I just returned from a week in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, where I experienced an unusual pleasure. No, nothing like that. It occurred when ICF published its list of the Smart21 Communities of 2011 during my time there. In first place by alphabetical order was Birmingham. It was my first time being in a listed community at announcement time, and the delight of those who had nominated Birmingham was a pleasure to see.
I was in town for two back-to-back events: the autumn meeting of the EUROCITIES Knowledge Society Forum and a conference called Beyond 2010, an e-government forum produced by Birmingham's government that focused on delivering better public services for less money. More about Beyond 2010 in a future post.
In addition to keynoting at the EUROCITIES KSF event, I moderated a panel session that asked the intriguing question: "What is a smart service?" Two of the speakers were public-sector IT managers: Ingrid Goetzl of Vienna and Joan Battle of Barcelona. Also speaking was James Munro, Director and founder of Patient Opinion UK, in which patients report on their experience with Britain's National Health Service (NHS), and Val Lewis, who manages programs for volunteer groups in the English Midlands.
Things got frank very quickly. In most places, the panelists agreed, the actual use of e-government services falls far below expectation. Since they have to be used in order to save money and improve constituent services, it's a big issue. Why is adoption typically so poor? Because the services are developed in-house with too little input from users, so they are neither targeted to user needs nor particularly easy to use. And they take far too long and cost too much to develop, so that they can be years out of date when they finally arrive.
Contrast this model with the new interest in open data, in which the government publishes information and allows companies and interested citizens to turn it into services. For government, the benefits can be huge: much faster development of applications in easy-to-use form, without financial risk, and with the risk of adoption taken by the developer. Government becomes the supplier of raw information, and the online market determines what has value.
How does it work? "Fix my street" is an example found all over the world (www.fixmystreet.com for one). At the simplest level, it is a site or site or smartphone app in which citizens can log potholes, broken streetlights and similar problems for all to see – including the people in city government responsible for street maintenance. Clever local governments take advantage of these sites to learn about needs, acknowledge what they have learned and report progress. Patient Opinion UK works in a similar manner. It is not part of the NHS. But patients log their experience with the service, and hospitals have the opportunity to respond. The more forward-looking hospitals are highly responsive online, which tends to improve how they are perceived, while the backward ignore the thing and hope it all goes away. The BBC offers a Road Traffic Deaths map based on UK government data that pinpoints dangerous places. In Barcelona, the Mapcelona project lets users display demographic, school location and crime rate data from public sources in real time on a Google map of the city.
There is still room for e-government to do the heavy lifting. The 311 systems in many cities allow citizens to report issues and track online how they are being handled. In this case, government remains the owner and operator of the information but opens up both the logging of complaints and the reporting of results. Similarly, Washington DC placed GPS units on its snowplows and displays their real-time positions online during heavy snowfalls to keep citizens informed. One good argument for government to stay involves has to do with usefulness. Washington ran a contest for developers to encourage the creation of open data applications – but decided not to repeat it because of the applications were "cool" rather than being really useful.
There is also a third way, being pioneered by Washington, San Francisco and a nonprofit called Open311 in the US. They are creating a standardized application program interface (API) for 311 systems. Open311 allows multiple parties to exchange information on a public issue flagged on the 311 system. Think of it as a hybrid of traditional e-government and the open data model, which holds out the promise of offering the best of both worlds.
Of course, there will always be data that government cannot release, for reasons of privacy, security, legal liability or equal treatment under the law. There are also vital transactional services – from taxation to permits to social services – that government will have to provide itself, though bringing users into the design and management of them can have big benefits.
There are also growing pains. Responding to digital demands puts a whole new burden on government, particularly difficult at a time when budgets are under strain. (While I was in Birmingham, several official complained to me about Britain's relatively young Freedom of Information law, because fulfilling the requests was a real drain on their resources.) And no government likes to release information that makes it look incompetent, foolish or immoral.
The panelists were unanimous, however, that the old model, in which governments build it all and control it all, is no longer workable. As the number of digitally-savvy citizens rises, local government simply can't keep up. It is not unlike the evolution of software. E-government 1.0 involved building the first online services to prove that we could do it. Every service that actually functioned was a victory. E-government 2.0 was a rush to put lots and lots of services online, all developed by the IT department or its immediate vendors, based on the view from inside the organization. And now we are entering version 3.0, when the consumers of the services need to be part of the solution – to be "prosumers" in the jargon of the day, who produce as well as consume. In future, the most successful practitioners of e-government will be those communities that create an environment stimulating innovation in services while still providing the leadership needed to make those services effective.