This has been an area of on-and-off discussion for over a year in the Government 2.0 context, with several Gov 2.0 Taskforce projects exploring potential opportunities for Australian governments to build systems such as these.
I expect this to continue to be a debate for many years. Choosing whether to build a service, or tap into a commercial one, can be a tough decision - even tougher online than it is in the physical world.
Why so tough a decision?
For starters, many of the services which government could use are hosted overseas, therefore posing some level of sovereign risk - whether that be,
- a concern over whether the service will continue to provide what Australia needs (when foreign laws and business policies may change),
- that personal or secure data might be accessed and misused by another jurisdiction (especially all those people who only use one password), or
- that it might provide an entry point for hackers seeking confidential and secret government information.
In many cases government created systems could have to be developed to the extent where they are commercially competitive in order to attract the level of user traffic needed to justify their continued existence.
So how to reconcile these differing perspectives... There's no single answer in my view. Decisions need to be made case by case. What makes sense for some jurisdictions won't for others and decisions that are right for one type of service won't be for another.
In lieu of an easy answer, I offer up four tests that I believe these types of reuse or build choices need to consider.
- Will it reduce private sector competition?
In other words, is the government competing directly against enterprise. If so there may be job and tax implications. Generally Australian governments shy away from entering commercial markets except when private enterprise is unwilling or unable to deliver the services to the entire population at a fair price.
- Will government deliver a superior outcome?
This tests whether a government-run enterprise will provide a better outcome than a private sector organisation. Strange as it may seem, governments are better at providing some services and outcomes than private industry - particularly where equity or public value is an issue. If the government can deliver a superior outcome there is a strong case for stepping in - if private sector companies miss out then they need to look at whether they should have restructured.
- Will it attract a significantly large and appropriate audience?
It is very important to consider whether a government-run service will attract enough users to make it worthwhile. For example, Facebook has build its audience over a number of years, holding on to them through being so useful that people cannot abandon it without damaging their social networks. If the bulk of the audience use Facebook, would they use 'Govbook' - a government equivalent service, even if it is a superior product? The answer may not always be yes - and without audience a government service may not achieve its goals.
- Is it sustainable?
In asking this I mean will a government continue to support and run the service over an extended period of time - perhaps even transitioning it to a private concern. Or is it possible that funds will be cut to a level where the service is unable to continue to innovate and improve, thereby seeing the service slip into irrelevance. Funding maintenance alone is no longer sufficient to address the rate of development online.
However I think that applying these tests will support more effective, evidence-based decisions - particularly in light of the large number of demands on government resources and time.