Stop building and they might come

Government web sites have been a joke for almost as long as there have been web sites. They tend to be slow, clunky, and far behind their private-sector counterparts.

Luckily for us, that’s the opening sentence of a piece about US federal websites, so no need here for immediate concern.  It was prompted by a paper by Ed Felten  and some of his colleagues on Government Data and the Invisible Hand.  It picks up – from a different starting point – some of the same issues which I have been thinking about over the last few months.  Their solution is simpler and more radical:  governments should simply get out of front end design, because the pattern of incentives doesn’t support their being any good at it:

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

One of the interesting things about this approach is that it is explicitly related to an approach to problem solving derived from engineering – which in a rather different way had also underpinned some of the approaches discussed at Gov 2.0.

Our approach follows the engineering principle of separating data from interaction, which is commonly used in constructing websites. Government must provide data, but we argue that websites that provide interactive access for the public can best be built by private parties. This approach is especially important given recent advances in interaction, which go far beyond merely offering data for viewing, to offer services such as advanced search, automated content analysis, cross-indexing with other data sources, and data visualization tools. These tools are promising but it is far from obvious how best to combine them to maximize the public value of government data. Given this uncertainty, the best policy is not to hope government will choose the one best way, but to rely on private parties with their vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas to discover what works.

This raises some important questions which go well beyond the practical one of how to get effective web front ends built – important though that is.  It is one thing to argue that particular services should be invisible or that governments in general overrate the extent to which people want to do business with them, but potentially quite another to argue that government services should always be mediated through third parties.  There are issues about the transparency of accountability and responsibility which go well beyond simple web design.

Part of this comes back simply to different views about the appropriate role of the state, which it is tempting, though probably simplistic, to map onto a transatlantic divide.  Another part may be a degree of naivety about why governments do what they do :  to the extent that governments do things because if they didn’t they wouldn’t get done – or, in other words, to the extent that governments deal with the consequences of market failure – it needs more than assertion that the “vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas” would in fact come up with a sufficient range of solutions or, indeed, any solution at all.  One could argue that there would in some ways be emergent government service delivery on the back of platforms primarily designed for some other purpose – much as Clay Shirky argues that news collection and distribution can be mediated by Flickr, even though that was not what it was designed for – but it’s hard to see any actual evidence for this.

Regardless  of that though, the really important immediate thing is the recognition that front ends and back ends are different kinds of problems with different kinds of solutions.  Failure to understand and act on that distinction is an important part of the explanation of why success seems so elusive.