I have read three blog posts in the last few days which together strike me as indicators of a welcome trend.

The first two were both from the new Government Digital Service blog, the first from Mike Bracken on his first few weeks in government as Director of Digital. It’s a very upbeat assessment, but the important (and still remarkable thing) is that it is there at all. The second is from Tom Loosemore, reflecting on the alpha.gov.uk experiment, in which he started by setting out the top ten problems reported by users (and giving quick responses to them), and only then moving on to praise and ideas. Having the self-confidence to be open and balanced like that shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is, and every example helps make it more normal.

The third was very different: an account by Liz Azyan of the importance attached to user testing in the redevelopment of Camden’s website. It is unabashed and powerful argument, reinforced by a very ungovernmental summary, boiling the whole thing down to four speech bubbles. More importantly, it is part of a very conscious strategy of openness. Reading Liz’s post after  Mike’s and Tom’s triggered the thought that there is a pattern here which is worth noting and encouraging.

There is more to transparent government than open data. Understanding how things are done and what decisions were made about doing them can be at least as important. That understanding is not easy to acquire from the inside and is harder still to get from the outside. That’s partly because of an inherent limitation of communication, but it is also because history is written by those who write history.

Two years ago, I wrote a taxonomy of government bloggers, partly to make the point that it was heavily skewed to certain groups and roles. With the long hindsight of those two years, it now seems odd not to have had a category of those who were making change happen, and critically who were being open about the change they were part of. There were people among my examples who did that, but that wasn’t quite the reason they were there. I opened the description of my first category, those whose job it is by saying:

There is a vibrant online community among those whose job is to make the government a place of vibrant online communities.

That is still true. The good news is that there are now signs of a vibrant community among those whose job is to change the way government works for the better. The challenge is that that community is still predominantly drawn from those for whom digital is the substance of their work as well as a medium for communicating about it. That may become less important as digital increasingly does become the default, but there is still plenty of scope and much value to be had in widening the voices of government.

Comments

  1. It’s good to hear of this kind of underlying shift in the conversation about government. I tend to agree that beneath the persistent angst that not enough is being done to move the reform processes across the public sector there are often unremarked but authentic signs of progress. Much that work is being done in relatively low key projects by people skilled in the art of taking ideas and prompts from a wide range of sources and then navigating them expertly through the sometimes strange and lumpy contours of governing.

    The big test though is precisely the one mentioned at the end of your post…to see the spread of these movements move out of the digital ghetto, as it were and into the more open territory of mainstream policy and management. As you say, that is starting to happen as digital becomes the default, but it still sometimes seems unnecessary glacial. I was encouraged by a presentation last week at the ANZ School of Government conference in Sydney by US academic Don Kettl whose paper canvassed the hope that initiatives like recovery.gov website in the US with its commitment to transparency would become an engine of better performance more generally. When mainstream, non geek academics start using screenshots of good digital platforms and tools and talking about them were part of what government is all about, we are, it seemed to me, making real progress.

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