its Open Platform, which combines business philosophy, commercial strategy and technical implementation. It’s a good sign for the future.

From Publisher to Platform: 14 ways to get benefits from social media

Good luck Mike, it’ll be great to see what you do next.

A window on the wormery

Once upon a time, I managed a team who were struggling to crack a tough problem. They needed to improve the dreadful user experience of a major online transaction, but the ‘owners’ of the transaction – a ‘partner’ organisation, in Government-speak – refused to let them have access. The ‘owners’ talked about the extensive user testing they had already done. My guys asked to see it. The Comms people said the IT people had it. The IT people were too busy building the transaction and frankly, digging out that email would put the project in jeopardy.

My guys would ask nicely if they could test the application. The offered to bring in the team nominally responsible at the heart of government. In a rare moment of weakness, the transaction owners offered a 60 minute demo in their far-flung office, but no hands-on access. The deadlines crept nearer and nearer. The emails became more colourful. Worried submissions started to make their way to ministers (who frankly had shorter-term horizons).

At this point in the story, I’d like to point to a dramatic denouement where the resistance crumbled and the heroes triumphed, but the truth is duller and more common. There was a lot of bad feeling, something a bit shit went live, and an unknown number of customers were annoyed or confused.

Directgov review

So when Martha Lane Fox recommends a single front end for transactional online services, giving Directgov the teeth to mandate standards and experiences, I say hurrah. That Directgov hasn’t been able to properly assimilate online transactions in terms of user experience and technology, as well as branding, is a critical weakness and a source of shame to those of us who were involve in its early development. Fixing that will take enormous political and administrative muscle, and tremendous technical talent, but it can and should be fixed. Opening up access to the underlying business logic and data through (secure) APIs and syndicating content to third party sites is similarly right, and probably quite a bit more challenging.

Where I think Martha’s wrong is in centralising content management and the user experience full stop. We’ve lived with web convergence and a single-domain (well, supersite domains) for a while now, and that works to a point. At best, it’s a seamless integration and quality check; at worst, it’s a pleasant fiction that does no harm.

But she’s gone further than Varney did (retyped from the published, scanned PDF):

Recommendation 3: The model of government online publishing should change radically, with a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments

The proposed model would see ‘Departmental experts’, presumably policy owners, producing content on commission from the central team, who would manage a ‘shared, agile, cost-effective suite of web services’ to publish it via a single domain, perhaps using departmental subdirectories for navigation.

Now, I’ve been proliferating government websites for some time,  it’s currently part of the way I make my living, and the recommendation above is likely to render many former colleagues and friends redundant in due course. None of which are valid reasons to reject a good idea, so I’m trying hard to manage the inevitable conflicts in my reactions.

It’s true that there’s plenty of bad practice across the government web estate, and plenty of opportunity to join up and adopt common infrastructures. Though government speaks to many audiences, it doesn’t do so consistently well. And there aren’t the meaningful incentives or threats to those who do it well or badly to lead them to improve.

It’s quite possible I’ve misinterpreted elements of the admirably concise report, but I’m struggling to see how this model will work in practice:

  1. Government online content, done right, is simply too big for a single site. I’m not sure what commercial sector examples might be relevant here, but perhaps the BBC comes closest, and it seems to have come to the view that closest you can come to harmonisation is in standards for content, common search and a basic unifying navigation bar. Directgov and BusinessLink pare down government content, which is essential for citizens and businesses, but useless for intermediaries, researchers and stakeholders. I hope that cleverer minds than mine will be put to the task, but I don’t see how a useful volume of government content for these audiences can be made navigable in one place, except through search.
  2. Centralising digital channels poses problems for integrating digital into other aspects of government’s work. Whether and how to devolve web publishing is a challenge every large organisation faces: a centralised model is generally more consistent and probably lower measurable cost, but less responsive, creative and integrated with the organisation’s work – and those are bigger challenges in large departments than somewhere more news-oriented like Number 10. Arguably, a central Cabinet Office team co-ordinating digital should really co-ordinate other communications channels too.
  3. By separating content commissioning, transactions and publishing from digital engagement, an opportunity is lost. Broadening engagement with policymaking really needs people to be involved in context, not in isolation. And I’m not clear what a digital engagement team in a department would do without a say over platforms from which they can form partnerships, except create sneaky blogs and microsites around the margins (and no, you can’t do everything on third party sites or within a government brand).
  4. It’s somewhat old-fashioned to view websites as a professionally-managed library: the truth is, stakeholders’ interactions with government often happen at an individual or team level, and professional audiences for policy content want human contact, latest news and full data rather than the high quality ‘guides’ developed by supersites like Business Link. Improving the responsiveness of government and its transparency needs to involve putting a window on the wormery, not laying neater turf over it.

There are definitely some opportunities, and it’s encouraging to see ideas from outside as bold as this, with an early indication of support from Ministers. What might well make sense would include:

  • Pooling capability: more sharing of the expertise and resources around government for multimedia production, user research, search optimisation, email marketing and so on
  • Shared infrastructures: a small but plural set of platforms for different organisations and different purposes, including low-cost open source social CMSes, heavyweight publishing-oriented platforms, community-oriented platforms and data/document repositories along with a menu of sensible hosting options
  • A common look and feel: as mandated in Canada, underpinned with clear, practical and concise guidance
  • Pan-government search and shared services for commoditised applications such as vacancies, news, speeches and formal consultation, learning from the best in-house work on API development within government, such as for civil service jobs
  • Co-ordinated news planning: integrating government platforms better to promote the big launches, combining the people, tools and partnerships to give big things a proper push online
  • A unifying vision: a digital strategy which brings together the various functions of digital and articulates its role, and the key direction for government online in supporting transparency, increasing participation, improving customer service and strengthening public sector collaboration

It’s easy to be critical from the sidelines, and I don’t want to fall into that trap. There’s much to like in Martha’s report, and a real opportunity to make things better. If it’s done right.


For ease of reference, I’ve uploaded OCRed versions of the two documents here to improve accessibility and quotability:

The Minister, the Entrepreneur and the Civil Servant: a cautionary tale

I’ve come across this little situation enough times now to make it worth a quick post here. It’s the story of the innovative SME, the minister, and the civil servant. And it’s not exactly a fairytale.

PM, DPM and Cab Sec

The story starts well enough: an enthusiastic entrepreneur develops something clever. They think it could have a great public policy application, so they or their well-connected guardian angel identify the relevant minister at an event. “Sounds great! Come and tell me more sometime” says the minister, over a glass of austerity orange juice. Or maybe the entrepreneur just phones up and gets lucky. Either way, the day comes, and they’re sitting in a Whitehall office, pitching their thing to the minister, his private secretary and the civil servant in the policy unit responsible.

“Well, this is great, we should do this,” says the minister “[Policy dude]: will you work with [Entrepreneur] to see how we can support this?”. Awkward nods and handshakes all round. Private Secretary sends round the email of action points. The Minister’s office move on to other things. Entrepreneur leaves the meeting with a spring in their step. Policy official bins the business cards.

Days pass, but the policy official doesn’t get in touch. Entrepreneur sends a ‘look forward to working with you!’ email. No reply. Tries calling, and gets some promises about a feasibility study. Months pass. In desperation, Entrepreneur emails the minister’s office, chasing progress. The system kicks into life, emails go back and forth, and eventually The Problem email gets sent. There are variations on The Problem: maybe it’s too expensive given current budgets or can’t be procured directly under Department rules. Maybe Department X is doing it already with Scheme Y. Maybe a pilot is in the field whose outcomes can’t be prejudiced. Maybe it’s already in hand within the forthcoming White Paper strategy. The idea dies with a whimper, not a bang: in a noose of noncommital emails in which nobody says ‘I’m out’ but everybody knows they are.

The lesson here is that ministers don’t spend money. They set priorities, they define targets, they set deadlines, they sign off on wordings and – to an extent – strategies. They front policy in Parliament and to the media. They reassure stakeholders, pacify opponents, negotiate with Treasury, visit pioneering projects, articulate the vision in speeches and articles, and chase progress on delivery. But they don’t spend money. Not really.

Ultimately, for something to be done or financially supported in central government, a civil servant has to do it. It’s odd to imagine it, but civil servants hold the budgets and decide what they get spent on (hopefully responding to the Minister’s priorities). They run the programmes, organise the procurement, choose the suppliers, manage the projects and report on the results. Very occasionally, ministers step into some of those decisions, but it’s rarer than you’d imagine as an SME more used to trading with powerful CEOs.

What does this mean for the innovative SME entrepreneur? Basically, find the civil servants who will have to work with you to deliver the idea, and be useful to them. That doesn’t mean hard sell or showering them with hospitality, which are almost entirely counterproductive. In the current climate, it’s quite possible that they can’t spend money with you at all, and procurement isn’t just an excuse: it’s a genuine barrier much of the time. But if they know what you do, in broad terms, and that you have a creative solution to problem X, that could slot brilliantly into next month’s White Paper, then you’ve already got a head start on the scenario above. It might be that they can work with you in another way: perhaps the recommendation of a ministerial visit, an invite to a high-level breakfast or trade mission, a reference to “innovative British firms such as Widgets Inc doing great work” in a big speech, or a case study in a strategy. They’ll know who does have money, which might be a quango or grants programme they can put you in touch with.

And that potential goodwill will hardly ever materialise if their first experience of you is the somewhat stressful experience of a Ministerial commission in an awkward meeting.

So, who you know does count. But it’s not always the guy in the Prius.

Photo credit: Number 10

Goodbye websites, my old friends

I don’t know what I think about website convergence any more.

converging lines, by kevin dooley

I used to think it was premature, driven by people without an appreciation for what the web could do, risking crushing small but smart teams doing good work online, and subsuming them into sites like Directgov and BusinessLink which were still feeling their way.

Then I had to lead a team with responsibility for converging sites and managing fragmented content, and I became more sympathetic to the view that, on average, lots of small sites tend to be less well-managed than a few bigger ones (but still not necessarily more cost-effective). It seems to me the financial and quality gains from supersites (like, £2.15 per visitor) are less clear than politicians like to claim, as the process of convergence inevitably papers over cracks, introduces unnecessary technical and brand constraints, and adds new bureaucracy of its own. But there’s the potential to do it right, and done right, it’s better than what came before.

And anyway, we’re in different territory now: organisational convergence, let alone website convergence (RIP Consumer Focus, with one of those small, smart, innovative teams).  Tomorrow, we’ll hear about plans for the most radical website convergence programme yet, following up the Cabinet Office announcement of the findings of COI’s first data collection exercise on the cost of government websites, and a review to report this week:

As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better […]

The expectation is the review, which will report by the Spending Review in September, will aim to shut down up to 75% of existing sites and then look at getting the remaining sites to cuts their costs by up to 50% and move onto common infrastructures.

This is being run by Martha Lane Fox, Digital Champion, who will, as well as her digital inclusion and digital public services role: “also look at sharing resources and facilities and using low-cost open source products to reduce running costs.”

I’ve not seen the report, but there are at least three potential strategies to culling three-quarters of government sites:

  1. Really accelerate convergence of sites into Directgov & Business Link, not taking no for an answer
  2. Really accelerate convergence of quango sites into parent Department sites, not taking no for an answer
  3. Converge all corporate government sites into a single one, as in Scotland, not taking no for an answer

You’ll spot a common thread – if Martha and ministers are serious about this, it’s time to be firm. It’s not really about the webbies who have to square these ludicrous circles, but about the territorialism of policy owners who, even within a single converged supersite, believe it helps users and saves money to have two sets of interview tips for jobseekers.

So options 1 and 2 are often – but not universally – fraught with petty turf wars and bad feeling. Option 3 would make a lot of sense, as well as being colourful politics – it’s a way of rethinking how government communicates about itself on the web, and creating something with the clout to be firm with Departments about the value and purpose of their content, much like the heroes at Defra have been. It would offer a lot of scope to develop common infrastructure for common requirements like consultations, press releases, speeches, jobs, and open data. It would be a one-off opportunity to rethink content, and to think about purpose and audience. And it might mean dedicated specialists in fields like email marketing, SEO or video production able to service more of their colleagues’ needs.

But it would be hugely challenging too, for Communications leaders used to managing their own shop windows. Quangos struggling to converge their sites into their parent Department’s infrastructure would need to shift focus once again. Responding flexibly and creatively to what Departments or Ministers want, and keeping a sense of connection with users would be tough – especially if teams shrink and good webbies find jobs elsewhere. And the histories of Business Link and Directgov are not entirely happy or efficient ones. A single  website for government simply cannot be allowed to cost £30m a year to run, nor be directed as a PRINCE II programme from the centre, nor be outsourced and subcontracted to the point of obsolescence.

I don’t know if there will be the courage to go the whole hog, but if so, then this a good time to do it. Open data, and open source too, have never had such active and explicit support from senior ministers, so there’s a chance it might be done right. With the money evaporated, government teams are eager to find low-cost ways to partner with online communities, and overcome historic micrositis and cede some control over the message in return for sustainable engagement. But the strongest reason is that no team has the skills and time to do it all themselves, not now the expectation and scope of digital communication is so great.

I’m sure that tomorrow will feel like a cloud. Let’s hope it has a silver lining, one way or the other.

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

Digital Heroine: Jenny Poole

Sir Phillip Green, efficiency advisor to the government, recently reportedly challenged public sector workers to treat public money as their own.

One person who’s been doing this for a while is Jenny Poole, Head of Digital Engagement at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. She’s a former team member, and now client, of mine, but I’m not embarrassed in the slightest to add her to my pantheon of digital heroes and heroines on this blog.

At yesterday’s Word Up Whitehall event, she introduced herself as a former speechwriter and came clean about her lack of technical nowse – asking why they don’t just sack her from the digital team. The fact is, these teams need bridges to people in the rest of the organisation in communications and policy functions, and as her new boss says, every team should have one.

Take this week as an example. Lord Browne’s independent review of Higher Education finance has been supported by a dedicated secretariat in BIS for the past few months. As the date of publication neared, the team were commissioning designs and planning the launch, and had a five-figure proposal on the table for a new WordPress site to promote the report.

Jenny told them there was another way, and figured out how.

Together, we tidied up the existing WordPress site, and in a couple of hours, built a static page for the report itself, using a bit of TypeKit magic to tie the online typography into the offline design. Jenny co-ordinated me and various other technical colleagues – basically the equivalent of herding geek cats – into a solid plan for scaling up a site which saw a 25-fold spike in traffic on launch day, with headline coverage in all the mainstream media. Still, she was up at 6am to make sure it worked.

Better still, she planted the idea of an online Q&A on The Student Room in the mind of Lord Browne, which became one of the best examples I’ve seen of that discussion format, and which Lord Browne seems to have enjoyed.

Three cheers for Jenny.

The Problem with WordPress

Linus’ Law says that, given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. It’s one of the paradoxes of open source, community-driven software that we can know it is good on the strength of how much is known about its frailties.

Simon Dickson opened and closed the first WordUp Whitehall event yesterday with a reminder that WordPress – perhaps the most prominent open source collaboration in the world today – is what we make it. There’s no certification programme, marketing campaign or single product manager guiding the roadmap. It was remarkable to chat to one of the project’s founders, Mike Little, in the pub afterwards about how WordPress has developed over the years in response to itch-scratching not only by the core contributors but by thousands of more or less expert developers of themes and plugins. Which I guess includes me.

Simon – who has done more than any other individual to popularise WordPress in central government in the UK – curated a remarkable day.  By eschewing the unconference format for something more akin to a seminar amongst a relatively small group of Whitehall WordPress users and the small suppliers who help them use it, he put together a fascinating programme.

  • Dave Coveney of Interconnect IT told the delightful story of Jan Britton from Sandwell Council, who started blogging to staff on and never stopped, with an internal site so popular that it actually takes some careful traffic planning
  • Simon Collister from We Are Social described their clear, straightforward approach to online influencer mapping, assessing the Reach, Engagement and Visibility of bloggers and communities to generate a set of profiles for clients to use in planning their outreach activities
  • Mark O’Neill, joint CIO of DCMS and CLG showcased the new transparency site his team have developed in WordPress (with some early initial coaching from me) to publish data quickly and cheaply. He’s wisely taken the ‘good enough’ approach, re-using an old theme of mine to get a site up rapidly, opening up access to partner organisations without their own capacity to publish documents easily
  • Simon Everest of Defra and Simon Wheatley of Sweet Interaction described their work relaunching not just the technical plaform behind Defra’s corporate site, but the very purpose of the site, slashing content to 130 well-written pages, and using the flexibility of WordPress RSS feeds and categories to create a much more integrated site, and building a full load-balanced infrastructure at very low cost
  • John and Martin from DFID are a Whitehall oddity: a team that still insources its IT – and clearly wisely. They showcased the two-hour project that produced a mobile version of DFID’s site, using WordPress
  • Harry Metcalfe from DXW talked about building robust consultation sites in WordPress, and opened up a lively discussion about the security risks from poorly-written code (in a nutshell: there’s good and bad code in the WordPress world, as elsewhere. Don’t take sweets from strangers)
  • Mike Little of Zed1 described the structure of one of the best-known public sector WordPress sites, Number 10, introducing the audience to a simply brilliant approach to managing WordPress in staging and production environments

Jenny Poole, Head of Digital Engagement at BIS, and I presented one of the morning sessions, talking about our project to develop the next generation of DIUS’ Commentariat WordPress theme designed to enable easy commenting on policy documents. Commentariat2, in use for the BIS Growth Strategy and subsequently as a pay-as-you-go platform via Read+Comment, tries to make the process of deploying new consultation sites as easy as possible for a non-technical user though extensive use of WordPress multisite networks, widgets, custom menus and theme options.

A good day.

Some definitions

I’m sure others cleverer than me have done this better elsewhere, but as part of some work I’m doing (and as a precursor to potentially revisiting That Venn Diagram on this blog later) I thought I’d try and write down some definitions of digital stuff:

Digital Communications involves the use of digital channels – yours and other people’s – to convey messages and publish information. Sometimes this is with the aim of getting feedback, sometimes not.

Digital Engagement uses digital tools and channels to find, listen to and mobilise a community around an issue, maybe getting them to talk about it, give you their views or take action in pursuit of a cause they care about.

Digital Marketing is about getting your message in front of other people – often by paying directly or indirectly for access to their online spaces, inboxes or phones – and then getting them to sign up, buy or donate to your thing.

Digital Public Services are ways of dealing with government through digital channels so people can find out the information they need, choose and/or pay for something.

Government IT covers the systems, processes and supplier relationships which deliver the technology-based services which power digital public services, digital communications platforms and the back-office systems which theoretically enable public servants to do their jobs.

What do you think?

Digital Hero: Luke Oatham

As part of an occasional series on this blog, I want to introduce you to a few of the digital heroes and heroines doing great work inside the UK public sector.

It’s not often my jaw literally drops open while reading a blog post, but it did when I read through Luke Oatham’s piece on his Intranet Diary blog about his work to redevelop his organisation’s intranet. I’ve met Luke briefly at TeaCamp and he’s an unassuming guy, but his blog showcases some of the tremendous stuff he’s been doing to revamp not just the look-and-feel but the fundamental structure and relevance of his organisation’s intranet. Now, a lot of people might run an internal focus group or two, or perhaps stick a feedback form up somewhere on the intranet to gather views – and ultimately make the decision based on the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion. Not Luke:

For the initial test page which all participants landed on, I used Google Website Optimiser, setting up an A/B test which redirected participants to one of 12 different pages. Each of the 12 pages started an individual test containing 20 questions. The purpose of Website Optimiser is usually to find the best combination of elements or wording on a page to drive a particular outcome. In this instance, I just took advantage of Website Optimiser’s method of evenly distributing tests.

From the tools he’s used – Google Website Optimiser, Google Analytics, online card sorting etc – to the understanding of human nature that lies behind it (make participating in tests something perceived to be scarce and fun) – he’s applying innovation, dedication and some serious skillz to one of the digital world’s less sexy challenges. And frankly, if I were Google, I’d make him offer he couldn’t refuse, because he’s applying exactly the same scientific method that’s made them into the hugely successful business they are.

Luke’s organisation has 80,000 staff. If half of them save 10 seconds a day as a result of Luke’s testing and improvements, that’s the equivalent of 20 full-time posts, or nearly half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money saved.

We need more Lukes.

Where do the good ideas go?

It’s been interesting to see the development of the UK Government’s first major forays into crowdsourcing, in the form of HM Treasury’s Spending Challenge, the drive for cost-saving ideas,  and Your Freedom, a mechanism for proposing unnecessary regulation to be repealed. But even more impressive is the approach being taken in the US with, taking crowdsourcing an important step further.

On this platform, people are invited not to submit ideas, but to work with others to develop solutions to problems that need solving, and with cash behind them. Sometimes, these are serious industry-changing propositions; sometimes, they’re clever marketing in another form, like this competition from the Department of Transportation to source videos designed to warn people of the dangers of distracted driving.

The UK experiments have been different: more about ideas than their implementation – the closing press release identified three ideas being taken forward by Government in order to save money. And that’s fine, but there’s a missed opportunity to mobilise the effort and enthusiasm of thousands in the cause of problems they could help to solve, not just identify.

But can the crowd really deliver? And should they?

First, let’s unpack ‘the crowd’. The Spending Challenge smartly called for submissions from public sector workers first, and then opened its doors to the public after a couple of weeks. In fact, the ‘crowd’ here comprises a number of groups:

  • the general public
  • service users
  • frontline staff
  • experts and analysts around government/issue
  • businesses dealing with or supplying to the sector
  • civil servants
  • politicians

It’s unlikely that members of the general public will, on average, have the skills or data to deliver reform of NHS procurement, say (and neither, for that matter, would a local councillor). But from the ideas and data provided by the public and the NHS itself, between them representatives of service users, suppliers, the service managers, and interested economists might.

But for suppliers or front line workers to determine where the cuts should fall is turkeys and Christmas territory, surely? Quite possibly. But there’s more to crowdsourcing than setting priorities. For instance, there are jobs to do to:

  • set priorities/challenges
  • define criteria for judging
  • sift ideas and solutions
  • refine proposed solutions
  • take forward & oversee management of good ideas/solutions
  • implement & optimise

It feels wrong – sort of anti-democratic – to leave priority-setting to a self-appointed committee of vested interests, even if those people are well-intentioned. But a representative general public crowd can’t manage the implementation of good ideas – even citizen’s juries don’t attempt to do that.

Importantly, crowdsourcing understood this way isn’t voting, and representativeness is just one factor, alongside:

  • capacity: who has the time and resources to refine and implement this?
  • capability: who has the skills and information to make it happen?
  • propriety: how can this be delivered fairly and without distorting markets or democratic deliberation?

At some point in every innovation project – government or commercial – ideas have to meet the machine – that’s how products and services get delivered, and policies get made.

The brave but rarely successful history of attempts to change how and when ideas encounter it – from bringing in entrepreneurs as ministers, to appointing service user reps on policy-making committees – points to the need for a smoother, genuinely Big Society, process for turning ideas into reality. 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?

I say that Your Freedom and the Spending Challenge were some of the UK Government’s first forays into crowdsourcing, but of course, that’s not quite true. In 1714, facing a real need for technology to save lives and protect commerce, Parliament established the Longitude Prize for navigation solutions which enabled vessels to determine their location on the ocean with accuracy. Backed with today’s equivalent of £15m, it gave various awards to various people who contributed parts of the solution, most famously John Harrison, who made a cheeky £3m-equivalent out of his work.

Three hundred years later, we have incomparably easier ways to communicate, collaborate on and evaluate ideas. Given the challenges we face as a country and as a planet, there’s a tremendous opportunity to make crowdsourcing really work here and now. But it will take courage, patience, and a process which taps into the varied time and talents of the crowd, in its widest sense.

Stimulating informed debate around AV

Six weeks ago, Dave Briggs kicked off a little project which he described as follows:

I’m rather interested in the referendum that we are going get get next May in the UK about changing our voting system.

It occurs to me that it isn’t an issue I have a particularly strong understanding of, and I’m sure that’s the case for a few other people as well.

So, with the help of friends like Anthony and Catherine, I’ve kicked off AVdebate – which will be an online space for constructive, deliberative debate and learning about voting reform, which will hopefully help folk make up their minds.

For now, AVdebate is a Google Group with a dozen or so people on it, but there’s already been some interesting activity:

My small recent contribution was to start thinking about how the site might be organised, and how you might start to visualise a debate of this kind online. A timeline? A mind map? The pros and cons? Or something else?

There’s great potential in this kind of site, that takes the work of pioneers like Debategraph and uses a combination of curated and original content, social media aggregation, and a really good interface to help host and stimulate an intelligent discussion about a tricky question. The AV referendum feels like a great testing ground, but I see potentially much wider application to help explore the big policy questions of our time. What’s the economic case for cuts vs stimulus? Why is tackling climate change difficult? How can we improve the lot of people in the developing world? What would it take to make our society more socially mobile?

It would be great to have some more minds and ideas on the job. If you’re interested in this stuff – whether it’s the content, the aggregation, the user interface or the sociology of it all – then it would be great to have you on board the Google Group. It feels like we could build something really quite clever if we put our collective minds to it.