Two of the biggest challenges facing government IT policy is how best to tap into the potential of open data and how to make digital by default a core goal. mySocity’s director Tom Steinberg hosted a session at LGA Conference 2012 outlining how local government should respond to these two issues and enable the sector to become more effective in this increasingly digital age. He has had a ringside seat in the development of the open data and digital by default policies and is part of the UK Government’s Transparency Board which was established to promote “greater transparency across Government”. Steinberg’s company MySociety is best known for several high profile online projects such as TheyWorkForUs and FixMyStreet that are attempting to redefine political accountability and service delivery through new web technologies and open data.
Here three of the main points discussed:
1. Why should councils use open data?
This was a very timely discussion given that the Department for Communities and Local Government has just released its Open Data strategy. Steinberg made clear that the sole reason for local government to release their data is for their own self interest. From a reputational and transparency angle but also because of the unintended consequences that releasing open data can achieve. He gave the example of how a release of live bus data could give better transport information for all citizens and then even help council staff theoretically get to work quicker.
2. Local Government needs internal IT staff
Historically the UK government had always been at the IT forefront, according to Streinberg, whether it was using the latest technology to run the British Empire or their role in the building the first computers. He made clear that by the 1970s, however, when IT began to get outsourced by organisations then issues began to arise with supplier lock-in that caused digital inflexibility with the public sector. Strienberg claims the best solution to this issue is for government to begin hiring internal IT staff who are ‘digital natives’ and who can build web solutions. The best example of this he explained was the development of the gov.uk web portal that adheres to the tenants of open source and user-centric design principles.
3. The Future Direction
In the future the whole focus of local government should be on digital and delivering the best online experience to citizens according to Steinberg. He argued that ‘it needs to get to the stage where councils realise that they don’t just provide a website…they are a website and if their website is bad then they’re a failed council’. In the same way that Amazon is an incredibly complex organisation but most people associate the company with an incredibly easy to use web service that delivers results seamlessly.