The Invisible Hand?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) e-gov network is one of a number of online communities where I’ve received a recent paper, Government Data and the Invisible Hand –

 Abstract: If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large. ”

Robinson, David, Yu, Harlan, Zeller, William P. and Felten, Edward W.,Government Data and the Invisible Hand. Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11,  2008 Available at SSRN:

This has also been seen to relate to The Power of Information: An independent review by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg ( and its response from government: The Government’s Response to The Power of Information: An independent review by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg (2007)

This also went on across the way at the UK E-Democracy list where Paul Canning offered the difference between widgets (
and Web 2.0 (

Pete Thompson picked this up with: “Well, you can see them as two distinct things, but then (as Tim’s response starts to indicate) the boundary isn’t necessarily obvious. The people who make policy decisions may not understand enough of the detail to draw it correctly. More important, if you draw a boundary, you want people to cross it – to have both easy access to routine services and the opportunity to engage with decisions about those services.

So it’s tempting to keep everything in your own branded site. You may think of that as not drawing the undesirable boundary, but actually it draws the boundary coterminous with your brand identity. You’ll probably object when the masher-uppers start to erode that, you’ll struggle to generate significant levels of real engagement, and any debate about your services that goes on elsewhere doesn’t engage you.

Those brave enough to resist this temptation, it seems to me, are still struggling with the boundary problems.”

To which Paul has replied:

“It seems to me less about boundaries than simple misunderstanding of how services are sold online. the only vague sense I can understand this in is the one generated by online advertising when you don’t have 100% of the context in which your ad sits.”

But whilst we debate between back versus front office for optimisation, are we missing something? Does the citizen care who provides the information or collects the money? Can government trust the private sector to provide accurate information. Currently local authorities are examined for ‘data quality’ by their external auditors, will the same apply when sucked up onto a web site by a private front-end? Paul’s example of the London maps provided by UCL may have a level of trust provided by their academic credentials and we are quite happy to accept Google maps but how will it be if planning boundaries are displayed, will the citizen or business have any come-back?

Government gets complaints for issuing incorrect bills and the public redress but what if there is an intermediary displaying your Council Tax and getting it wrong?

Is there still a need here for trust, satisfaction and democratic duty?

I had a conversation with a fellow researcher about intelligent software agents, apparently the military are keen on these, and ultimately I see a world where making a request on the computer (by whatever means!) sends the agent to retrieve and present the data, the first step then is to prepare and present quality data. This requires the back office to have a Service Oriented Architecture to enable retrieval by whatever mechanisms and the front office to have a Customer Oriented Architecture that can collect, collate and present data for a face-to-face, telephone or computer customer.

Some way ahead, but I’ve seen software agents work, so the initial work could be preparing the front and back for this evolution, or should it? How then do we measure anything?


2 Responses to The Invisible Hand?

  1. paul canning says:

    You’re central point I suspect is right – the citizen doesn’t care where the data comes from. But I don’t know. This should be where research happens – how does the location/context of information provision change the trust in and use of it?

    Precisely because .gov hasn’t engaged with the wider web and especially with web marketing we don’t have this sort of data – which would be central to anyone thinking of running large scale marketing of services online.

    This is why I keep coming back to these concepts ;]

  2. I posted a few weeks ago ( in english and french ) on
    I agree that the govs have to disseminate their chunks of information and allow a free reuse
    RSS feeds based on thematic search must be the source of this re use material

    I try to promote this idea at EU level


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