Digital public services come of age
Public services will finally figure out what the web is for, says Philip Colligan
It's been over 20 years since Tim Berners Lee gave the world one of the greatest gifts in the form of the World Wide Web. If, like me, you're old enough to remember the world before the web, then you'll know just how much innovation it spawned. Almost every part of our lives has been transformed, not least Christmas.
In my house this year we've bought presents and food online, sent electronic Christmas cards and (spoiler alert) designed and printed calendars with photos of the kids that are stored in the cloud. We'll Skype distant relatives on Christmas day, share videos on Facebook instead of writing thank you cards and I'll be able to watch the Queen's speech when I want to rather than in the middle of dinner thanks to BBC iPlayer.
And yet while Tim famously said that "this is for everyone" it has often felt like public services haven't quite known what to do with the web.
Systems and processes that were built on paper have struggled to catch up with the potential for digitisation and instantaneous communications. I particularly love the public services that get you to provide information online only to print it out once it gets to the back office for processing. You know who you are!
Councils and government departments have been fighting a protracted phoney war against social media, blocking staff from "timewasting" websites like Facebook and Twitter. How's that working out now they've all got smartphones?
Huge sets of data are collected and sit unproductive and underexploited on expensive servers. Perhaps most damaging of all, we remain shackled by 20th Century ideas around data and information, with artificial boundaries preventing services sharing information that could lead to better outcomes and reduced costs.
That's not to say we haven't tried or that there haven't been some successes. Billions have been spent on IT projects across public services over the past two decades and some of it at least has been worthwhile. But it's only now that we're starting to see signs of public services really getting to grips with how the web can help generate public value.
Fixmystreet.com has been around for a while, but after a 2012 facelift the user experience is dramatically improved and councils are increasingly integrating it into their own websites and processes.
MySociety gave birth to Fixmystreet.com and a whole host of other really useful web services, but it was also the foundations on which the Government Digital Service has been built.
Their brilliant work to develop gov.uk is one of the most serious attempts in the world to apply the agile, user centred methods pioneered by teams like MySociety.
Patchwork is another example, this time from Futuregov, one of the few digital, design-led organisations founded and staffed by people who cut their teeth working in local government. It's incredibly simple - Patchwork uses social media concepts and technologies to make it easier for professionals to connect with each other and share information to save children's lives. It's incredibly cheap and very effective. No wonder councils are queuing up to buy it.
These people aren't just building websites - they're bringing user-centred design into public services in a way that hasn't happened before - having impact at scale.
It's not just a technocratic revolution. After a stuttering start, politicians are figuring out what the web is for. Political blogs are a good thing, but much more interesting is how more and more web-savvy politicians use social media to engage with people.
The Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, has led the way in his use of Twitter not just to broadcast, but to listen, debate, argue, engage, apologise, act and promote Newark across the US and the world. His Twitter feed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was an impressive feat of civic leadership. If you don't already, then join the 1.3 million people who follow him. (By the way fewer than 280,000 live in Newark).
Of course, there are lots more examples, but all share one common and vital thread. The key to figuring out what the web is for in public service is bringing people into public services who understand it. The governments, councils and others who get out ahead of this next wave of innovation will be the ones who make the smart hires.
So perhaps my prediction should really be that - this year, clever public services will be hiring people who understand what the web is for.
Remember the web is forever, not just for Christmas.