Lee Bryant: People power can reboot Britain

We are lucky to have a stable and relatively functional political system in the UK, for all the recent drama, and we should avoid throwing away that heritage in pursuit of change for its own sake.

But in addition to the obvious short-term challenge of rebuilding faith in our political and economic system, we face some difficult long-term issues that require 21st century solutions.

Faced with the plunder of the banks, their answer has been to bail out the bankers and hope (again) for trickle down effects, rather than invest in people and services to create value and wealth. They have spectacularly failed to deal with both boom and bust, and they continue pulling their big 20th century levers despite the fact these are no longer working. Although the government realises the internet has a key role to play, the recent Digital Britain report shows

just how little they understand the online world. Aside from the obvious conclusion that universal broadband (which should be 8Mb as a minimum) is a necessary enabler to an inclusive digital economy, the report seems firmly located in the 1990s world of ‘content providers’, copyright restrictions and network operators. We need to show the political elite what to do, and get on with fixing things before they get much worse.

Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about how network thinking and specifically the social web can dramatically reduce the costs of co-ordination and collective action, allowing new ways of involving people in organisational, democratic or social processes. Many people have argued that government and industry should take advantage of these innovations to create more people-powered organisations. Now, in the face of serious crises in both the economy and the political system, and in the middle of a recession that calls into question whether we can even afford ‘business as usual’, it is time to take a serious look at how we can leverage human talent, energy and creativity to begin rebooting the system to create sustainable, affordable, long-term mechanisms for public engagement.

We have been talking about e-government for years, and have made steady progress with some of the enablers, such as online service provision, the Government Gateway and a growing awareness among civil servants about online public engagement. But so far, this work has remained very much within existing organisational boundaries. It has focused on how to enable communication and limited interaction between government and citizens, but has not yet changed either the workings of government or the role of citizens in that process.

The next stage must be to look at how we leverage the vast human resources that exist both within government and among citizens to accelerate progress and help develop modern, affordable services.

Debates about the role of government have traditionally focused on the rather fatuous issue of ‘big government’ versus ‘small government’, more investment in public services or cuts. Yet, there is plenty of scope for government that is ‘big’ in terms of who it includes, but ‘small’ in its approach to investment and bureaucracy.

Smarter, simpler social technology has a key role to play here. In the 1980s and early 1990s, we saw ideologically motivated cuts in key public services, and the effects of these are with us today in the form of social problems and a growing gap between rich and poor. From 1997 onwards, we have seen that it is possible to spend a great deal of money on the supply side of public services with diminishing returns at the point of delivery, as the managerial class soaks up a large proportion of this spend. Perhaps more worrying, we have also seen a gradual disempowerment of front-line staff in favour of targets, ‘best practice’ and centralised, process-based thinking.

We can have both bigger and smaller government at the same time. Our society is capable of running itself better, and cheaper, if we trust people to be part of the solution, rather than passive ‘consumers’ of services who just get to swap their representatives every four years or so. We need to see government as an enabler or a force multiplier that can combine with the energy and resources of ordinary people to improve governance and public service delivery.

But this also means re-balancing our expectations of government and encouraging (and possibly educating) us to take more individual and collective responsibility for our society.

Social tools supporting real conversation between government and citizens can help this process and help people develop realistic expectations, rather than unlimited demands (e.g. Scandinavian services with American taxes).

The first thing we can do is to make better use of government spending to make it go further. Government procurement should be treated as a stimulus fund, and used to deliver social and economic benefits as well as products and services. Big ticket projects in areas such as IT, Health and Defence have a high failure rate, which is made worse by the tendency to select a large supplier and require them to spend all the money up front in one big hit. Instead, it makes more sense to adopt an investment mindset and provide seed funding to various potential suppliers (ideally community groups and small companies as well as generic corporations that specialise in outsourcing contracts), and then provide more substantial first and second round funding to those projects that show potential, until a clear winner emerges. This way, funding can be leveraged to stimulate innovation as well as deliver a service, and an iterative multi-round approach is more likely to pick winners than just handing over the whole thing in one go. Perhaps, drawing on the lesson of Social Innovation Camp and 4iP, a proportion of all departmental budgets should be earmarked for open innovation funds in the hope that we might discover the next SureStart or similar idea.

If we are to target spending on public services better, then we also need better ways of surfacing and identifying need. Too many public sector bodies are created as part of a shiny political initiative and then waste huge sums of money consolidating their own position rather than helping people, before finally being wound down after a few years. The logic of the Vendor Relationship Management movement – that people express their needs and intent and then invite service providers to fulfill them – has potential to create more efficient public service delivery mechanisms. If government wants to use social media, then a good starting point is to listen and learn.

The second thing we can do is harness people power to improve existing democratic and public services. One of the best lessons of the social web is the idea of rapid feedback-driven iteration as an evolutionary model. The launch of a service is just the beginning of a process whereby user involvement and feedback is used to make improvements and refinements. Giving feedback need not be onerous. There is a wealth of (often ignored) behavioural and usage data that can provide useful feedback to developers and designers, even where it needs to be anonymised. Instead of ‘experts’ gathering requirements, obtaining a huge budget and then spending it all in one go, this evolutionary model seeks to co-create services with users. There is a lot of good thinking emerging around concepts of service (co-)design in the public sector, and perhaps it is time to apply this on a bigger stage. There is both a cost and a quality rationale for citizens to be participants in the process of service delivery, which implies going way beyond the current practice of occasional consultation.

But creating user-driven organisations is not just about rapid feedback from external users; it must also apply internally as well.

In government, as in business, we suffer from organisational models that are too expensive and inefficient to succeed in the current climate. We need to place people above process and – assuming we have hired the right individuals and trained them well – let them get on with their job. Key to this is the introduction of simple, social tools that let people develop their own networks within organisations and use these to get things done. Corporate IT has become a blocker not an enabler and we urgently need a new, more human-scale approach to internal communications and knowledge sharing within organisations in both the private and public sector. The boom times of recent years have hidden a great deal of inefficiency, and as revenues recede, we need flatter, more agile organisational structures instead of the stultifying middle management bureaucratic machines that exist because organisations fundamentally don’t trust their own people, let alone their customers and users.

The third priority for action has been well documented and argued in the Power of Information Taskforce Report, which is the need to open up data of various kinds that government collects and holds. It should be a requirement of all government-funded projects that they share their data openly, even if it needs to be anonymised. Projects such as Gapminder show how hidden statistical data can be opened up to create new insights, and the Show us a Better Way proof of concept project shows just how much value could be unlocked by encouraging new and innovative uses of existing data sets.

The big question, though, is how to achieve any of this. In the United States, federal CIO Vivek Kundra recently outlined plans for pursuing these ideas, which is unsurprising since the internet was crucial to Obama’s spectacular refactoring of the US body politic.

But here in the UK, we have a late 20th century government in its final phase, so we should not expect too much. Perhaps it is better for all of us to simply get on with it and create our own structures and services, as mySociety and others have pioneered.

It is somebody else’s turn now, somebody who has a vision for the future.

The 20th century is over.

Lee Bryant is co-founder and director of Headshift. This essay is one of a collection of viewpoints which will be published to launch NESTA’s ‘Reboot Britain’ programme. Reboot Britain will explore the role new technologies and online networks can play in driving economic growth and radically changing our public services. The programme will begin with a one day event on 6th July which will look at the challenges we face as a country and how the combination of a new digital technologies and networked 'Digital Britons' can produce innovative solutions to tackle them. For more information please visit www.nesta.org.uk