Apps for Elephants

The government is an elephant, as I have noted before.  It tries to dance, but finds it hard, and the smaller animals around it can get hurt.  The solution may be for the elephant to stand stock still, to do nothing for fear of treading on something more nimble, but more easily hurt. Or it may be to learn to tread more carefully, to place its feet carefully, but to keep moving nevertheless. Or it may be to charge ahead regardless and let others survive as best they can – for it’s the law of the jungle out there. There is still too much of the third around, but that’s not the subject for today. It’s the balance between the first and the second I want to reflect on, prompted by a flurry of commentary a few weeks ago (this is a blog post which has the gestation of an elephant as well as pictures of them) on whether government should be developing iphone apps.  It started with Rory Clellan-Jones using FoI to find out what was going on, which became a story only when the Home Office declined to answer on security grounds. The challenge is a simple one:  in hard times (perhaps in any times) should government be frittering money on toys for a tiny minority:

Now all of these apps are free to download, so is this really a great use of scarce government cash? You might argue that it is an excellent way for government departments to use the latest techniques to get important messages about health, work and transport issues to citizens. But do people who can already afford a very expensive device really need free help from the government to find a job or quit smoking?

I think that misses the point and misses the more important question.  It’s three years since I predicted that:

The iPhone marks a further step in the direction of powerful mobile computers which happen to do a bit of phoning on the side.  And the fact that the most recent iPod is pretty much an iPhone without the phone bit underlines the power and attractiveness of the computing platform. That starts to make an important difference.  Not now, not even perhaps when everybody has got their next mobile phone upgrade.  But it’s a pretty safe bet that by the time of the upgrade after that – and so in three to five years from now – the iPhone, or a myriad of iPhone imitators, will be sufficiently ubiquitous to be a communications platform we will need to consider as a channel in its own right.

Pleasing though it is to be spot on on the timing, I don’t think that’s a forecast which deserves credit for much prescience.  For lots of people, the device they carry round with them is now a computer which happens to have phone functionality (but which isn’t necessarily used much for phoning people) rather than a phone which happens to do some other things as well.  On almost every dimension – processor speed, storage capacity, graphics quality, bandwidth - the thing I still call my phone has a higher specification than my first computer (and probably my second and third as well). So apps get made, websites get mobile versions, people are less dependent on tethered computers and increasingly use features such as location awareness, which big grey box computers don’t do at all.

What, then, should government do, as a service provider, as a provider of information, and perhaps as a facilitator of popular engagement? One possible answer is to do nothing at all. But though that may be superficially attractive, it has some slightly extreme implications for the longer term. There was a time when telephones of any kind were scarce and expensive. It’s not so very long ago that I remember being told that a service should not be offered by phone because there was no demand and all the customers preferred to go to an office.  Not many years after that, I was upbraided when talking about exactly the same service for suggesting that it should be offered online when, I was firmly told, the customers only wanted a telephone service and always had done. In other words, governments cannot stay still in the face of changing technologies and communication preferences – otherwise we would still be dealing with the Circumlocution Office.

Government is not alone in this problem.  The BBC has lived with a variant of it for many years, where every technical innovation for the last half century has prompted the question of whether its adoption would represent unfair competition.  Interestingly, the BBC Trust has just decided that smartphone apps do not in themselves represent so substantial a change that a full review is needed:

Trustees concluded that the Apps would not represent a significant change to the BBC’s existing Public Services and that a Public Value Test is therefore not required. The Trust also expects the BBC to make its Apps available on other operating systems as soon as possible on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

The context is different, of course, but self-evidently nobody would now know or care about the BBC if all it were doing was broadcasting medium wave radio for one hour a day.  It has had to adapt because the world in which it is operating has kept changing.

So if you start with the assumption that government has to deliver its services and has to communicate, then the argument that it should do so only through the communication channels of the previous generation seems to me unsustainable. If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.

But of course you don’t have to start with that assumption. The pure version of the alternative view is that government is no good at service design and so should, at most, do the back office and supply the interfaces to support a competitive richness of user interfaces. There are examples of that to be found – the little ecosystem of apps feeding off the new London cycle hire scheme, for example (though even there the apps aren’t vital to using the service), but none that I know of in the mainstream of government service delivery (with the partial exception of tax returns, though the history and issues are a bit different there). Andrea di Maio comes close to making that argument:

So what should governments do? Well, just step back and think that iPhone is a consumer choice. So why shouldn’t those same consumers who are eager to use the iPhone get an application developed and be made responsible to develop the processes that are required to allow government to use it at no extra cost?

Alan Mather comes down the other way, arguing that the choice should be between having a single centralised app factory, for efficiency and consistency, and government not doing this at all:

Neither solution is ideal but, on balance, I favour the former. At the same time, I favour controls over what gets built and why, to ensure that there are no vanity projects – ie that each app fits a real need that is backed up by strategy and underpinning data.

Between those two views, I am closer to Alan’s. Andrea has uncharacteristically put too much weight on the device and too little on the context. Yes, of course, right now having an iPhone is a consumer choice, just as once having a telephone at all and later having a mobile telephone of any kind was a consumer choice. But in a country where there are more mobile phones than people, assuming that smartphone users will continue indefinitely to be a quirky minority seems a little odd.

All of which clears the way to the potentially much more interesting question:  what difference might it make anyway?

The temptation is always to use the new technology to replicate the functionality of the old, and only gradually to recognise that the new technology can do genuinely new things. Martin Stewart-Weeks homes in on that:

At what point does the technology-process reform interaction tip over from one to the other – that is, tip over from making the current process work better (do your tax assessment on line instead of on paper)to coming up with an entirely different process altogether (but which is only imaginable or even feasible if you can do it with whatever is the latest version of ‘online’)?

I’m increasingly interested in how we might speed up the process of imagining, inventing and then innovating what that “entirely new process” might be. The problem right now is that much eGovt talk tends to a slightly self-congratulatory obsession with transformation when the process realities that most people are faced with in their dealings with government are stubbornly untransformed (although, in some cases, mightily changed…which is perhaps enough?).

But smartphones are not just technically different, they are socially different, partly of course because the phone itself is only one part of the difference. David Wilcox has conjured up the metaphorical concept of a social apps store, but it’s a metaphor which may in some ways escape into reality.  The devices, whatever they may be, will fade into the background again, where they belong, leaving the interactions between people and between people and the institutions and services of their government to develop as they will.

So the elephant will have its apps. But maybe the apps will help it be less elephantine.

Some further thoughts now added in a new post, prompted by interesting reactions to this one.

7 comments

  1. Thanks for the round-up, and for reminding us that there’s more to this than the rather one-dimensional ‘waste’ angle that was initially reported (and engaged with directly by the Cabinet Office response).

    There has to be a sensible middle way between unmanaged, wasteful experimentation and a blanket ban (or indeed, the Directgov-controlled vision of Alan’s). Presumably, there’s something we can learn from exploration of the previous frontier – websites – to apply to this new one.

    1. Establish standards, and good practice (COI already has something, but it needs updating: http://coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=319)

    2. Expect strategies (demand that new mobile projects can demonstrate an audience, a business case, an evaluation process etc)

    3. Mandate open source data/APIs (so the wider ecosystem can kick in where there’s a desire to do so; and get your licensing straight)

    4. Control costs (itemise spending on mobile web/apps, count traffic properly, publish it all)

    5. Start simple (optimise web for mobile devices, use SMS, integrate mobile with regular web platforms, build standards-compliant online services)

    Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.

    But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.

    That the media, and apparently ministers, didn’t seem to explore this much more interesting angle to the problem is a shame.

  2. The way to do it is to make sure everyone who works in government is computer literate. Currently most are not, and get minions to print their emails on dead trees. If we are to succeed with a digital economy and a digitalbritain then the dinosaurs have to either lead, follow or get the hell out of the way. Some are trying to hold back innovation simply because they don’t understand IT and it scares them, bit like an elephant and a mouse. Men are usually too afraid to admit they don’t know stuff, therefore the shambles of the digital economy act got through washup. They still have no idea of the harm they have done. Until internet access is second nature and just another tool we are going to struggle. So maybe the elephant has to evolve, like the dinosaurs or perish? Currently they are trying their hardest to control. This can never happen. If they want to make the most of this gift they have to learn to embrace it.. not trample it.
    chris

  3. Just a passing thought about the implications of developing apps across the various mobile platforms – @Steph you say government smartphone apps probably shouldn’t be for iPhone exclusively – and I’m sure you’re right – but what is the right balance for government to create (or commission, or encourage or whatever) equivalent apps across platforms?

    The COI guidance talks about “testing with browsers and operating systems used by 2% or more of your users”. This sounds like a good starting point but I have no idea if developing an app for one platform means you’ve also done most of the legwork for the next one – but my hunch would have to be that it takes more work to develop multiple apps than to develop a website to work across different internet browsers.

    And consistency (in both coverage and functionality) across platforms must also be a factor in getting the right balance between government creating apps or leaving it to entrepreneurial developers.

    And maybe this issue will diminish over time anyway if Shaun Nichols at V3.co.uk is right that the smartphone platform market is indeed shrinking: http://www.v3.co.uk/v3/comment/2266123/uk-comment-shrinking-smartphone

    • Chris,

      Well, I’m not an expert in this field, but I see services which promise to make cross-platform app development easy (MoSync, PhoneGap etc).

      I think the browser-compatibility approach is quite a good one – identify what devices are used most commonly by say 80%+ of the audience, and develop for those initially, ensuring that the basic information is mobile-optimised as regular web content for other platforms.

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