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.
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.
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.