Is Google coming to Government?

Public Servant magazine has run a piece from me titled, “Is Google coming to government?” Here’s what I wrote:

A smart public sector decision maker needs to understand not only that that people now expect information to be available online but also that by putting it there it can spark a whole new set of ideas at virtually zero cost, writes Mark Pack

Where do you look for information? For years, government has been run by people for whom the instinctive answers involve books, ring binders and libraries. But we are seeing a new generation rise to seniority and power across all the political parties for whom the answer is the Google search box.

It’s a generation that is instinctively used to data being available on a computer, quickly and for free. Weather forecast? News from Iran? Last month’s inflation figures? Recommendations on a book to get a child for their birthday? It’s all there, usually just a couple of clicks away from the Google search box.

With Gordon Brown’s previous pledge to serve no more than one full term, we are on the verge of a major shift in senior figures in government – regardless of the general election result. It will bring in those who are used to instinctively reaching for the Google search box – and who are also used to communicating in different ways.

We can see this from those MPs’ own use of the internet. Increasing numbers see blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like as the natural medium for communicating with their public audiences – not as a replacement for leaflets or speeches, but as an essential complement.

It will soon seem as odd to a minister for their department not to be using social media well as it would be not to have a properly functioning press office.

Attitudes towards data are also changing: no longer should data be locked away in secret, but instead should be available online, reliably and regularly, with others given the freedom to reuse and repurpose as they wish. It’s the modern equivalent of the press release. Press offices are used to the idea of preparing and issuing information – where the real value then comes from others (the media) taking that information, modifying it, adapting it and spreading it.

It’s nice to also have a press release on your own website, but that is only a tiny part of the benefit and the same increasingly to data and online services. The value is increasingly in freeing up data and services for others to use.

David Cameron’s Conservatives have, perhaps rather more so than the government, grasped these changes – and hence their chatter about “Google government”, chatter which is more consistent and more senior than that from Labour ranks. Most notably, compare the different forays into YouTube of David Cameron and Gordon Brown (though an honourable mention should be given to Ming Campbell to beating them both there – it’s not just an issue of age or generation).

For all the positive talk, though, it is far from clear how this would play out in public expenditure issues under a Conservative government.

The public sector is currently spending increasing amounts of money on data work, online advertising, social media and the like. For some, these funds are an add on – an extra to do after all the other basics are covered. For others, these funds are the core of what needs doing. Depending on your view these funds should either be the first or the last to be cut.

Which way would a Cameron government jump? From the words of those such as George Osborne, you might think it would go for switching to more digital expenditure, whilst cutting other funds. But other Conservatives, such as Francis Maude, have not been afraid to put the boot into the existing Government’s digital expenditure – suggesting those would be in the front line of cuts.

Whichever way the senior decision makers jump, this debate will also be played out regularly all through the public sector as different budget holders try to make their books balance.

So what would a smart public sector decision maker be planning? First, understand that people will increasingly expect your data to be available online – and that means as data they can manipulate and analyse, not as a 34-page pdf document. Second, making data available online often sparks new ideas and gets the data used by other people without you having to pay them anything. Third, the public increasingly looks to social media to find information, so if you have information to get to them – that is where it has to be.

Expecting people to come to your website is a bit like expecting people to turn up to your office to get information. Yes, some people will do that – but to get information out there, you have to go to where they are rather than expect them all to come to you. That is the world that Cameron and his generation have grown up with on the internet. If it isn’t the world you inhabit, will they think you are doing a good job?

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