Simpler, clearer, fairer

Digital Government Review launch

I attended the launch of Labour’s Digital Government Review tonight: the culmination of a few days’ fiddling and some heroic web publishing by my colleague Al, helping the Review team get the report online in commentable form. I didn’t have anything to do with the content, but I think there’s some interesting ideas contained within it.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, political philosopher John Rawls developed the concept of a ‘veil of ignorance’: imagine suspending the self-interest that colours your normal worldview and imagine that you choose the organising principles society without knowledge of your wealth, disabilities or privileges. With that in mind, you determine what you’d be willing to accept as the basis for the distribution of wealth and other goods. For me, his most interesting conclusion is that it would rational in those circumstances to demand that a test of any new principle be that it should offer the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society. After all, that could very well be you.

Back in the real world, digital services from government and others suit me rather well, though I might feel differently if I were old or rural or dependent on libraries to access my email.

I’m not sure I agree that GDS is wrong to focus initially on taking cost out of big online transactions like car tax renewal that can better be spent elsewhere, but I do like the idea that the social value and impact of digital services should be given more priority. Assisted Digital efforts are important, but feel small-scale right now in the context of the powerful and strengthening factors working against the least well-off.

I also enjoyed Will Perrin’s contributions, which I suspect include a fine section on the need to nurture, engage with and where appropriate catalyse digital communities to support offline services and for open policymaking (UPDATE: I understand credit should also go to Jeni Tennison and the Newcastle Uni Digital Civics programme). I remember helping Will put the Power of Information Taskforce online in commentable form five years ago, and it’s encouraging that we’re starting to hear stories from people in our training courses these days of links they’ve built with forums and bloggers, and that we’re being commissioned by public sector clients to help them develop their approach to doing this.

The other thing that came out of the Power of Information Taskforce project was the open sourcing we did of the tool itself, which ended up being used in other Whitehall departments, and found its way to Australian local government thanks to the magic of the internet. There’s a bold idea in the report about ‘digital factories’ for local government, where council teams come together to solve local problems and open source the solutions, which feels to me troublingly close to the lumbering, Ozymandian National Projects of a decade ago, minus the wadge of cash. Usefully open sourcing your work is hard – it takes commitment and patience and lots of otherwise billable time supporting sometimes ungrateful users. Commit-to-Github-and-they-will-come is an optimistic approach.

But two somewhat technical points got me nodding. Firstly, the need to look at why so much spend goes through G-Cloud’s Lot 4 (cloud services) and whether that’s a sign of a missing framework (yes it is: we need a way to buy and sell bespoke digital build services and advice). Secondly, the lack of career paths in government for digital specialists.

It’s a long document, and a fair bit of the mud thrown at current government digital delivery models doesn’t really stick I think – because GDS does so much right, and the bias from the top towards SME procurement, agile techniques and a user-led approach to service design has genuinely begun to transform things in the last few years.

But the central idea remains powerful. What would digital services – and the principles for handling of data about us – look like if they were based more on social value and fairness, rather than mainly about economic costs or market opportunity? And would we then endorse them no matter how disconnected or disenfranchised we happen to be?

Photo credit: Giuseppe Solazzo

Buzzfeed, Lego and government communication

Every Scot would be £1,400 better off each year by staying part of the UK, Government analysis shows, apparently.

Some people feel it’s wrong that civil service communicators are campaigning against a ‘Yes’ vote in this autumn’s referendum. Though it makes me feel a little queasy*, that’s OK, it’s UK Government policy. That’s what they’re there to communicate, exactly as Alex Aiken says:

Some people feel it’s wrong that it’s been posted on Buzzfeed, and illustrated with Lego pictures. Though I find it striking, I think that’s a good sign: creative thinking, hopefully backed by a comms strategy using that content style and that channel to talk to a demographic who aren’t consuming traditional media. I’m all for illustration and humour in public sector comms, as I blogged about the other day over at comms2point0. Buzzfeed offers a channel to tell quite powerful stories, as the FCO showed over Ukraine and the Social Market Foundation did brilliantly about growth (of all abstract things).

I’m confused about why it’s been repeated as an announcement on GOV.UK. If the audience is on Buzzfeed, and the content has been crafted to match, why force the same material into the somewhat utilitarian environment of GOV.UK?

It looks like a rare reverse example of what a wise former colleague once described as the ‘matching luggage’ fallacy of social media: that a single piece of content is signed off once and pushed out to lots of channels, often inappropriately, where it flops. A ministerial speech needs to live on GOV.UK, but makes for tedious YouTube viewing. Social media spaces and online communities are different from Government spaces, and therein lies the exciting opportunity to listen and engage, and sometimes provoke.

In our digital marketing training, we explore content strategy and introduce the concept of ‘library’ and ‘café’ content.

Library content answers questions. It’s your ‘stock’, that you build up, hone and organise to help people complete a task quickly. It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.

Café content is what you create to get people talking. It’s how you participate in a conversation online, tapping into the power of social media as a place where people share, react, respond and take action. It’s a fast-moving ‘flow’ to be fed with fresh stuff, and your café content has a short shelf-life of just a few hours. It’s the infographic or pithy chart, the smart batch of tweets at the right time, the Vine video that makes a sharp, memorable point, and yes, the Buzzfeed article that gets in front of the 34-year-old who rarely reads a newspaper. Your café content needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.

So, queasy or not, it’s right that civil servants are Buzzfeeding policy announcements within the bounds of propriety rules – avoiding polemical communication etc – but unwise to be doing it on GOV.UK, I’d argue. Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.

Update: The Lego is gone from the GOV.UK release

*but not as queasy as the imaginable situation in 18 months’ time when a Conservative/UKIP coalition asks civil servants to campaign for exit from the EU…

Photo credit: Flickr: paulspace / Via Paul Albertella on Flickr Flickr: paulspace

Which constituency is that in?

I’m learning that old skool stakeholder engagement involves a lot of spreadsheets.

We needed to work out which UK Parliamentary constituencies some organisations were in, to identify who needed to be contacted about an issue.  400 organisations, in fact.

Could have been a boring day’s work for someone, but became instead quite an enjoyable lunchtime project exploring TheyWorkForYou‘s API to information about MPs.

And so to save others future pain, here’s a little thing that takes a list of postcodes, and returns details of the constituencies for each one: Which constituency is that in?

You could probably do the rest of the matching up work in Excel with some clever VLOOKUPs. If that’s your kinda thing.

This hosted version limits you to batches of 25; if you want to grab the code and host it yourself with your own API key, it’s free for anyone to use.