Directgov responds to MySociety’s e-government agenda

MySociety is the group behind such popular and innovative UK politics sites as TheyWorkForYou.com and FixMyStreet.com.

In doing some background research for an interview with David Matthewman, the recently appointed chief technology officer of the government’s citizen information portal Directgov, I came across a five point agenda written by Tom Steinberg, the group’s leader, in January 2009. The agenda outlines what Steinberg believes should be the priorities for all governments as they adapt to the Internet age.

I put the points to Directgov's Matthewman when I met him this afternoon, and I thought I’d present his responses, alongside the MySociety action points, here on the Information Age blog.

Steinberg, MySociety:

“1. Hire yourself some staff who know what the Internet really means for government, and fund a university to start training more who really understand both worlds: you’re going to need them.”

Matthewman, Directgov:

“Having worked in the web space for ten years now, my experience is that we’ve got some incredibly bright, some incredibly knowledgable resources that are not only working on our strategy and our position, but also on our technical team. We actually do have a team of people who have very good credentials for the kind of work we are asking them to do.” (Recent Directgov executive appointments include not only Matthewman himself, who has a track record in the insurance and banking industries, but also Guy Ker, formerly chief operating officer of ITN).

 Steinberg, MySociety:

“2. Free your data, especially maps and other geographic information, plus the non-personal data that drives the police, health and social services, for starters. Introduce a ‘presumption of innovation’ – if someone has asked for something costly to free up, give them what they want: it’s probably a sign that they understand the value of your data when you don’t.”

Matthewman, Directgov:

“Freeing up the data comes in two forms. Firstly, you need to get it somewhere in an intelligible form. To a large extent, we are doing that by converging [government] data onto Directgov. I’m sure some people would disagree with this statement, but I genuinely believe that half the problem of freeing up the data is about putting it in an intelligible form. I think Directgov’s mission is all about that.

“There is a more general question for the whole of government which is about freeing up data stores. One example of that already being done has come through our direct.gov Innovate program; someone has used Google Maps along with cycle accident data to show where accident hot spots are. It’s a great example. But opening up all of that data is a much wider government topic than just Directgov.”

Steinberg, MySociety:

“3. Give external parties the right to interface electronically with any government or mainly public system unless it can be shown to create substantial, irrevocable harm.”

Matthewman, Directgov:

"An example of us doing that would be what we are doing with the public sector job site. [Data on job opportunities in government and local authorities is now made available to third parties in the RDF format]. That allows our jobs to be ‘surfaced’ by any other job sites. Clearly, it is in the interest of the public sector that those vacancies are advertised wherever it is that people are looking for jobs."

Steinberg, MySociety:

“4. Commission the world’s first system capable of large scale deliberation, and hold a couple of nation wide sessions on policy areas that you genuinely haven’t made your minds up on yet.”

Matthewman, Directgov:

“That is more of a political question than a question for a civil servant.” Matthewman did mention, however, that ‘public e-consultations’ have been discussed in relation to certain specific policy areas, although not by Directgov itself.

Steinberg, MySociety:

“5. When people use your electronic systems to do anything, renew a fishing license, register a pregnancy, apply for planning permission, given them the option to collaborate with other people going through or affected by the same process. They will feel less alone, and will help your services to reform from the bottom up."

Matthewman, Directgov:

“We simply do not have any plans in that area.”

Do you think Directgov goes far enough to capitalise on the opportunities for the Internet to reform government? Have your say in the comments section below.

My full interview with Matthewman will appear in a forthcoming issue of Information Age.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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