Top 5 Internet Priorities for the Next Government (any next Government)

To: Anyone thinking of running any reasonably developed country, any time soon.


The most scary thing about the Internet for your government is not pedophiles, terrorists or viruses, whatever you may have read in the papers. It is the danger of your administration being silently obsoleted by the lightening pace at which the Internet changes expectations. I’m not going to give examples of this change, others can do this far better than I. But you don’t need experts’ advice to tell which way the wind blows – if you can’t find any examples of changing expectations in your own life, driven by the internet, I can’t help you anyway: please point me to your successor.

The List

This is a list of the top 5 major things any government of any developed nation should be doing in relation to the Internet, as I see it at the start of 2009. They are not in any order, and do not lack ambition – they are for the Next Government, after all.

  1. Hire yourself some staff who know what the Internet really means for government, and fund a university to start training more who really understand both worlds: you’re going to need them. There just aren’t enough employed in any government anywhere yet to save you from being hopelessly outstripped by external progress. The citizen discontent resulting from massive shifts in expectation could wash your entire government away without you ever having anyone skilled enough to tell you why everyone was so pissed off. Your chances of truly reinventing what your government is are basically zero without such staff.

  2. Free your data, especially maps and other geographic information, plus the non-personal data that drives the police, health and social services, for starters. Introduce a ‘presumption of innovation’ – if someone has asked for something costly to free up, give them what they want: it’s probably a sign that they understand the value of your data when you don’t.

  3. Give external parties the right to interface electronically with any government or mainly public system unless it can be shown to create substantial, irrevocable harm. Champion the right fiercely and punish unjustified refusals with fines. Your starting list of projects should include patient-owned health records, council fault reporting services and train ticket sales databases. All are currently unacceptably closed to innovation from the outside, and obscurity allows dubious practices of all kinds to thrive.

  4. Commission the world’s first system capable of large scale deliberation, and hold a couple of nation wide sessions on policy areas that you genuinely haven’t made your minds up on yet. When it is over, mail people who participated with a short, clear list of things you’ve done that you wouldn’t have done without them. Once you’ve made it work well, legislate it into the fabric of your democracy, like elections and referendums.

  5. When people use your electronic systems to do anything, renew a fishing license, register a pregnancy, apply for planning permission, given them the option to collaborate with other people going through or affected by the same process. They will feel less alone, and will help your services to reform from the bottom up.

mySociety wants to see all these things happen. Get in touch if you are interested.


  1. Fantastic list, Tom. I’m especially excited by #4; for all our efforts, I still don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what true web-powered ‘consultation’ might actually mean, or even look like. That’s the problem with being the world’s first, I guess: nothing to copy.

    As I blogged late last night, there’s got to be a serious opportunity around the 2011 Census. Their consultation process has just started, with an apparent promise to offer an API. I’d suggest MySociety gets in early on that one. 🙂

  2. All good suggestions Tom. You have already begun to show the power of #2, and the potential of #3 is massive. I think the essence of this view, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that public services (and public assets) really should be more open to innovation by the public themselves. They are ours after all, and in many cases it’s not as if we have the opportunity to go to some other provider instead.
    However, in making this point, I think you underestimate the importance of defence against cyber-attack (ref: the experience of Estonia a couple of summers ago). For the time being at least, a government would be more likely to be ‘washed away’ as you put it by a widespread denial of internet based services, than by public services failing to keep pace with online innovation.

  3. Hi Tom, are you interested in discussing point 4 in more detail? If so, I can let you know details of a meeting at Nesta if you connect to me on twitter.

  4. Agree 100 per cent on all (even if I’d quibble with the use of the word ‘obsoleted’…). Would it be worth adding something about governments’ attitude to IT projects, and addiction to gigantic in-house projects?

  5. Good list Tom. I think your extended team is doing more to push this forward than any other group.

    Point 4 is a lot harder than it sounds, and there are many underlying factors that make it hard to achieve in a meaningful way. Technology is only part of the answer here – there is a major culture shift away from big shiny policy initiatives and fear of tabloids towards a more genuinely ‘we’-based approach, and I don’t think we are there yet. But I hope we are getting there.

  6. I quite like Number 4 as well byt I’ve noticed a typo in it – you’ve put the word ‘referendums’ in for some reason. Germany knows where they lead better than most so they’ve banned them there.

    Could I suggest another bullet point? Anyone who does anything that discourages anyone who has been elected from interacting with their peers and the people they represent should be kicked to death in a public place?

    In my experience, the last decade or so has seen a concerted attempt by those who rival elected representatives to ensure that their quarry is hobbled with regulations while having to endure all of the downsides of interactivity (extensive scrutiny, crowdsourced single issue pressuregroups, etc).

  7. Number 2, Free your data, is itneresting. In Sweden we have had “free” access to government data for a long time. But it doesn’t work for building electronic services. Therefore #2 has to explain how the data should be provided and for this I suggest the Open Government Data Principles.

    Especially, the requirements that the data is machine processable, in non-proprietary formats and provided proactively in a timely fashion.

  8. Tom, very nice to have such a wide vision simply and practically expressed. I especially enjoyed your emphasis on changing EXPECTATIONS as key driver of change.
    On 4, I’ll drop you an email

  9. Excellent stuff,couldn’t agree more. Number 2 rings especially true, all this information is essential for innovation and creativity, is paid for by public money, yet is typically hidden away from public sight and never to be seen again. Even a FOIA request won’t necessarily work.

    To have all government data perpetually freely available in a format which can be accessed by any interested user would be a massive step forward.

  10. With reference to proposal #4, it would be good if a “system capable of large scale deliberation” were to implement the emerging Strategy Markup Language (StratML) standard,thereby enabling citizens to focus their time and attention on explicitly stated objectives of particular interest to them.

  11. Re point 2, I’d love it if it were that easy! Sometimes the data isn’t just sitting around waiting to be freed up – it needs to be collated from scratch.

  12. Yes to all, especially 5. People hold a lot of presumptions – mainly about risk, so we need more “presumptions of innovation”. With all of this agenda, at the moment, only those who are really passionate about it in govt/councils are trying to get this into the machine. Should we try and force top down “power of nformation” mandates on data owners in depts to free up data, or should we also spend time involving the data owners into believing in this agenda, so that they can reshape their own role from data owners into data brokers?

    Or am I being too idealistic…

  13. This list pretty well outlines how and why Open Source works. It’s good to see a serious look at extending OS to government. That “We the People” thing really does work.

  14. tom – brilliant… and inspirational.

    Congressman Honda is starting a new project that beelines with several of your ideas. i’ll be doing a presentation at south by southwest on monday, and hope you don’t mind if i quote you.

  15. Some great ideas. I have to say that things are moving relatively well and government is more open to change and embracing new technologies so I think the future looks promising.

  16. Great wishlist!

    Number 4 will happen, yet I believe it will be a MySociety style bottom up approach rather then top-down where elected officials will all of a sudden ask for a platform to decide on their behalf. is a good example (not technicalities, yet the nature of the initiative).

    I think such a platform is not far away. Interested to speak with others on this.