Government is an elephant

Government is a big and unwieldy beast. Even when it is looking where it is going, it is all too easy for it to step on small creatures and hardly notice the crunch. All too often, it isn’t particularly looking where it is going and can tread on things without malice or intent – but if you are the small creature, the motives of the elephant are hardly your top concern.

Online services are particularly vulnerable to this effect, because anyone can be the Wizard of Oz – projecting something much bigger than the reality. In the very early days of what was then known as e-government, a little startup called Impower decided to offer an online service for buying fishing licences. In the offline world, you had to go to the post office. Impower offered a web form and credit card payment – and then they went to the post office and bought in bulk. Very soon afterwards, the Environment Agency came along with the unbeatable advantage of not having to go to the post office to buy licences from itself – and fishinglicence.co.uk folded soon afterwards. Another example is Entitledto, a small company which runs an online service to calculate entitlement to welfare benefits. As with fishing licences, it provided a public online service before the relevant part of government – in this case DWP. And as with fishing licences, DWP has since chosen to provide its own service. Phil Agulnik, one of the founders of Entitledto, made his feelings on that plain in commenting on the then draft Power of Information Taskforce report:

The benefits calculator website I run, http://www.entitledto.co.uk, is a free site that allows members of the public to calculate the benefits and tax credits they are entitled to. It’s very successful and performs about a million calculations a year. DWP are fully aware of the service and I have tried to engage with them about working together. Nevertheless, they have developed their own benefits adviser service (see http://campaigns.direct.gov.uk/benefitsadviser/). Fortunately it is far more difficult to use than our service and so unlikely to attract many users. However, apart from the resources wasted, it also represents unfair competition which undermines our ability to develop our existing service.

James Munro, of Patient Opinion, strongly supported that view:

The experience of Patient Opinion is well known. We launched an innovative patient feedback service in January 2006, backed by a robust business model with distributed revenue streams to protect the independence of our service. In June 2007 a competing but more limited service was launched by the Department of Health, funded centrally by the taxpayer. This has adversely affected our ability to innovate and grow, and the rationale for competing in this way has never been explained.

On the face of it, two more villains, or at best two more careless elephants. But it’s not quite that simple. There’s a pretty strong argument for saying that providing information about benefits is a fundamental part of DWP’s responsibilities and that it might reasonably be criticised if it failed to provide that service. But it can also be argued that so long as DWP can satisfy itself that accurate information is available – through Entitledto or any other third party providers – it has no need to provide a competing offer, or indeed should positively not do so. It’s not my purpose here to argue that case one way or the other, it is simply to observe that there are arguments both ways.

Patient Opinion is, I think, in a subtly different position. Its being outside the system is part of what defines its role and the relationship it has with the people whose opinions it presents. But even then it would be odd to argue that it was not part of the role of the NHS to gather feedback from the users of its services. Should it be debarred from doing so because another organisation had begun to provide such a service first? Or more generally, and deliberately to put the question in a more extreme way, does the existence of any third party provider of a service mean that government should be prevented from providing it itself? I am not sure that it can mean that, but I am sure that it would be a tragedy – and worse than a tragedy, a mistake – if Patient Opinion were to be crowded out from what it is doing so well.

And so to the real point of all of this: MyPolice and My Police.

MyPolice is an online feedback tool that enables the public and the police to have a conversation. It fosters constructive, collaborative communication between people and the Police forces which serve them.

It is run by two enthusiastic and extraordinarily energetic service designers and it aims to be a kind of Patient Opinion for the police. They have spent months going up and down the country talking to police forces and all sorts of other people to explain and get support for their approach.

My Police, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown quantity. Its website says only, ‘Thank you for visiting My Police. These pages will go live soon.’ but it carries the logo of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. At the end of a long press release published yesterday, they say:

HMIC’s detailed assessments will be publicly available on a new website, MyPolice.org.uk – launching soon.

MyPolice.org.uk is an interactive one-stop-shop that will provide a wealth of facts, figures, grades andassessments of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. Members of the public will be able to see how many officers forces put on community duties, where the money is spent and whether crime and anti-social behaviour are dealt with effectively.

This is, on the face of it, rather odder than the other examples I have discussed here. If HMIC were entirely ignorant of MyPolice that would be a sign of pure elephantine behaviour, with the latter cast as unwitting victim of a greater power. But it is apparent that that is not the case: HMIC is sufficiently well aware of MyPolice to have warned them of the imminent launch of My Police. The problem here is not, as with all the other examples, that both government and non-government provider have decided to provide the same service. It is that government and non-government provider have decided to launch two almost entirely different services but to do so under the same name, and overlapping just enough to maximise confusion.

One generous explanation might be that HMIC have been working on their idea since before MyPolice was visible to them, though the fact that their domain name was registered only last month doesn’t offer obvious support for that theory. That doesn’t leave much beyond having to assume that HMIC were aware of MyPolice, but didn’t stop to think what the impact of their actions might be, or didn’t think they needed to care.

It can be hard being the elephant in these stories. I have had painful and frustrating experiences as the elephant, trying to create an effective partnership with a mouse.  Entirely reasonably, that doesn’t make the mouse feel any better, and the mouse still gets the rough end of the deal however benign the intentions of the elephant. I don’t, on the whole, think that government is obliged to leave the field completely clear for others where its own services and information are concerned. But I do think that the asymmetry of power and voice obliges it to take great care where it places its feet.

Comments to the effect that elephants don’t actually trample anything but in fact tread with extraordinary delicacy will be both missing the point and over interpreting the reality of the elephant.

Update: this has since spawned an irregular series of government as elephant posts, which look at various ways in which treading carelessly and ponderously can have undesirable effects.

19 comments

  1. Very well written indeed. The dilemma of “duty to publish vs what’s actually demanded” is nicely tackled.

    But with the inevitable attraction of focusing on the David vs Goliath aspects, let us not overlook some other points.

    This appears (I had a brief peek during a period of accidental? uptime the other night) to be a site broadcasting performance information to the public. So…

    1. I hope there’s evidence that the information needs of the public have actually been taken into account in conceiving this new site.

    2. There didn’t appear to be any form of two-way channel of communication available to those who wanted to engage with the police, based on the information being broadcast. Has the whole interaction agenda just been overlooked?

    3. And the agenda of: make the raw data (in this case performance statistics) available through data.gov.uk and allow its usefulness to find its own manifestation and channels? Overlooked too, it would seem.

    And, in preview, the HMIC homepage was still prominently featuring ‘OnePlace’ – the site launched last year by a number of partners including (erm) HMIC, offering a proposition of (erm) All Performance Information About Your Area In One Place.

    Is it just me?

    OnePlace got a fairly easy ride, despite falling short on some of the above points too, IMHO. MyPolice, having courted rather more publicity through its interesting choice of branding, may not be treated so lightly.

  2. Stefan – I didnt post on this; was too “outraged of Hambledon” angry and bilious, then never got round to it. Which is just as well because your post is more thoughtful and constructive than mine would have been.

    Let us not forget ukonline (I never got an answer to my FoI request as to how much the elephant paid that particular mouse, before dropping ukonline.gov.uk and creating directgov).

    These stories also convey a sort of arrogance that entrepreneurs find exasperating. “That is the name we want; nothing will stop us having it.” There’s an element of culture clash. It feels like “If we make a mistake a quick injection of taxpayers’ money will make the problem go away.”

    The irony here is that what looks like the extreme ineptitude of HMIC (which is indistinguishable form malice on the receiving end) gives mypolice.org a golden opportunity for publicity. I fear they may be just too busy to take full advantage of it. They need a sort of online and more ethical version of Max Clifford.

  3. I think this is a topic which is only going to become more important. For example, yesterday’s Conservative Technology Manifesto included this line:

    “Where large amounts of people with similar concerns come together, for example filling in VAT forms or registering children for schools, we will take the opportunity to let people interact and support each other.”

    Does that sound like a government alternative to Mumsnet?

    If such things are seen as a relatively cheap symbol of modernisation by government, costing say £100k to get a discussion forum built, that is still £100k that most other organisations do not have available to them.

    But still, a few simple guidelines on identifying existing alternatives before any IT programme is given the green light and mandating at least an attempt at collaboration could fix the problem… maybe?

  4. Well, if we’re adding names to the list of startups trampled under the elephantine hooves of government, may I throw UpMyStreet.com on the pile?

    I remember a Downing Street Press release that went something like

    “We’re creating a website! Lots of local data! Easy to use! by postcode!” and thinking uh-oh.

    Fortunately (although not in time to save us) for Upmystreet, but unfortunately for all the citizens of the United Kingdom, all we got was direct.gov.uk

  5. Thanks for posting this Stefan. A number of us sighed deeply when this kicked off earlier in the week, and had several conversations internally trying to explain the elephant theory.

    But where do we go from here? I said at the time that I can see a tremendous opportunity for HMIC to collaborate with MyPolice particularly around their content. I understood from them that they are very happy to do that. The role we need to play is to help incubate that relationship. We haven’t given up on that.

  6. Fear not – iMPOWER is still here (but as the article notes, we don’t do fishing licenses anymore!).

    Ironically, before joining iMPOWER in 2000, I worked for the Cabinet Office as part of a team looking at the future of egovernment: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/electronic_service_delivery.aspx

    We said that policy needed to change, to stop businesses like iMPOWER and Upmystreet and the others being crowded out. Policy recommendations below. Sadly, nothing happened though, and it looks like government still can’t stop itself.

    Summary
    A new market needs to be created in electronic government services which is open to the private and voluntary sectors, as well as existing public sector providers.

    This new ‘mixed economy’ market will:
    • promote competition in the supply of electronic government services, improving service quality and bringing down costs; and
    • stimulate innovation, bringing new, joined-up and customer-focused services to the citizen.

    For this market to thrive, policy changes are required to ensure:
    • the role of the private and voluntary sectors is championed effectively within government and barriers to their involvement removed;
    • government policy on advertising and other issues of probity is
    clarified; and
    • open, competitive markets are promoted, and mechanisms are put in
    place to ensure innovative ideas for the electronic delivery of government services by the private and voluntary sectors are not crowded out by the public sector.

    • That’s a good reminder of just how familiar these problems are – which I wrote about recently in another post on e-government ten years on. Lots of the thinking from back then has held up well; it’s the implementation which has proved wildly over-optimistic.

  7. It a world where government departments are likely to share an ever decreasing pot of money it makes sense for them to concentrate on making their core services easier for the public to use and cheaper for the tax payer. It seems to me that this will be the direction government takes over the next few years, leaving small companies (and who knows, maybe even individuals) to develop additional value add services. Government should be encouraging such developments by freeing up even more data and maybe signposting externally developed services on their own web sites, etc.

  8. Pingback: Links 13/3/2010: Fedora 13 Benchmarked; OpenGL 3.3, OpenGL 4.0 | Boycott Novell

  9. it is not about whether government ought to be allowed or not allowed to provide these forums and sites. It should all be about competence. The question is whether they are any good at it or not.

    As a general rule, the characteristics of a good forum or platform of the Patient Opinion type – highly interactive, open and self-governed, transparent and willing to discuss any issues, however critical, easy to use and as interested in conversation between users as it is between users and the site itself – are going to be hard for governments to replicate.

    The proper role of the ‘elephant’, perhaps is to make space for lots of ‘mice’ to play and experiment.

  10. Thank you for such a thoughtful and carefully considered post. I do think this is an important issue, and one which needs wide and continuing discussion.
    It is hard to argue, from first principles, what government should or should not do online. I suspect online is no different to offline, and the proper boundaries of the state are a matter for constant debate and (dare I say it?) political struggle. I don’t presume to offer any special insight on this score.
    But another way to look at this is to ask what the elephant would like to see happen. After all, the elephant is busy trumpeting about the release of government data and all the marvellous things people are going to do with it, and the value that will be generated for the nation.
    Well, why would people give up their secure careers and public sector pensions and decide to create new online services and innovate in the public interest, if – having observed the case of myPolice, perhaps – they thought there was fair to middling chance that the elephant would come along and defecate all over their work just as they got going? After all, people aren’t stupid.
    The elephant may have big feet and a small brain, but it isn’t stupid either, is it? Does it want to see people outside government innovate in the public interest, or not?

  11. Excellent stuff. I think there’s another very simple argument too. There simply isn’t going to be the money available for government to invest in its own pet ‘let’s invent our own one here’ projects. There will be instead increasing interest in seeing others do the work FOR govt, preferably at low or no cost. I think this imperative will – and not before time – finally put paid to some of government’s less well considered efforts to reinvent things inside the machine. THe smarter bits of the public sector (local and central) are beginning to realise that they might both achieve better outcomes AND save the taxpayer money by small investments in infrastructure or social capital which enable people to get on with things on their own. After all – yes, DWP should ensure that it’s possible to find out information easily about benefits etc, but there’s no reason at all why the delivery of the information should be done BY government. Especially when it’s not very good at it.

  12. Pingback: Four short links: 16 March 2010 « Murder Manual

  13. Excellent and very thoughtful post.

    These are issues that are very much on my mind as public cultural heritage web resources wither and die through lack of funding, and a tendency for public organisations to fund innovation that does not build upon what was created previously. The public cultural heritage web resources help to educate many and also to promote the UK. Publicly-funded web resources are required to be accessible. Commercial organisations appear to be far less interested in accessibility (though it would be in their best interests).

    I think that there is also a trust issue. Who provides the most authoritative, trustworthy information? This question is not necessarily as clear as it may seem initially.

  14. Pingback: NeuroGovernment » Blog Archive » Tread Carefully Toward OpenGov

  15. Boo, bad government! Stupid arrogant public sector! Lazy, cozy bureaucrats!

    Let’s just disband public services. We could replace them with cheerful young ‘social entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ who, even if they can’t actually get their act together to put a rather basic digital service online over the course of a year, will no doubt prove entirely capable of providing large-scale social care for next to no money. After all, they’re so ‘enthusiastic and extraordinarily energetic’. And that’s just so much more uplifting than ‘progressive’, ‘experienced’ or ‘intelligent’.

    One thing we particularly look forward to is having people who aren’t up to speed with digital tech further excluded from the public sector. Brilliant! They only get in the way, after all. (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8781.html)

    I am very much looking forward to the desolate neoliberal landscape we’ll be living in a few years down the line. That’s why I like ‘social innovation’, because it sounds really cool, which helps me shut down healthcare services and the like, whether or not anything transpires beyond the vague promise of exciting new services to come.

    • As a lazy, cosy bureauacrat myself, I am slightly struggling with this thought. Setting up a straw man works as parody but not for much more than that. Disbanding public services is no part of my argument – if it were, the problem I am talking about here would just go away. We only need to worry about the co-existence of government and other service providers if both going to continue to exist.
      It’s pretty easy to be cyncial about energy and enthusiasm and of course those qualities in isolation make for nothing. But they do act as powerful catalysts and neither is so prevalent that they can be taken for granted. I think there is conderable social value in welcoming and nurturing those qualities, because I don’t think government is beyond improvement.

  16. Pingback: NeuroGovernment » Blog Archive » Can Government Squash the Companies That Are Helping It Become Open and Transparent?

  17. Pingback: Patient Opinion is your favourite band. Is NHS England the big record company? | arbitrary constant

Comments are closed.