This article is from the March issue of Total Politics

It has been accepted, to the point of cliché, that technology is changing how politics is conducted. Traditionally these changes have been looked at in the context of campaigning – building email lists, Twitter Q&As, getting the vote out, and so on. However, a perhaps more significant development is happening in government itself. The increasing ease with which large amounts of data can be published, and with which people can access so-called transaction services, is fundamentally changing the relationship between government and citizens. If these changes continue to develop in this manner, the pendulum of power could swing decisively in the direction of voters, not the political and bureaucratic elite.

The current coalition government has both inherited and launched a variety of digital measures that, in theory at least, make government more transparent and accessible. As said, they can be divided broadly into two types – those that provide access to services, and those that give us access to data. Information projects are based around the data.gov.uk website, while the longer-established Directgov portal is predominantly, but not exclusively, transactional service orientated. Directgov comes under the auspices of the recently launched Government Digital Service [GDS – see Blogger Writes… in TP, February], the idea of which is to put the government’s digital strategy all in one place and attract the best technology minds to develop new services.

Furthermore, no discussion of the UK government online can fail to mention Martha Lane Fox. The founder of lastminute.com is the government’s digital inclusion champion, and pioneered the Race Online 2012 programme to get more people online, as well as being a key voice in pushing forward many developments mentioned in this article. In October 2010, she wrote an extensive letter to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, detailing the direction Directgov, and government digital engagement more broadly, should seek to take in the future. Many of these recommendations have either been implemented or are in the process of being so. For example, she recommended that a ‘CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office’ be appointed, and this has been achieved with the hiring of Mike Bracken as the executive director for digital across government in July 2011, working out of the Cabinet Office at the heart of government. Chris Chant was interim executive director for digital from January to June 2011.

The Directgov project is key to online service provision, with ever-increasing numbers of services being run through the site. For example, you can get information on local schools, complete your tax return, and apply for a driving licence there. This is part of an increasing move towards having public services as ‘digital by default’, the key recommendation in Lane Fox’s letter. As well as being another admirable aim in terms of making services easier to access for citizens, it also fits into a wider government agenda, this time the austerity narrative; digitising services can lead to significant savings.

Lane Fox estimated: “Shifting 30 per cent of government service delivery contacts to digital channels would deliver gross annual savings of more than £1.3bn, rising to £2.2bn if 50 per cent of contacts shifted to digital.”

It is then not difficult to see why this government might be so keen to pursue public service digitisation.

However, among all the excitement about digitisation, the ultimate aim of making sure that services are readily accessible for those who need them must always be kept in mind, and there is certainly a risk that the most vulnerable and most in need of public services in our country may not have easy and regular access to the internet. While IT equipment and internet connections will become cheaper, and that this issue will become less prominent, it is currently a vital issue, and the transition to digital must be handled carefully to make sure that nobody is excluded.

Following on from this, it’s clear that a computer science degree should not be a prerequisite to finding the government website you require. The government’s presence online must be simple to navigate, but when the Lane Fox review took place there were 742 separate government websites. This is the reason behind her recommendation that there be a single government domain – either direct.gov.uk or possibly www.hmg.gov.uk.

This would streamline access, and build on the brand trust already felt towards Directgov. There has already been testing of a single site with alpha.gov.uk, which members of the public were encouraged to use and provide feedback on. A beta version of this single government domain www.gov.uk  was released on 31 January 2012, and a further part of the beta, www.gov.uk/government, was released on 28 February 2012.

The second part of a government’s digital presence is the data it chooses to publish online. Gathering, storing and uploading large amounts of data is becoming easier, and the coalition government seems to be taking the open data agenda seriously, even including detailed comment on it in the recent autumn statement. This provision included “linking primary and secondary healthcare datasets” and making “real-time train and bus data” available.

While there is undoubtedly an ideological shift towards more transparency after the authoritarian New Labour years, there is once again a perceived economic benefit as added motivation. Open Data is seen as a potential growth measure for the British economy, with entrepreneurs building apps and services around the data published. For example, the autumn statement provisions talk of open data measures to “boost growth in UK Life sciences by transforming access to health and care data” and “… support the growth of high-value businesses and make access to data easier for start-ups”. Development of such applications will become more important, and potentially lucrative, as the use of web-enabled mobile phones becomes ever more widespread, so it’s clear why the government would include such measures in an economic statement giving proposals for growth.

Looking beyond the potential economic impacts, the principle of government transparency is, unsurprisingly, something to be welcomed, and digital tools are undoubtedly the most effective way to implement this.

For citizens and journalists to hold our elected officials to account, it is important that we can see what money is spent and on what, what the outcomes of certain projects are and what ministers are spending their time on. However, it’s worth pointing out that publishing the data is one thing, but being able to understand it is quite another.

The government is now putting thousands of datasets onto data.gov.uk, and encourages requests for publishing data not currently there. As more data is published, I fear there’s a risk of overwhelming us, of hiding potentially damaging information in plain sight. It’s therefore critical that not only is data published but that this is also done in a meaningful and contextualised manner.

Over the coming months and years we’ll begin interacting more with the government online. The coalition government is taking these changes seriously in launching the GDS and making important appointments and service upgrades. Cultural shifts, though, take longer to come about than technological ones, and there’s still has a long way to go before everybody feels comfortable and able to deal with public services as ‘digital by default’.

Charlotte Henry blogs at digitalpolitico.net and tweets at @DigitalPolitico

Tags: Directgov, Government Digital Service, Issue 45