Monday, September 12, 2011

When will we see true

I've been watching, and participating, in some of the discussions around whether government agencies and entire governments should centralise or decentralise their web presence.

For some reason a number, such as the UK government, South Australia and the ACT, have decided that centralising all their websites into a single portal is the right approach, although I've seen little in way of clear benefits to citizens or government.

At the same time some agencies still follow a route of rolling out a new website for every initiative, program and event, leaving some agencies with hundreds of websites to manage.

Totalling the number of websites can be deceptive. With a single content management system at the back-end, single set of servers and bandwidth and nothing more than different design templates it is possible to release many websites with little additional cost impact. In this situation, whether the content is in one site or many, it requires almost the same effort to create and maintain.

I believe that the argument over one or many websites really misses the entire point of the exercise - to serve the public.

If we stop thinking about centralise/decentralise and begin thinking audience, how would we build and maintain the web presence, not web site(s), for a government or agency?

I've been thinking about this recently with a view to the capabilities that web 2.0 brings.

Rather than building websites around agencies, portfolios, topics or governments, why not simply provide a framework which can be customised to every individual citizen's needs and demographics?

Agencies could publish information in 'fragments' or 'parts' with appropriate metadata. This would allow to selective and display the content, services, social channels and news from government appropriate to an individual.

With this approach the entire equation is flipped. No longer are agencies or governments solely deciding what they want citizens to see. Instead citizens are presented with what they need, based on their age, gender, location, work status, interests, past behaviour and other characteristics.

Individual agencies would not need to each collect information about individuals to provide a custom online experience. They simply become content providers, with the central portal storing any personal information and pulling the right content (as tagged by agencies) without sharing the information with other agencies.

This approach could expand beyond a single government, integrating local planning alerts, state government services and other relevant content in a single seamless interface.

This would remove the need for citizens to go to multiple 'single sites' for different government levels. As the user is in control of there's no need for agencies at different levels to have their systems working together for content or sign-on - the framework would simply pull content and services into the common personalised interface for each person.

The system could also expand beyond government - integrating your banking and medical records and more into the same view. This would become a real killer application. See your bank and salary information as you figure out how much you need to pay government over the year ahead. Of course, none of the services viewed through the personalised page would 'talk' to each other, only to, preserving privacy and security.

The service wouldn't even have to be built and managed by governments - competing services could be developed commercially and compete - through enhancements and features - for the 'business' of citizens, all drawing on the same set of government content and data feeds.

So perhaps it is time for government to stop talking about 'one website to rule them all' and instead consider what we could achieve if we let our content out of its departmental and government 'wrappers'.

We could enable a true personalised service for every citizen, customised to their specific needs and wants, growing with them through various life events over a number of years.

And we could still aggregate the same content into our corporate sites, or a single portal if we chose, at no extra cost!


  1. I fully agree ... Using the already and long used interactive web-part components based segmentation of a web page, have content available to users to configure at will. Firefox and Opera, Content Management Systems and their equivalents have had this interactivity for years. But many sites are published flat reduce the ability to interact.

    We all view and use items which are independently drawn from our interests, experiences and business needs. Being able to freely configure a home page with content, from anywhere, available and balanced against our needs and wants – the ultimate mash-up – without needing programming knowledge.

    Alerts, RSS, Twitter, FourSquare or FB feeds all could be incorporated. And as you said take the content out of the ‘wrapper’ and make it or Let the people decide how they want to view and use the information. The information does not lose it potency or authoritative impact as it is being feed to portal and not manipulated.

    Who ‘owns’ the knowledge? Who should ‘control’ the knowledge? Would be questions of the past as control and ownership blends.

  2. From a service delivery maturity perspective, I believe many Australian governments and organisations are at a place and time where they can start to move away from the 'you come to us’ view of online service delivery, and more towards 'we will come to you when and where you choose’.

    There are certainly early adopters are already doing that, but it seems patchy and not transactional (more outreach focussed).

    I view centralisation as a step towards that vision...rather than a destination. Centralisation activities deliver outcomes such as improved cohesion, interoperability, and governance. It also improves the visibility and profile of ICT, which really matters when big changes are being contemplated.

    Centralisation (and decentralisation) activities typically focus top-level management on the web environment - at least for a short while. Managed well (and with a bit of luck), this attention can build C-Level trust which will cut through bureaucracy like a hot knife through butter. It can jump-start an organisation's or government's journey towards the kind of vision you describe...and focus organisational resources to deliver on it.

    There are loads of Australian organisations and governments that have not yet got their ICT shops in order...and, as such, are not yet strategically or operationally ready for this next step. There are still real $$ savings to be made, and opportunities to standardise, rationalise and modernise the basic ICT building blocks essential for developing new ICT-enabled service delivery capabilities.

    The attention that well-managed centralisation and decentralisation activities bring can be used for good…as long as they are not perpetual and not the end in themselves :)