Between rocks and hard places

September 9, 2008

Local government IT, as regularly occurs, finds itself between a rock and a hard place. This time, at one side it has the supporters of the ‘invisible’ hand who want liberal access to the data and at the other side, as a result of repeated co**-ups by central government we have the ‘security experts’ demanding increasing levels of security on the data held by local authorities. Of course, the ‘security experts’ don’t do owt for nowt and increasing budgets are now destined for their coffers.

This is, in part, stimulated by the need to use services of the long-awaited Government Connect, some four or five years in the wings, which councils are now being complelled to use if they want to exchange data with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) amongst others. A local authority cannot link to Government Connect without having completed and had approved a Code of Connection, which requires in many cases the purchase of additional hardware, software and services, none of which had been budgeted for at the time they were all sent the ‘command’ by the DWP a few months ago.

Hot off the press is an Experian/QAS report entitled ‘Electronic authentication: bridging the technology gap’ which has surveyed public sector managers and the general public to find representative opinions about security. Unsurprisingly it states that 32% of the public questioned had ‘no trust at all’ in central government, whilst local government it says fared ‘slightly better’ without revealing the figure! It also states that only 54% of customers of local government can apply online! Of course, Experian/QAS are selling an authentication system that avoids the citizen repeatedly presenting some form of identification when they apply online. This is potentially in competition with the government’s own tool, the Government Gateway, which is the authentication tool pushed by central government and to some extent avoided by local government, since it is, as yet, not compulsory!

I think citizens deserve their data being held securely , which in local government’s case it normally is, and on this basis they trust LOCAL government. I also think we need to remember that, according to the Data Protection Act and other legislation, much data can only be used for the purpose for which it was collected! It doesn’t even get recycled around councils due to the fact that its illegal to do so!


Further feedback to the Invisible Hand!

September 8, 2008
Pete Thompson stated:

“Paul and Mick are right to flag up trust as a key part of this debate.

Mick comments on his blog:

> 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?

Some years ago my own council had the experience of a local organisation displaying contact details for our services and getting them wrong. This wasn’t exactly an intermediary, they had no connection with us at all, but the way the information was presented made it look “official”. This was a strong incentive for us to develop and promote our own website (yes, we did need that, I said it was some years ago). Much more recently, other councils have had similar experiences with various other web services. They tend to leave us thinking: you can’t trust other organisations to present your information accurately, you have to control it yourself. Or if we’re being customer focused: customers will learn they can’t trust information on the web in general, so we have to build the reputation of our own website as a source they can trust.

The democratic engagement versions: you can’t trust discussion in other forums to be representative, non-abusive or on topic. Citizens will learn that they can’t have a sensible discussion on the web in general. So we have to create our own forums where we can ensure our standards of debate prevail.

Each of those positions contains, perhaps, just enough truth to make it supportable, plus a good dash of FUD, and an assumption that the government organisation still has the power to control what happens. In David’s analogy – if this area seems too rough for us to organise a public meeting, there may be some groups in the pub or on the street corners talking about the issue, but we can safely ignore what they’re saying.”

And Tim Anderson partly agreed:

“Pete is right in some areas – people quickly learn what sites they can trust to be accurate and fair and generally local council sites are trusted to be accurate. Fair I’m not sure about as public scepticism around inbuilt bias of public sector led debates is a bit high for comfort.

Whether we can ignore debates in other places is a separate issue. One of the findings of the e-Voice Interreg project (n ot to be confused with ICELE’s VOICE) was that you need to understand the groups you want to engage with and what the best channels for them were rather than a one size fits all process. Intermediary groups and individuals are often key in this as the private sector knows. If you want to engage groups with existing web presences you engage via those places rather than setting up a new one. You may want to direct them to the new site so there is cross fertilisation but the starting point is where they are now.

We also have a duty to weigh up the validity of responses as well as their volume. We know the middle classes are more likely to participate and there are strong pressure groups who will mobilise their supporters to take part. There are other groups who are woefully under-represented and who we need to work harder to woo. The group in the pub cannot be ignored but you have to think about how much weight their views have and how considered a response you are getting from them.

And we must never forget that at the end of the day politicians were elected to decide on what they see as the best alternative. If we left it to public consultation we would never site any bustops. ”

An example I used in conversation at work was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, people collect family history data from there and expect it to be correct, one of my colleagues would like access to the raw data, but when presented by a third party having been open to additional editing, who can confirm its value? Any family historian will tell you that despite its value the data collected by the Mormons in the form of some massive database is full of errors and anybody who compiles a family tree from it without checking original source data is asking for a very shaky family tree!

I think we need to decide what data, how it will be verified and how the ‘trusted’ can demonstrate it?




The Invisible Hand?

September 6, 2008

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?