Ideas cannot digest reality

October 7, 2012

The title is a statement by Jean Paul Sartre that heads a section in Chapter 7 of James C. Scott’s wonderful book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”, Yale University Press, 1998. One may ask what a book published as part of the Yale Agrarian Studies has to do with electronic government or even government but as Scott states on page 6 in the Introduction it is “a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how”. Despite all the promises to the contrary this is still the behaviour of most governments and a majority of politicians. The book looks at many and varied examples of central planning including the USSR, Brasilia along with providing an ecological view of agricultural methods that haven’t worked and explaining why, but is as appropriate to those working in ICT, policy or politics as directly in the environment.

If nothing else and even if they can’t be bothered to read the 357 pages of the book I would ask those considering any project to make a note of the four ‘rules of thumb’ stated in the Conclusion on page 345 – take small steps, favour reversibility, plan on surprises and plan on human inventiveness.


Digital by diktat

October 1, 2012

The recent comments and debate about the value of ‘digital by default’ or ‘digital by design’ and how ‘assisted digital’ will get around the concerns I and others have expressed had me thinking in a wider context. Most of those involved in the discussions are relatively young and if they aren’t part of generation Y they at least come from a generation where personal computing has been a regular feature of life.

Those making the decisions about ‘digital by default’ e.g. MP’s and Ministers will have offices paid out of the public purse where PA’s and secretaries will handle their electronic communications along with the paper and telephones. How many of them are actually digitally literate I wonder? There were well-voiced doubts about an earlier Prime Minister, who instigated much of the electronic government malarkey and his personal ability to use a computer (i.e. Tony Blair).

Much has been made in local government about councillors having PC’s or iPad’s paid for by their councils, whilst some councillors I have known have refused to have them on that very basis. Should councillors be compelled to use a publicly owned and paid for PC for their council business? Is it improving their role? Does it make them a better councillor? Should the council be paying for iPad, printer, consumables, internet connection or telephone line? Must the councillor have a .gov email address in order to represent their constituents?

If the answer to most of these questions is “yes”, we are definitely in a state of ‘digital by diktat’, where only those happy to use technology in all its changing manifestations can be electable. Then there is the question of the Data Protection Act (DPA) – we’ll leave Freedom of Information alone for the time being. If I email my MP, I expect only my MP to be reading it, but this won’t be the case! If I email my local councillor I imagine the DPA will assume that only he or she will read it, not members of the extended family who may also snaek access to do the online shopping or play games!

It is obviously better if MP’s and councillors can receive emails from citizens since it’s a quick and relatively cheap way to do business (for those with access to it, and the ability to use it), but does it then put those limited to pen and paper, or the telephone on a weakened footing democratically speaking?

The most important thing is for councillors or MP’s to be in touch with their electorates, not excluding them. If this involves having surgeries in different locations, a telephone where messages can be left, all well and good but does it require ever-changing technology and who should pay for it? The council manager will state that there is a need to transfer vital council papers to the councillor, that this will reduce the printing bill, that instead of paper communications can be viewed electronically during any meetings, but do any of these require the council to buy a PC or device for the councillor? One might insist that for data protection purposes, this is so – but does it stop anyone else using that machine? Mightn’t it be better to reduce the volume of paperwork our politicians are expected to cope with – how then do we present material that decisions need to be made on?

Which is more effective – a community policeman sat in front of an array of CCTV cameras watching the area, or one walking or cycling around speaking to people? In terms of elected representatives, which is more effective the one that can be seen in his or her constituency, or the one at the end of a smart phone? I am not intending to belittle the splendid work done by some MP’s, councillors, officers and other organizations to get political representatives safely online and communicating with citizens, what I am challenging is that it is now seen as another way to save money and in the process excluding that proportion of the population who for some reason are unable to be or do not wish to be ‘digital’, from being representatives or achieving representation.


Open but closed

September 15, 2012

All those who harp upon the benefits of open data to participatory government need look no further than a recent piece in Gulf News – “eGoverment and information sector will be focused on ‘open data’“. Since the Emirates are hardly a democracy with seven Emirs wielding absolute authority so for anyone to claim participatory benefits ‘open data’ is ludicrous. The Emirs just release that data which they wish to be visible and in this case it’s probably of interest in the tourism sector but it makes not the slightest difference to government nor opens up the slightest opportunity for in involvement by the populace.

The article does admit that whist the UAE is rated respectively sixth and seventh for government use of social media, and eServices, it is 28th worldwide for eParticipation which obviously infers a very ‘open’ definition of participation.


Social Media Fantasy

September 9, 2012

My thanks to Itir Akdogan PhD for informing the Democracies Online Exchange: http://groups.dowire.org/groups/exchange about the publication of a new report “The Use of Social Media in Finnish Parliament Elections 2011” (PDF, 32 pages, 480 Kb) by Irina Khaldarova, Salla-Maaria Laaksonen & Janne Matikainen of the Communication Research Centre CRC, Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki.

Since it is reporting on the parliamentary representative democracy of a country where there is also an active use of new technologies I believe this report should give some guidance as to what can be expected elsewhere. Unfortunately it concludes by writing of politicians that “their way of using social media mostly reminds one-way mass communication”, which is something warned of on this blog earlier and then continues “In this sense it seems that despite the high hopes laid upon social media services as a tool of e-democracy, there still exists a gap between politicians and citizens. Social media will not foster deliberative democracy unless it is truly used for two-way communication and as a platform for conversation.” And it can’t come much clearer than that! This is based on the conclusions from the data that “the study shows that social media does not play the role in the Finnish politics as it is usually ascribed for. The power of social media in the recent elections has been obviously exaggerated as most of the elected MPs can hardly be considered as active or very popular social media users.”

Whether this experience is something particularly Finnish remains to be seen, but it currently appears that deliberative democracy will not be created from the representative kind through the employment of social media.


Local Government Data Service

September 7, 2012

There have been a couple of blog posts and a lot of Tweets recently from well-known characters in the local government web scene regarding establishing/creating/facilitating a Government Data Service (GDS)* but this time for local government. The only concern I voiced was that we had trod this ground before in various formats, including some of the early e-government projects/programmes.

Some of the posts/Tweets were by Carl Haggerty – The Local GDS question – again… and Stuart Harrison – Local GDS: A Skunkworks for Local Government , along with Dominic Campbell and probably others I’ve failed to mention (apologies!). Whilst I no longer have any real involvement in this, not being an IT manager, member of Socitm committees, member of the Local CIO Council (LCIOC) etc anymore I have been party to related conversations over the years including a discussion with the GDS team themselves at their launch who had obviously seen the reality that a lot of the contact with the citizen is at a local government level so were busily (or should I say agilely) developing at least one app for a local government service – I did offer to trial it in a large rural area since it was obviously based upon a city-dweller’s personal experience, and have no idea what happened to it in the end. A Local GDS would have taken this into account (hopefully) whilst the GDS could have focused on the ‘big data’ at their end.

Carl gave a good lead on the LGDS concept by saying it exists already, which it does in many ways, if informally as far as the local government hierarchy is concerned – but there are too many in government interested in controlling things, so it may need to avoid strangulation. Carl mentions talking to the LGA and since they have been in involved in various meetings with Socitm and the LCIOC, they should (in theory) help with the joining up? One of the ‘bodies’ mentioned was LeGSB which has been on the scene for years and been quietly productive – thank you Paul Davidson – which is quietly doing some related work, since one of the fundamentals is getting some STANDARDS in place if this is to work across 400+ LA’s.

I agree with Carl in that it needs some clear thinking, we’ve been here before and there is a tendency for great ideas to be strangled by bureaucracy and people wanting to make a name/well-paid-job for themselves. I don’t think the GDS team is a great example for local government, they’ve been spoiled with the central government budget, although they have learned to consult the end-user, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

Don’t let it get too southern-centric, there are citizens past Birmingham. Some good work has been going on in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so don’t ignore them either. A quick audit of what is happening and has happened is probably worth doing (LGA?) and then decide what quick wins can be made from some agile working across multiple boundaries. But please, please, please don’t reinvent wheels.

* References to ‘data’ should of course be ‘digital’ – brain operating on another planet that day – reminded when making cup of tea in GDS mug.