co-production


This post is a bit of a wander about a few topics so bear with me – it should all come together. The first thing was a reaction around the spending cuts and Queens speech from this week. It’s clearly the thin end of the wedge and anyone who works with the Public Sector needs to make sure that they are truly adding value to their clients or they have no business being here – it’s tough enough already (and we are all taxpayers – let’s not waste our money here). I’ve spent the week at the LGComms conference (more on that anon) and it was clear from that that we are all expecting serious cost cutting over the next 2 years.

However – there are huge opportunities in a situation like this to truly innovate and to attack some of the barriers to change which are more understandable when you have more choices – fewer choices means you need to confront the sensible but difficult – or even inspired – ideas.  We are now living in the world of the improbable – because not providing public services really is the impossible.

I know that I am an evangelist for online – but on every level I cannot see how the Public Sector can respond to these budget pressures without really embracing digital communications and engagement and changing the mix. This really means starting to use offline as the add on for hard to reach groups rather than the default channel. And this is without having to make the point that social web engagement also brings big democratic renewal opportunities – something that is needed as much as the cost savings if you are going to take the public with you when you have to cut services.

It is obvious that on a transaction by transaction basis that moving interactions online will save resources around the citizen relationship in the same way that it has saved money around the transactional customer relationship (SOCITIM have done the work on this but I need to dig out the specific research). But there is an inherent contradiction with engagement work in that more engagement means more interactions – which is more expensive – ie you can’t afford to be too successful – or risk cancelling out your initial savings. What this does is to rule out the ‘lazy’ business case which says we have spent less for the same effect – We have spent the same amount the money to achieve more transactions – but at this point the rules for engagement are different to those for transactions and we have to show the benefit of this volume increase – and that’s the point at which the standard business case model breaks up and we need to look at something more sophisticated. Anthony from the Democratic Society has done some work with us (Public-i) on this and written a rather excellent white paper that starts to explore the wider cost case for better engagement and I think this needs to be built on.
The economic case for making more and better use of digital channels may not yet be canon but it is there to a great enough extent that we need to look for other reasons as to why people are not making this shift in droves.

Dave Briggs pointed me at this article on these barriers which suggests a number of headings for these barriers:

  • Access
  • Equipment
  • Staff and Skills
  • Structures
  • Policy
  • Strategy
  • Vision, Leadership and Management

These are a useful start but the detail on the original article shows this as really coming at this question from the point of view of individuals trying to lobby their organization – which is important – but I am more interested in thinking about the institutional barriers. So here is my take on this (in brief as each of these points is probably a post in its own right):

Firstly, some of the simple barriers that really fall under the aegis of work as we know it:

  • Ignorance / training / skills: This can be seen either in officers, management or Members – and really needs a programme to start addressing it now as we upskill the sector to deal with digitial.
  • Legal confusion: there are lots of issues around using technology around democracy – as well as various data protection confusions – that can just be ironed out and the knowledge shared with other organizations.

And then some of the more difficult ones – these will need some structural change or some external reference:

  • Lack of a business case: the business case process has been embedded within procurement but in a way that makes it very difficult to innovate – it really relies on you not doing something for the first time. We need a way to support sensible tested innovation outside of this process.
  • Turf war and structures: In the same way as the web site was wrestled from IT teams by Communication folks we just don’t yet know where digital engagement will sit as there is a legitimate case in both communications and in engagement teams – and a sense of our ownership from the policy and democratic services folks as well. I would ask the question “Who owns the relationship with the citizen?” and then try and structure from there.
  • No process for experiential learning: this really links to the first point in this section but if given the fact that this is an emergent area of technology as well as shift in democratic and social exchange we really are all learning on the job and need to come up with some way of doing this sensibly that ensures that we capture and share this learning as we go along.

And then the really difficult things which rely on someone really grasping the nettle

  • Lack of leadership and no ability to see the bigger picture: Even with the huge pressures that are on the budget we need leaders who are actively shaping the future rather than merely cutting back the past – where is the new growth and how do we nurture it. We also need leaders that understand these new technologies – so if you do nothing else make sure your manager is briefed.
  • Culture: embedded fear of failure or even fear of change – a management culture that doesn’t support innovation. This is another huge one and something that NESTA have an interesting programme on for instance. But without finding ways to support innovation we will find all our responses to impending cuts will be very negative – and we will not find the opportunity within these difficult choices
  • Inability to reconcile participative and representative democratic models – and no way to involve members. Once we start talking about the relationship with the citizen then we are talking about democracy – and this means that we need to think about the impacts and benefits for the democratic system. And I do mean we – the democratic half life of politicians makes it very difficult for them to embrace process change which means the Public Sector needs to be the custodian of this.

So what can you do? The first group of issues you can just work your way through – the second you can figure out if enough people want to solve the problem. But this last set is really about leadership and innovation which is far more difficult. Our Public Sector culture is, not surprisingly, very risk averse. But as the economic climate puts more and more pressure on public services I hope that one of the outcomes is a positive one. I hope that leaders, both politicians and officers – find an opportunity to innovate and turn this into an opportunity.

It’s hard – being good at something is difficult enough – and there are plenty of challenges – but if we aren’t helping the public sector to be excellent then we are just not helping at all.

We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

I spent Saturday in Kent at transformedbyyou: You can see a lot of the content from the day on the Ning site and I know more is being added. I went partly because a knew there would be a lot of interesting people there (there were) and partly because I was interested in the format/objective which was using an unconference type approach to try and instigate some thinking around social innovation. I think it worked well (much helped by some excellent facilitation / social reporting from Amy Sample Ward and David Wilcox ). I joined a group that was focusing on mobile as a channel and we had a good morning discussing what this means and where the potential is for local government. To summarise:

  • We drew a distinction between making websites accessible on a mobile phone and the potential for apps
  • We wanted to design for the near future and make full use of the possibilities for current technologies rather than be limited by ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking (after all it was a Saturday)

In conclusion we described mobile as a valuable additional channel that can help bridge the digital divide – but the you have to keep in mind that it does not solve it because you need to find services and interactions that are particularly suited to the channel and this doesn’t necessary match perfectly with the services and interactions that will work on a desktop device. We talked fairly wide rangingly about QR codes (which are basically like barcodes – but linked to web addresses – that can be read and interacted with by smart phones), location and time based alerts, street scene reporting and community funding ideas. In the afternoon we spilit into two and covered two ideas:

  • Exploring the use of QR codes
  • Looking at how you could use gaming to complement the street scene reporting idea

I worked on the latter – and got rather into it…..I think partly influenced both by Joanne Jacobs from her LikeMinds presentation and Carl haggerty’s recent post World of GovCraft (BTW – I have title envy). The team comprised @sidekickstudios (a software and games designer) , @alteredeye (an academic looking at Human Computer interaction) and Tracy (from the Kent CC web team) we were well resourced for the challenge.

The idea was simple: we want to develop a mobile app which combines reporting of issues your physical community (broken lights / potholes / unkempt land etc etc) with a gaming approach.  We thought this had strong elements of co-production as well as being channel authentic – and so we created “CALL OF DUTY” – which will be flying of the shelves at Christmas…..

Why? We could have just designed a mobile app for street scene reporting – a kind of phone based ‘fixmystreet’ – and I know that other councils are thinking about just that (for example Lewisham iphone app ) and its a really good thing to do. But we thought that adding a gaming element added in two additional benefits:

  • It would be more fun – when did the idea of doing something useful become unfun anyway?
  • It could be used to link people in the area together – using the gaming community to build local community

The game itself should be fairly simple – you get points for:

  • reporting an issue (5 points)
  • rating an issue (1 point)
  • doing something about an issue (10 points)

(points clearly indicative at this stage – currency to be established!)

We assumed that the app would know where/when you were reporting something (probably with a photo) and that you would just be asked to firstly suggest an outcome – do you want it fixed by the council or do you think the community should deal with it for example – and then prioritise the issue by being shown a list of current issues and being asked to place it in the right place in the queue. We felt that this moved the user passed just complaining and gave them some sense of the whole picture. Other users could then ‘rate’ that prioritisation. You would be able to track the status of your issues, as well as getting updates on things that have been dealt with in your area (you might see some before and after pictures for example)…..btw – there is clearly a whole back office integration piece to be done here but we decided not to worry about that…..again – it was a Saturday

The gaming element would contribute a leader board where you could see who else has been active and where you relate to them – you could also have viral options so that you could share issues with your community to get support for your prioritisation. At this point I started getting drawn into a whole top trumps thing where you got rated for the types of things you report, how you fix them etc etc….

The final element was some way of linking game currency – points – to some kind of real world rewards – for example cheap entrance to a swimming pool. We felt that this would provide additional motivation and acknowledge the fact that you are ‘working’ for your community. We also wanted to make it possible to donate your game currency to local charities etc so that they could benefit.

This is not an unachievable idea – as long as you can remain committed to the idea that it does actually have to be fun and to engage with some actual game designers rather than the poor folks who will have to make it work with the back office systems. Its strengths are, I believe, in the fact that it tries to use the channel in a ‘native’ way without actually compromising on the social goals of the project. The first step to doing this would be to do some focus group work around establishing motivations and looking at what the game currency would need to look like.

If nothing else it was great to spend some time with likeminded people and a blank sheet of paper. But I now would like to think about this more – what can be achieved when you actually think appropriately for a channel and when you don’t get constrained with what is currently possible? What happens when you accept the fact that you probably won’t get anything built for at least a year – so why not look that far ahead in terms of the technology? And what happens when you think that actually it should be fun to do stuff for and with your community – and look at building something to do that?

Gaming is a growth area for online – as is augmented reality – and both of these come together in this idea. So – are you intrigued or was this just a way to pass a rainy saturday?

You can hear Adil describe the idea here:

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