What the government doesn’t understand about the Internet, and what to do about it

Important, but not the same as the Internet (photo CC photohome_uk )
Important, but not the same as the Internet (photo CC photohome_uk )

Current government policy in relation to the Internet can broadly be summarised as occupying three areas:

1. Getting people online (broadband access, and lessons for people who don’t have the skills or interest)
2. Protecting people from bad things done using the Internet (terrorism, child abuse, fraud, hacking, intellectual property infringement)
3. Building websites for departments and agencies.

The government does all these things primarily because it believes that the Internet boosts the economy of the UK, and that IT can reduce the cost of public services whilst increasing their quality. Together, these outweigh the dangers, meaning it doesn’t get banned. Gordon Brown’s recent speech at Google was an exemplar of this mainly economically driven celebration of the Internet’s virtues, telling audience members that your industry is driving the next stage of globalisation”.

The first challenge for the government is to understand that whilst these beliefs are true, they are only a minor part of the picture. Tellingly, Browns’ speech contained almost no language that couldn’t have been used to explain the positive impact of electrification or shipping containers.

The way in which the Internet Is not like Electrification or Shipping Containers

The Internet has been relentlessly undermining previous practices in the running of businesses, dating, parenting, spying, producing art and many other areas. So, however, did electrification and shipping containers. From cheaper raw materials, to cheaper cars to have sex in the back of, economic and social change has always been driven by technological change.

What is different is the way in which the Internet changes social and economic practices – the vector of attack. In the 20th century, advancement of human welfare went hand in hand with the rise of companies that used economies of scale to deliver better goods and services for customers. Technology effectively made it possible and much easier to be a big, highly productive company, to gather expertise and capital together and to target markets for maximum yields.

Now take a look for a moment at Wikipedia, MoneySavingExpert, Blogger or Match.com – all big websites, all doing different things. Each one, however, is in its own way is reducing the ability of large, previously well functioning institutions to function as easily.

These services are reducing traditional institutions ability to charge for information, seize big consumer surpluses, limit speech or fix marriages. It has, in other words, become harder to be a big business, newspaper, repressive institution or religion. Nor is this traditional ‘creative destruction’ going on in a normal capitalist economy: this isn’t about one widget manufacturer replacing another, this is about a newspaper business dying and being replaced by no one single thing, and certainly nothing recognisable as a newspaper business.

This common pattern of more powerful tools for citizens making life harder for traditional institutions is, for me, a cause for celebration. However, I am not celebrating as a libertarian (which I am not) I celebrate it because it marks a historic increase in the freedom of people and groups of people, and a step-change in their ability to determine the direction of their own lives.

How the government can be on the side of the citizen in the midst of the great Internet disruption

Disruption like this is scary for any institution, which will tend to mean that as a public entity which interfaces with other institutions the temptation will be to hold back the sea, not swim with it. Government must swim with the tide, though, not just to help citizens more but to avoid the often ruinous tension of a citizenry going one way and a government going another. There are various things government can do to be on the right side.

1. Accept that any state institution that says “we control all the information about X” is going to look increasingly strange and frustrating to a public that’s used to be able to do whatever they want with information about themselves, or about anything they care about (both private and public). This means accepting that federated identity systems are coming and will probably be more successful than even official ID card systems: ditto citizen-held medical records. It means saying “We understand that letting train companies control who can interface with their ticketing systems means that the UK has awful train ticket websites that don’t work as hard as they should to help citizens buy cheaper tickets more easily. And we will change that, now.”

2. Seize the opportunity to bring people together. Millions of people visit public sector websites every day, often trying to achieve similar or identical ends. It is time to start building systems to allow them to contact people in a similar situation, just as they’d be able to if queuing together in a job centre, but with far more reach and power. This does open the scary possibility that citizens might club together to protest about poor service or bad policies, but given recent news, if you were a minister would you rather know about what was wrong as soon as possible, or really late in the day (cf MPs‘ expenses, festering for years)?

3. Get a new cohort of civil servants who understand both the Internet and public policy, and end the era of signing huge technology contracts when the negotiators on the government’s side have no idea how they systems they are paying for actually work. Coming up with new uses of technology, or perceiving how the Internet might be involved with undermining something in the future is an essential part of a responsible policy expert’s skill-set these days, no matter what policy area they work in. It should be considered just as impossible for a new fast-stream applicant without a reasonably sophisticated view of how the Internet works to get a job as if they were illiterate ( a view more sophisticated than generated simply by using Facebook a lot, a view that is developed through tuition ). Unfashionably, this change almost certainly has to be driven from the center.

4. Resist calls from institutions of all sorts to change laws to give them back the advantages they previously had over citizens, and actively appoint a team to see where legislation is preventing possible Internet-enabled challenges to institutions that could do with shaking up. At the moment, this is mostly seen in the music and video fields, but doubtless it will occur in more fields in the next decade, many of them quite possibly less sexy but more economically and socially significant than a field containing so many celebrities.

5. Spend any money whatsoever on a centrally driven project to cherry pick the best opportunities to ‘be on the side of the citizen’ and drive them through recalcitrant and risk averse departments and agencies. Whilst UK government is spending £12-13bn a year on IT at the moment, almost none of that is being spent on projects which I would describe as fitting any of the objectives described above. And the good news, for a cash strapped era, is that almost anything meaningful that the government can do on the Internet will cost less than even the consulting fees for one large traditional IT project.

Conclusion

There are, obviously, more reasons why the Internet isn’t like electrification or shipping containers. But keeping the narrative simple is always valuable when proposing anything. The idea that a wave is coming that empowers citizens and threatens institutions makes government’s choice stark – who’s side do we take? History will not be kind to those that take the easy option.

17 Comments

  1. great article, hope the government take notice of it! One thing you didn’t mention was the fact that the current infrastructure will need serious upgrade before the brave new world can happen, but all the rest is spot on.
    chris

  2. Superb article.

    Internet also has potential to empower a new localism. Connecting people with a shared interest in a locality. Enabling relationships to be made and fostered that might have been unworkable in the comparative isolation of urban life. This new localism will work against the monlithic supplier previously exploiting economies of scale.

    Perhaps we also need to start teaching each other how to be good internet citizens. We don’t want internet society to resemble Golding’s Lord of the Flies. There is a power, used both for good and ill, of the transient and anonymous nature of online identities.

  3. Excellent piece. Particularly liked the use of the expression “Step-change” (reminds me of a book by Georgina Boyes… :) ).

    However, cyberdoyle makes a good point about infrastructure…

  4. Kudos. If I may make a small suggestion: you do not really need the argument that this wave of creative destruction is different from previous waves of creative destruction to make your case. It is a potentially divisive arguments: Schumpeter’s name is invoked a lot to come to grasp with the digital revolution, with good reasons IMHO. So you risk that somebody that is buying into that argument reads the 5th paragraph of your section 1, focuses on that and dismisses your subsequent case. Since you are making pretty bold it makes sense to ground them on as uncontroversial a basis as possible. Keep up the good work :-)

  5. Great post. It also strikes me that a very meaningful way for the public sector to enter the world of Web 2.0 is for a representative of Direct.gov.uk to engage with the great ocean of “real world” blogs and web sites by way of constructive comment, explanation and helpful links to where relevant information may be found on Direct.gov.uk. It may also help them realise what’s perceived as good, bad, fix bugs etc.

    This programme would no doubt begin with a series of rather stilted, but amusing, man-from-the-ministry style interventions, and drift aimlessly along for a while. But it might improve by 2050 with the right training, targets, ministerial oversight and 12,000 staff in a brand new building smack in the middle of Horse Guards Parade. Definitely worth a try for, say, £3bn.

    Best
    SDJ

  6. Well, they’re damned if they do take interest and they’re damned if they don’t. The Government has made some good steps forward with regard to their services on the internet. Doing your car tax on line now is just fantastic so long as you have all of your documents available. Great steps in the right direction. But still lots to do. Rgds Vince

  7. Very interesting post.
    I was strongly with you until I got to item 5, which made me stop and ponder. What should govt do on the net, and what should it not do? And what should it do with its money – spend it on its own sites, on APIs, or on encouraging the vibrant ecosystem of start-ups, experiments and so on which this rapidly evolutionary environment demands?
    There’s a related question here, which the net makes more pressing, about how govt relates/works with/competes with the wider ecology of sites.
    For example, I see the Hansard site is being improved – how does that impact on theyworkforyou.com? And does it matter?

  8. Nice post. Point 4 is critical to the re-defining that you argue for. But to succeed it also needs a wider political and cultural change that focuses upon social democracy, and empowered communities. This has to be framed by a properly democratic bill of rights, a bill of digital rights, a change to our voting system. But are the British ready for that? We like our extant power structures don’t we, and shrug our shoulders in accepting that power tends to corrupt?

  9. Tom thanks for a great wide ranging post. There’s a lot to chew on here and even more so when you consider how this might cascade down into local and regional affairs.

    I’d like to join this post with another over on the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement blog, Information and how to make it useful, where there’s a discussion brewing about how to find and use all the information government publishes.

    I tend to agree with James Munro (8.) that the best thing govt can do is to publish in a well understood format and get out of the way.

  10. To give up control and data is shorthand for giving up power. This is not something that systems of government are set up to do at present. To give up power and control does not come naturally to an institution.

    Tensions concerning power and forms of democracy underlie this discsussion of tech and data. Will our systems of governance become more participatory through such initiatives? the internet seems to be a catalyst driving this trend forward and eroding top down systems to some extent by rebalancing power; but how do we make sure that our public services continue to function effectively during times of potentially drastic change?

    Should we be talking about about removing a ‘system’ entirely, and giving up control to the network? The way the current system is embedded makes it very difficult for individuals to drive forward a more radical approach to government and public service reform. But if those in power don’t get up to speed, the consequences for everyone could be less than satisfactory – with the old system grating up against new, disruptive forms of ‘citizen-institution’

    This reminded me of something I wrote about Ebbsfleet and Ed Miliband – tensions between government and the connected republic – after watching Us Now: http://cased.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/us-now-ebbsfleet-and-ed-miliband/

  11. Yes – great response Alice! Weaving through all of this is the question of power – yet sometimes we seem to be so dazzled by the wonder of the technology, and the pace of its development, that we seem to forget that boring old political reality (in the widest sense) is still there… albeit changing, in response to new technological realities and the new forms of widespread communication/connection/participation they engender.

  12. The quality of debate available online can be exceptional and is a key leap forward over the ‘box ticking’ feedback traditionally available to public sector orgs. This coupled with the increasing ease of communication of individuals views and ideas for improvements, and the value for people in feeling ‘listened to’ by the government, would encourage involvement and reduce apathy in shaping the country’s/world’s affairs.

    We are in a really exciting time and it is up to the technology minded and creative thinkers amongst us to try to persuade our public sector to embrace this chance to have a conversation with the people they are supporting.

    4IP are doing great things to help.

  13. michael thorne

    you’ve still got hacking and not cracking.

    They’re two very different things.

    m.

  14. ATFlynn "Norfolk's Mutineer"

    I wish I had found this website earlier. I was leaving comments on the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Guardian, the Express and one or two others. That is until all but the Express got a bit choosy.
    My problem is my approach to Taxation. Only a few weeks ago, the Guardian was running acampaign about Tax Havens and how they should be closed down. And yet even the Gardian is using Tax Avoidance to minimise its liability to HMRC. And again, I believe I have read in the last day or two, that the Barclay Brother’s, of the Telegraph, have set up a sort of agency in the Channel Isles to offer a Tax Avoidance service. I have no objections to that whatsoever.
    But I would point out that what is really needed is an alternative system of Taxation, to the ruinous and vastly expensive system that is Westminster.
    There is absulutely nothing any Government can do to prevent the Taxpayers, the Parish and Town Councils, taking control of Taxation and the collection of Revenue. In turn that is passed on to the County Council and then the District Council is Funded to provide and administer the Public Services that are required in that Location. This is only the basic outline of how I see the future. You, the People in the Villages and Towns, the Cities and in the Country side, can, within reason, ensure that the elected Members of Parliament carry out their duties as require by the Electers and Taxpayers, as they are contracted to.
    Thats enough for a start.
    Regards to all, ATFlynn,Norfolk’s Mutineer”