Let the online giants deliver online government

Prime minister Gordon Brown has today put some flesh on the bones of his long-standing promises to put technology at the heart of the UK’s economic future. 

He says the aim is to make the UK the “world leader in the digital economy” by 2020, with the key headline-grabbing initiatives to include:

  • A “mygov” portal to give citizens personalised access to online government services;
  • The creation of a “digital Domesday book” to make all non-personal government data available on the web;
  • Superfast broadband to every home by 2020;
  • £30m funding for the Institute of Web Science, an initiative involving web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee to research the next generation of the web;
  • A Digital Public Services Unit set up under the aegis of digital inclusion champion Martha Lane Fox.
These initiatives are on top of the Digital Economy Bill, currently making its ways through parliament at the moment and likely to be committed to the legislature before parliament dissolves ahead of the general election. 

Brown’s speech even saw him uttering the phrases “semantic web” and “linked data”, both of which one has to suspect Gordon had never actually heard until he read the speech, and I would have liked to have been there if anyone asked him to explain what they meant.

Nonetheless, the announcements have generated plenty of chatter around the IT sector, and there will be widespread support for the aims outlined – after all, nobody can really complain about what is a sensible, yet ambitious and forward-looking set of proposals.

And yet, and yet…

It is good, of course, to have a long-term vision for government policy on technology, and the plans are welcome for that – even if “long-term” proves to be little further than the likely General Election date of 6th May.

If this or any government can deliver on Brown’s promises we will all be very happy. But how many of us who want to see it happen really have the confidence, deep down, to believe that it will? And in particular to believe that it will happen on time and on budget?

Perhaps the most ambitious element is the mygov portal – effectively an Amazon for public services. Clearly a wise idea. But this is a huge undertaking – imagine that Amazon and eBay didn’t exist, and the government decided to build them both, from scratch. And when it comes to “big IT”, we all know how bad the government’s track record is.

If you really want to make this work, then the obvious solution is to give it to the private sector. Why create an Amazon of public services, when you have Amazon. Some reports have suggested that products such as car tax could be sold through commercial web sites – an eminently sensible move. So if you want to build mygov, don’t ask HP/EDS, don’t ask Accenture or IBM, who will all see the pound signs lining up from specifying and building a whole new system. Ask Amazon and eBay how to deliver it. Ask Tesco.com. Ask the online banks how to manage benefit claims and payments.

If the government has looked at the private sector and decided to replicate its online success, then get the people behind that success to help make it work.

Of course, the next question is whether this would be politically acceptable – and chances are that becomes a much more difficult justification. Expect the public sector trade unions to have a strong opinion that won’t exactly be in favour.

I so don’t want to be cynical. I so want what the prime minister has announced to be delivered – it would be an IT-led revolution that would benefit almost everyone. But much as it pains me to say it, I’ll believe it when I see it.

And I will be very happy to be proved wrong.

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