Big brother is watching you – the future of citizens’ interaction with E-government

Rather than a telescreen sinisterly watching you from the corner, the future will be about citizens communicating with government through the screen.

Big brother

Government today wants to open up its vast datasets, using technology to make people’s lives easier – not monitor them remotely.

Increasingly, how we interact with government over the internet is the public face of Whitehall. Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) – launched in 2011, based on the recommendations of Lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox – is the man in charge of this digital transformation. Lane Fox recommended that a central service bring together existing government websites, enable access to official data and enable day-to-day transactions, such as renewing a car tax disc, easy online.

Previously, the government’s online presence was a jumble of competing ministries and quango websites, but things are rather different today. Last month, The Washington Post called GDS and its citizen-centric technologies “the gold standard in the global world of digital government”.

Bracken points out that government – along with every other sector – is having to deal with digital disruption. Elsewhere, publishers complain that Amazon wants to drive them out of business, direct sales to airlines have closed many high-street travel agents, while online music sales helped drive HMV into bankruptcy – and government is no different. “After a period of resistance, most institutions find their organising principle has changed,” says Bracken. “Most institutions have resisted digital disruption and then come to terms with the new landscape.”

Big brother 2

Indeed, GDS could be seen as the digital disruptor of government. The slow-moving Civil Service, resistant to change, has found it hard to adapt, says Digital Technology Board member Kip Meek. And, rather than closed-off monolithic Whitehall departments, the thrust is for government to become an open platform like Amazon or the iPhone, which Apple freed up to thousands of app developers.

GDS opened for business in December 2011, having recruited more than 500 employees. Its first priority was setting up a platform for government, bringing together all websites under the gov.uk domain. The beta version of gov.uk launched in February 2012, migrating more than 120,000 web pages and thousands of pieces of content to the central site. “Because we move through alpha and beta versions, going live really just means switching off the old sites,” Bracken explains.

Once GDS had got the gov.uk domain up and running, it turned its attention to transactional government – buying or registering for services through the internet. Bracken says that the government had 717 different ways that people could transact with it – a two-way exchange of either a physical or digital service, either in person or through the web. Together they accounted for 1.4 billion transactions each year.

GDS decided to concentrate on 25 of the most popular services, such as driving test applications or registering a birth. Of these 25 “exemplar” services, which account for around a quarter of all government transactions, 17 are in beta stage (meaning they are being tested with users), and three are still being built (alpha stage). Five services have now gone live, including online voter registration in June and patent renewals in August. This transformation will mean that you can now view your driving record or update your PAYE status online whenever you want to, or claim your carer’s allowance or organise your tax bill at home.

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The UK government is now three quarters of the way through this two-year project to make the most-used government services “digital by default”, with each department putting forward three or four sites. As well as providing better services for millions of users, the initiative is expected to deliver £1.2billion in savings over the course of the current parliament. GDS points out that the cost of a digital transaction is one-fiftieth of what it costs face-to-face.

Last month GDS unveiled a user research lab that allows researchers to monitor how users interact with digital government. Techniques include recording facial expressions to measure how absorbed a person is online, tracking eye movements and charting how somebody moves their mouse cursor. It expects all 25 “exemplar” services will have completed their digital migration by March 2015. And, having brought together the websites, next Bracken wants to open up official data. “The next thing is trying to get to grips with data,” he says. “We now can show the workings of government, and start to drive policy and service decisions.”

Big Brother it isn’t. However, one insider warns that because digital government is being developed centrally, there is a danger that civil servants are too removed from the process, not having enough say in how services are developed.  “When you take things out of people’s hands, they don’t think in such an innovative way,” says this insider.

Bracken disagrees with those who suggest that developing everything in-house distances civil servants. “GDS has created a new compact with the user. Everything we do is driven by user need, because we’re listening to them all the time. We’re highly responsive to what §users want rather than taking a somewhat self-serving view of the world from what civil servants’ needs are and then projecting them onto the public.

“We’re in the business of digital transformation of government. The focus of digital government is user services and needs, not policy. It’s not a hierarchical top-down view. It’s a much more reactive way of working. We’re improving people’s lives through digital services.”

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