Monday, July 14, 2008

What should egovernment focus on?

There's a great article up on BuzzMachine titled Google as the new press room.

It makes the point that newspapers are in the content business, not the printing and distribution or website business.

As such they should focus on what they do well (create excellent content) and outsource the non-core activities.

The specific example is to have Google, or someone like AP, provide the technology platform and allow newspapers to focus on providing content.

This philosophy applies for government as well.

In the public sector we seem to invest a great deal of money into creating new websites in order to deliver content to different stakeholder groups - I'm guilty of this approach as well.

However what does government really do well, and what do we do badly?

Firstly I'd go out on a limb and say that we do websites really badly. Most Australian government websites function differently, using different content management platforms, different technology platforms and different workflows.

The quality, structure and depth of content varies widely, as does design and the use of different enabling technologies such as Flash, AJAX and Livecycle, blogs, wikis, forums and RSS.

Realistically, across government, we could have a single web content management platform, with appropriate enabling technologies usable by any agency - including a consistent search tool and reporting system (imagine being able to see how all government websites were performing side by side!)

A central design team could provide web quality assurance - enabling agencies control over their distinctive look, but preserving a common high level of usability and accessibility.

A centralised editorial team could provide oversight for information quality and depth, allowing departments to focus on being content matter experts.

A central transactions and forms/workflows team could oversee the development of agency forms - ensuring they use consistent terminology, provide contextual support and make it as easy as possible for citizens to interact with the government.

This would allow government departments to focus on what they do best - provide specific customer services, be content matter and policy experts.

Sounds like a pipe dream?

I'm seeing the fringes of this starting now. The central DHS Letters and Forms Secretariat, AGOSP with it's single sign-on, Smartforms and geolocational services, AGIMO's existing GovDex wiki and Funnel Back search solutions.

These are all pieces in the overall puzzle.

The challenge moving forward is to overcome departmental silos, satisfy the interest groups and provide a robust centralised framework with sufficient funding and support to bring it all together.

It's a vision with enormous benefits for citizens and for governments. It just requires people in government to share the big vision and drive it forward.

6 comments:

  1. If you're saying that government should focus on content and information (which I agree with) then surely the most important thing is to allow other parties to reuse and repackage that information.

    See, for example:
    http://powerofinformation.wordpress.com/2008/06/19/more-architecture/

    Trying to get all government departments to use a consistent technology for content management and all things related to the web just sounds like a pipe dream and a sure-fire way to ensure that a lot of money is spent without any tangible benefit to the users, i.e. ordinary people.

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  2. I won't necessarily agree with Matthew that this is the path to surefire waste of public funds, although with the current separation into near feifdoms of Federal departments I can't see this happening soon. I will agree that any and all government-held data appropriate for reuse or repurposing (there are many types; utility consumption, deidentified census data, etc.) or authorisable by me (Centrelink payments, Medicare transactions, etc.) should be available.

    As someone who has run the development side of the web presence in a large government department, a universal, centrally managed web publishing system for all agencies would be a godsend. Of course, it would only work if the ridiculous territorial politics that defines much of the public sector could be overcome. A thing that won't happen soon.

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  3. I don't think centralizing everything is the solution at all. I think standardized formats of information and messaging, in addition to following patterns of best practices, would be a more realistic and natural vision.

    Most people want variety and diversity, even when its sometimes at the expense of accessibility and convenience.

    A "centralize everything" solution will cause bottlenecks and a decline in creativity. New ideas will be limited by "the system" that exists.

    No offense but I think you missed the mark here.

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  4. Interesting you should bring this up! I was talking with my workmates about this very topic yesterday!

    I think it would make sense to centralise software at least. It would be great to be using the same CMS and to be able to easily swap modules/solutions with each other.

    A step further down the line, how many government services have been privatised? A lot more than our grandparents expected, I'll bet.

    I work for a local council and of all our departments that could be outsourced, the web would have to rank pretty highly.

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  5. Hi,

    Thanks for all the comments on this topic.

    It's an extremely big vision, and, like most extremely big visions, looks unachievable at the start.

    Humans did get men to the moon, and I believe we could also improve whole-of-government website management, as several state governments in Australia, and a number of overseas governments have already done.

    The main criticism of my post seems to be around the 'one CMS to rule them all' concept - and valid issues have been raised.

    However rather than thinking of the restrictive, command and control-style CMSes used by most organisations today, think of Facebook - a CMS platform which allows different organisations to build applications of enormous diversity.

    Facebook has not limited the creativity of the creators of applications sitting on the system - it has fostered and supported it, simply by providing a logical and effective system with not too many quirks and bugs.

    Many CMSes are now moving toward modular systems, where organisations can pick and choose what they want - and build or buy new applications they need.

    In some cases, such as for MySource Matrix, there is a central marketplace where organisations can buy or reuse modules developed by other organisations - saving time and money.

    The biggest issues I see in government today is that there is little reuse of codes or approaches - everyone invents their own wheels.

    With a single framework underneath agencies could still create on top as they needed - without central control (simply central standards) - and the smaller and less well resourced agencies could reuse and benefit from the applications/widgets/plug-ins created by others.

    Of course the biggest barrier to this is the approach and culture within the Australian Commonwealth Government today.

    I have seen this overcome at state level and have seen enormous will towards this change amongst middle management and staff in Federal departments.

    Is it an idea whose time has come?

    I don't think so yet.

    However once the government moves towards a single sign-on, a standard geo-data system and a centralised forms system (as is occurring right now), there will be momentum to take the next few steps, then the next, then the next.

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  6. You might all be interested in what the SA Government is doing. Priority 1 - Channels and Access from its Ask Just Once strategy (http://www.cio.sa.gov.au/eGovernment) is driving the creation of a common internet site for the SA Government to make it easier and cheaper for citizens and businesses to get information and conduct transactions with the Government. A franchise operating model is being implemented (based on the model used to implement the UK's Directgov site). Each franchise team focuses on a particular customer group (eg transport, ageing, youth, employment). The franchises are made up of staff from the agencies who service the particular customer group. Their job is to focus on producing the appropriate content. The technical capability (hosting, infrastructure, CMS) is provided centrally.

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