Apps for citizens

June 22, 2012

Public services are moving inexorably online. And as advances in consumer technology continue to raise citizen expectations, there will be a strong demand for government services to be accessible through apps and mobile devices as well as the traditional desktop browser. Apps with the community in mind, such as Love Newham, allow citizens to report problems like broken street lights and graffiti to the council direct from their smartphone. UK Pharmacy allows you to look up your nearest pharmacy based on your current location.

Higher citizen expectations – for services that are useful, responsive, intuitive, personal, and device agnostic – and more open government have both contributed to a surge in third-party activity in this space.

For policymakers this prompts an interesting question. On the one hand we might scale back government activity to the bare minimum, to allow maximum space for others to be quick, creative and innovative. On the other we might push hard to roll our own in-house solutions for public service delivery, to ensure maximum quality control over content and accessibility. Where should the balance lie?

This isn’t an easy question to answer – but here are a few clues that we think will help leaders grappling with digitising government.

  • Outcomes are more important than ownership. Public services are ultimately about meeting citizen needs. For policymakers, measuring how well we are meeting these needs is more important than accumulating downloads or page views. Regardless of who is developing what, they must have the right incentives to put outcomes first.
  • Someone always pays. Precisely who may be more or less clear – particularly for privately developed services that suit departmental budget holders, but are monetised through advertising or future cross-sales instead. We might be more comfortable with this in some circumstances (e.g. apps that help people comply with tax rules) and less so in others (e.g. apps that help people looking for medical advice).
  • Openness – on data, standards, APIs – really matters. The transport arena is a prime example of where private developers have made rapid progress once public data was opened up (albeit currently more so for large cities like London and Manchester than for the UK as a whole). Without a culture of openness we will not see the most creative innovation take off.
  • More choice is usually better – but not always. A trial and error approach to finding the best app for getting up-to-date bus times is probably fine. But this may not be right when someone is looking for advice and guidance on health and other sensitive personal matters.

Behind these issues there are important questions of public policy to resolve. How great an obligation does the government have to respond to the shift of activity from desktops to mobile? To what extent is digital-by-default a staging post on the way to exclusively digital services? How can government departments create and sustain a constructive dialogue with private sector developers?

Back in 2000, Stiglitz, Orszag and Orszag published The Role of Government In A Digital Age (PDF). In this they establish principles for online government activity –  including a “green light” for providing public data and improving efficiency, and a “red light” for reducing competition and crowding out the private sector. The largest category in their taxonomy is the “amber light”, for areas where government might add value through online activity, but should exercise caution before acting.

More than a decade has passed, and these principles continue to resonate.

This is a short synthesis of a recent round table discussion hosted at Policy Exchange.

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