Time for government to plug into one platform?

In a new blog post, Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio asks if it’s time to pull the plug on government Websites? Di Maio cites one Japanese city’s decision to migrate its online presence to Facebook as an example of an outside-the-box approach to government Web operations.

One comment from ‘Carolyn’ makes a strong case why the Facebook approach is short-sighted:

Believe it or not, some people trust Facebook even less than they trust government. Why make civic participation dependent on surrendering portions of your privacy to a corporation that will monetize it? I don’t want a crowdsourced opinion on when my garbage will be collected. I don’t want to have to sift through the mass of information out there on the web to find the proper permit application, or tax form for my business. And I don’t want corporate interests controlling my access to my government.

Related to this, one of my favorite quotes about Facebook comes from blogger Jason Kottke (2007):

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

Di Maio’s general point is that when government builds Websites they “almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it.” But just because this has been the case to date, doesn’t mean public sector IT should transition its entire online operations to the trendiest social network.

It’s time for government to radically reconsider its online service offering to citizens with a more sustainable approach.

Centralizing government Websites into one portal is something I’ve advocated for years (see here and here). In fact, the White House is exploring this and other options around improving the .gov ecosystem (they addressed my question specifically on this subject at a White House ‘Open for Questions’ live chat here).

If government really wants to focus on IT efficiency and cost-savings, CIOs and CTOs need to construct a more focused, organic strategy that includes the following:

  • Centralize your Web ecosystem into a single CMS and uniform brand/theme
  • Develop using open source software.
  • Create an open data portal.
  • Leverage APIs.
  • Migrate as much to the cloud as possible.
  • Create topic-based content and ensure distribution via RSS, email and all social media means available.
  • Develop a mobile strategy based on accessing the data above and empowering external, entrepreneurial ventures to compete in a free market to provide the best services (i.e., build less apps in-house).

The above list is by no means comprehensive and perhaps one day I’ll have more time to elaborate. It is, however, a general, sustainable strategy for addressing pubic sector budgeting constraints given the current economic conditions. Some or all of this could be done in-house or out-sourced. If the latter, it needs to be highly extensible and portable.

I’m all for radical re-working and thinking different, but don’t let fiscal uncertainty or short-term instability drive irrational IT decision-making, especially when it comes to public services and citizen privacy.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

14 Responses

  1. Andrea Di Maio

    Good points, but just require too much coordination. It hasn’t worked in the
    past; why should it now? This has little to do with technology but with the
    ability to do cross-agency governance, centralize and yet maintain flexibility.
    Re. Facebook: of course it can’t be a strategic choice, but worth a shot as much as most of your list

  2. Your article made great points about real issues with government “portals.” You are absolutely right that there does need to be more efficiency and consolidation, although ideally through open source, one to many efforts like Code for America, not private social networks. 

    No competent government agency should ever remotely consider facebook as anything more than a minor auxiliary part of its online interface with constituents. Never mind Facebook’s track record of abusing user data. It’s just not stable as a platform. From time to time they do wholesale rewrites of entire APIs without much notice. And, even though so few are able to see (or admit that they see) it right now, Facebook too will pass. Just as AOL, MySpace and so many others before it. It will happen, whether or not we refuse to believe it. In the process new online social network will rise. They too will fall. 

    The model you propose seems to be handing over government functions to single source private entities in order to save money, and because the private entity just plain does a beter job of providing the service. So let’s extend that line of thinking beyond the website, which almost always constitutes a very small part of an agency’s overall budget. How about going after some bigger ticket items with the same proposed model for success? For starters, every agency can hand its treasury over to Bank of America. BoA seem to know how to handle finances and they already have a great website, problem solved. While we’re at it we should entrust public transit to General Motors. That has worked well for our cities in the past, right? Hell – anyone up for letting Coca Cola run municipal water works? What’s the worst that could happen?
     
    Kidding aside, you did make some good points. You are right that government and industry need to work together to better serve constituents online. A lot of money could be saved in the process. But the suggestion that gov should consider facebook needs to be publicly and summarily dismissed. 

  3. Luke, perhaps of interest to you: in the Netherlands we’re building a platform for civil servants and citizens to cocreate and for government organisations to build their own interactive websites (including intranets). This is a government initiative, but initiated by the Civil Servant 2.0 network, not by a central government body. The platform is developed using open source tools and by combining the efforts of cooperating government organisations. It’s called Pleio (Government Square) and started in January of this year.

  4. Anonymous

    I agree that moving all the eggs to network like Facebook is not a smart move.  Has the city of Takeo read Facebook’s terms of service?  Also, I’ll take my government advertising free thank you.  Broad centralization of content management is nearly just as bad at limiting innovation and setting up a government’s web presence for quick depreciation as moving everything to a social network though.  I think a much better strategy is to consolidate infrastructure and web services (identity management, analytics, payment systems, etc.) and set technology/communication/design standards, but leave the areas where there is still huge innovation gains to be made, like data models and interfaces, open for exploration.

  5. Reading Andrea’s original post and responses to comments was like trying to have a conversation with my Grandma – I started out understanding the direction, but by the time it was over, the who’s and the what’s were all disjointed. Even in his comment here it seems he missed your points. 

    The question I am interested in is – What EXACTLY is not working with government websites? At the heart of government sites should be services. My government site processes millions of dollars in citizen transactions a year, and I have data to show a year over year dramatic increase in our use of online services from traditional means. So what’s broken there that needs fixing? Regarding saving IT dollars as discussed in Andrea’s post, my web budget is a drop in the bucket compared to overall IT expenditures. Yet conversely, govt websites can have a significant reach and influence with citizens compared to other expensive, behind the scenes IT services such as network infrastructure. The IT director pushing for cutting the govt website as an answer to economic concerns is not making the best fiscal or strategic decision.

    Also, governments can have a presence on Facebook and other social media and still have their government website. What’s with the ‘all or nothing’ approach by Takeo? A big secret no one wants to talk about is that government sites don’t have to be all that expensive. NIC has figured out a self-funded model with state websites, and you all proved that local government can function pretty well on free open source with the Manor, Texas makeover. Sites get more expensive with the more payment gateways you add, but if Takeo is moving to Facebook, they probably don’t process transactions online anyway.

  6. @Luke:twitter  you and Andrea are both right. The siren song of centralized systems has cost governments (and larger businesses) millions of dollars. But their promise of integration and cost efficiency through enabling transactions is compelling.

    The problem with point #1 “Centralize your Web ecosystem into a single CMS and uniform
    brand/theme” is that it’s frequently been at odds with #2, “Develop using open source software.” The need for unification is a need for integration with disparate transaction and archival systems. Unfortunately, once governments (or larger businesses) start thinking ECM, or document management, or integration with ERP/financial systems, ie using websites for more than delivering HTML (which is where they become most cost-effective, as Kristy so eloquently argues, accepting payments, accessing document archives and creating data.gov-like rich data streams) they get nervy and fall back on behemoth “one-ring-to-rule-them-all” systems that cost a fortune and are near impossible to manage without a large staff. And off you go, working with a mishmash of under-documented, under-developed mystery-meat APIs to pull off the kinds of transactional excellence in
    Kristy’s post.

    The failure of expensive proprietary systems continues to be an opportunity for open source CMSes. Open source systems need to get better at responding to the siren song of “integrated” services systems. The good news is that they are. An example is Larry Garfield’s announcement about the Web Services and Context Core Initiative for Drupal 8 (http://www.garfieldtech.com/blog/web-services-initiative). Initiatives like this are key to pulling your article’s point #1 together with point #2. Because OSS can evolve more quickly, they hold the most promise for providing a cost-effective, continuously evolving services platform.

    Garfield has said “We need to treat HTML pages as what they are: A particularly common form
    of REST response, but only one among many.” That is true for all OSS. It shouldn’t be so expensive, so difficult to integrate and serve information in multiple formats from multiple sources.

  7. While I think there is value and benefit from agencies
    maintaining their own web presence to support their
    brand/identity/mission/value and maintain/build relationships with publics and
    stakeholders, I don’t believe a singular site for the breadth and depth of
    government information and services could meet the information needs of our
    customers.  I do however believe a
    number of efficiencies could be realized through standardization vs.
    centralization.   This is why
    I submitted to both the DHS Efficiency Review and the President’s SAVE Award
    program, the idea (http://saveaward2011.ideascale.com/a/dtd/DHS-wide-adoption-of-PIER-system-for-public-information/287847-10760)
    that DHS adopt PIER (www.piersystem.com)
    as the department’s standard, web-based, public information platform.  Efficiencies
    are realized through reduced costs in multiple contracts across department
    components (and in some cases, multiple contracts w/in components),
    standardized capabilities, ease of interoperability, enhanced situational
    awareness and reduced training times/requirements, particularly in joint
    operations/responses.   Standardization would ensure customer experiences in terms of
    look, function and feel would be consistent across the department.  Standardization would also help resolve
    ongoing CMS issues. 
    Standardization, through the informed use of CSS would reduce webmaster
    responsibilities, incrase efficiency and increase compliance with Section 508
    requirements.  The Coast Guard has
    been using PIER for about a decade with great success as have many maritime
    industry corporations as well as HHS and USCIS.  While I limited my idea
    submissions to DHS application, I can see how standardization could be adopted
    throughout government, but I disagree that centralization throughout government
    is in anyone’s best interests.

    Chris O’Neil
    Commander, U.S. Coast Guard
    Chief of Media Relations (CG-09222)

    The views expressed here are my professional opinion and are
    not necessarily those of the U.S. Coast Guard or the Department of Homeland
    Security.  This is an official United States Coast Guard posting for the public’s information.  Our posting does not endorse this site or anything on it, including links to other sites, and we disclaim
    responsibility and liability for the site and its content.

  8. First off, thanks for the shout-out to NIC! Our state portals, like Reno’s site, are driven by compelling content and services (we processed 120 million transactions last year).

    Mr. DiMaio has been down on “portals” for some time now, and to me it’s simply because he’s an analyst and not a web geek. (Sorry, Andrea.)

    If he thought like a web geek, he would understand that a good website needs a solid information architecture, not simply a huge hard drive to dump all the government content and services onto willy-nilly. Thus, the portal… His response might be that John Q. Public doesn’t know what the heck an information architecture is, and he’d be correct. But I can tell you that they certainly know when a website is not well architected, whether or not they know why.

    While I disagree with his main point “that it is possible to get rid of the web site,” he hits the nail on the head when he calls out government sites that “almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it.”

    We could have an entirely separate conversation about the evolution of the government homepage, but to suggest the deletion of government websites is sort of just silly.

  9. Kelcy

    Intelink, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelink, has been in existence since 1994 serving cross-agency at multiple classification levels using primarily open source software.  They have led the way before Web2.0 was even a thought and continue to update capabilities as new ones came out. This is not necessarily outward facing which is one of the points that the discussion misses (altho touched on briefly by Chris O’Neil).  Government agencies have different outward facing roles as well as inward facing and at times lateral facing for information sharing with other US government agencies.  At the same time there is also the need to protect all web sites and related content from cyber threats while still remaining somewhat accessible whether inward or outward facing. It’s worth discussing but there are no simple solutions for “one size fits all”. 

  10. I feel like I should write something but I’m at a loss of words. Perusing the comments before mine, I see wise words from numerous government agencies and from across the planet. Can a collection of voices accurately answer your question, Luke, about what government should or should not do? After all, government to the Coast Guard is different than government to Reno.

    Reacting to your suggestions to develop a strategy involving architectural centralization, open source software, API calls, cloud migration, social media, and mobile ventures — I’ll add another voice and that is wearing my hat as an elected city councilor in Newburyport, Massachusetts. We’re not ready for that. Not even close. There are issues such as privacy and security to consider, not to mention funding.

    If a solution is necessary for government, it should be for all government.

  11. Peter Macdonald

    No VA Medical for combat disabilities

                My
    VA medical is cut until I stop writing opinion letters of government
    wrongs.  I add ten to one hundred
    names a day on my list of people that read letters or at least receive them.  One or two each letter responds to tell
    me that I need counseling or medical help.  Send a copy to the VA and the newspapers because they
    receive a letter each day from me and I get no response.  I can and do go to the emergency room
    by ambulance in emergencies at great expense to the taxpayer but a 100%
    disabled US Marine with combat related disabilities can never have his medical
    care stopped as a weapon to control free speech.  The public believes that I am a danger as that is the
    manipulated truth published by the news media to harm my character.  I still to this day volunteer every day
    to help other US Citizens.  I set
    my pain and discomfort aside to help others for I came back alive as far better
    than I gave their lives for the USA. 
    I owe them the respect to see that what they Our US Military give their
    lives for is not in VAIN.  The VA
    does give me token visits to fluff my medical file incase of questions. 

                I
    volunteer to help others so what danger is the news media and our government
    scaring the public with.  Through
    putting me in jail, stopping my medical care and the police harassing my family
    and friends I still stand that it is any citizen’s right to question the NH
    Supreme Court justices when they criminally use the law for their own special
    protection.  The NH SC refused to hear
    a case presented to them of a brother Judge/Attorney that made rulings to
    enable the Madbury NH selectmen to take from local residents for the
    selectmen’s own personal benefit and profit.  I tell you the public that it is wrong for the newspapers to
    take the government side and censor my letters for any reason. 

                I
    am a nut for believing that we (meaning the US Military) fight and die on
    foreign soil to protect and defend our Constitution.  You do not have to like what I am saying but God be with you
    if you don’t hear and correct the wrongs that are happening. 

                When
    the government can use any citizen’s medical care to control free speech the
    USA has bigger problems than just I.

    Peter Macdonald Sgt USMC Semper Fi

            

  12. John Jacob

    Develop using open source software.
    How does open source software improve efficiency and cost-savings? I’ve used some open source software that cost a fortune in training and support.
    Leverage APIs.
    Leverage APIs for what? And are those APIs open source?
    Migrate as much to the cloud as possible.
    The “cloud” isn’t always a cost savings, and most cloud implementations are not open source, and sometimes having things local greatly improves efficiency compared to the cloud.
    Create topic-based content and ensure distribution via RSS, email and all social media means available.
    Really? ALL social media means available? Do you know many social networks exist? How does this improve efficiency and cost-savings?

    How about this: build a government website that is easy for the public to navigate, easy for the public to find the information they need, and easy to share that information with others. Build it with tools that are easy to use and don’t lock you in to a specific vendor. Open source is not necessary, as long as your data can be exported in a format that can be easily imported and reused. “Open source” and “the cloud” are just buzz words. There is a HUGE number of visitors who don’t use RSS, or even know what it is. And quite a few people don’t use social media…and the majority of government data doesn’t seem to really lend itself to social media, although I can see that “news” type content does.

    In the end, I think us techie people focus too much on tech as the solution to all the problems. How about a well organized website that’s easy to search and navigate, and easy to read without a bunch of gov jargon? I think a focus on those fundamentals will go far.

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