How UK Govt. is trying to improve policies using internet

A nice speech by George Osborne Chancellor of the Exchequer of UK. He points how UK was late to adopt internet as a tool for information dissemination and delivery of services. Now it is very serious and making changes to make internet a vital tool for public policy.

For politicians of my generation, the incredible disruptive impact of the internet is not a threat – it’s an opportunity. An opportunity to build societies that are more open, more innovative and more prosperous. As we all know, virtually every walk of life is being affected in some way by the internet and new technology.

That’s why, over the course of this conference, you are going to be hearing from experts talking about how the internet is changing the economy, affecting our culture and transforming society.  In my view, the impact that the internet is having on government is equally profound. That’s what I’d like to focus on today.

I’d like to look at three of the most dramatic ways that the internet age is changing government. The way it is:

  • Changing accountability.
  • Changing policy making.
  • And changing public services.

The speech is full on anecdotes and cases. In how internet could improve accountability he recalls a visit to India:

Today, billions of people can access more information than entire governments could just a generation ago. And of course, the globalisation of these information flows, thanks in large part to mobile internet access in sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world, is increasing every day. This is rapidly eroding traditional power and informational imbalances. And it is irrevocably increasing the accountability of politicians and governments to the people they are supposed to serve.

There was a brilliant example of this during the Prime Minister’s trip to India last year. As part of the trip, we thought we would organise a hack day at the Google offices in Bangalore. So we flew over some British coders, and stuck them in a room with Indian developers and social entrepreneurs, to see what they could build together over the course of a few hours.

They decided to create a new tool that would help make the Indian police more accountable. Here’s how. In India, giving someone a quick “missed call” is a bit like “poking” on Facebook. You call someone, let it ring for a second, then hang up, and it’s a cost-free way of saying “hi” or “I’m thinking about you”. What our team of programmers did was start building an app that lets people in India give a missed call to a special number saved in their phone whenever they have a dissatisfactory encounter with the police.

This missed call gets plugged into a heat map showing the rough location of people’s complaints – so highlighting for the first time the parts of India where people are most unhappy with their local police. This heat map can then be used by civil society or by government to put pressure on underperforming forces to change their ways.

Hmm… He points how UK govt has been slow to adopt internet and older politicians call this free information a mistake:

For a long time, the British government was much too slow to accept this. It tells you something about the culture of secrecy in Whitehall over the past decade that Tony Blair says in his autobiography that the Freedom of Information Act was his “biggest regret” in government.

I’m sure we could all think of a few things he really ought to regret more. From day one of the coalition Government, we have chosen to take a different path, and to embrace the accountability revolution enabled by the internet age. And already it seems incredible that this time last year, the British public couldn’t access even some of the most basic information needed to hold the government to account.

He says how this information sharing is helping. Takes Google founder example:

 if anything, the social and economic benefits of open data are even greater. Take medicine, for example.

A few years ago Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, took a DNA test that revealed that he may have up to a 75 percent chance of developing Parkinson’s over the course of his life. His response?

To use the power of open data to search for a cure. He has funded the collection of a huge amount of health data, drawn from over 10,000 people, which is now being analysed to yield new insights into the linkages between drugs, patient behaviour and disease. This approach – using large datasets to search for possible correlations and causations – shows the massive potential for open data to transform scientific research.

The economic impact of this open data revolution will be similarly profound.

UK is planing to use similar policies and open up databases etc so that people can share and write to the government. Here is another interesting case:

At the launch of Tech City in East London last November, one young entrepreneur called Glenn Shoosmith told the Prime Minister about a problem he’d encountered. He’s invented a low-cost technology that allows people to book slots online at their sports centre or swimming pool.

When he pitched it to the Olympics team he was told to find the relevant tender document and fill it in. But the system didn’t know about the product, so there was no tender – and no way for Glenn to sell his innovative product to government. This problem happens time and again – so we’re using open processes to try to fix it.

Last month, we launched an open procurement competition – the Innovation Launch Pad – encouraging small companies to pitch to government their innovative new technologies and services. In other words, instead of having to wait for the right public sector tender document to come along – because it often never does – you can send your prototype directly to government.

Nice one.

The government is changing the default process of regulation. Usually the default is government may/may not listen to the public. Now the default is it has to listen. Move on to the open source policymaking:

Instead of simply relying on government hierarchies to decide which regulations should be reformed or abolished, we’ve opened up the process to the wisdom of the crowd.  We call it the Red Tape Challenge, and here’s how it works:

We’re publishing, sector by sector, almost every piece of regulation on the books so that business and the public can feed in comments. What works, what doesn’t, what should be scrapped, how things could be simplified or done with less regulation.

Every single suggestion is looked at – and if any sensible proposals are rejected, Ministers will have to explain why. In other words, we’ve turned the default on its head. Instead of government deciding whether or not to listen to the public, we’re forcing it to listen.  We want to remain at the cutting edge of open source policy making.

He talks about the new recruits in government which will help in the same. Also says if banking can improve and grow via internet, so can public services. He goes further and says all public services will be digital by default:

If we think about how internet banking has gone from a standing start to the mainstream in just over a decade, there’s no reason why public services can’t be the same. Obviously, it won’t happen of its own volition.

That’s why we have made the bold commitment that all our public service reforms will be ‘digital by default’.

In other words, in all our reforms we assume that public service delivery can be shifted online – and officials and ministers have to justify why any aspect needs to be delivered through traditional offline channels. This is a huge culture shift for government. And it’s beginning to have an impact across the public sector.

We’re designing the universal credit system with online delivery in mind right from the start – not as an expensive afterthought. My department – the Treasury – has already moved to online only corporation tax returns, significantly reducing administrative costs. In the Budget I announced that over the next couple of years we will be doing the same for all the main business taxes. And we’re creating a single government website – you can find the prototype at www.alpha.gov.uk – that will enable us to redesign government services from the bottom up and put the user in charge. Because we all know, new technology doesn’t just enable us to reduce costs, it can help us drive up standards too.

For this to work, UK needs to increase internet inclusion and allow more people to have access to internet. They are roping in private sector as well to deliver services via internet:

Over the past few months, we have been working with some of the world’s leading technology companies to ensure that the next generation is equipped with the digital skills they need to flourish in the digital age. Thanks to this engagement:

  • Hutchison Whampoa has agreed to support a pilot of the successful Digital Maths programme developed by Stanford Research Institute, which will provide digital tools to support maths teaching in UK schools.
  • Blackberry has agreed to launch an apps challenge for UK schools, teaching kids how to design new online tools
  • Intel will run a range of schemes to support young people to set up their own online businesses.
  • And YouGov is sponsoring a Start-up Summer programme to provide mentoring, research, funding and cash prizes to encourage university students to set up internet companies.

Superb speech. Powerful one at that.

Hope the implementation bit is as strong and becomes an example for others to follow.

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