Government and "web basics"

There are three modalities for governments' use of the web:

* to deliver public services, to citizens and businesses (providing information or transactional services)
* to engage with citizens through the use of social media on government websites or through engagement with online communities elsewhere on the web
* as infrastructure, to enable others to build their own products and services

These modalities can be loosely characterised as “provide, engage and enable”. The extent to which a government chooses to fulfil any or all of these roles on the web is a socio-political question, tightly connected to levels of public funding and the more general development of public services. 

Advocates of the interventionist state are more likely to support a strong and overt role for  government on the web, whereas supporters of smaller government seize on the web's potential to enable the state to step back. The state may seek to establish online communities as part of public service provision or instead engage with existing communities hosted by others. If the UK government's experience is any yard stick then both modes of engagement are being adopted with much to learn about the relative levels of success.  

There are fundamental differences of view about the nature and role of the state in society. Such intrinsically political questions will increasingly play themselves out in terms of governments use of the web as they do in other spheres of public policy. As the Web becomes more important and integral to our lives so does the potential for the politicisation of the state's role on the web as provider and/or enabler.

The web has enormous potential to facilitate public services reform, opening up new models of provision and engagement. Millions of people are using simple tools like discussion forums, blogs and wikis, to advise and help each other. Often this support aids the achievement of public service outcomes, for example by supporting parents through difficulties with their children (e.g. netmums or mumsnet). The extent to which people trust each other in such forums is striking, for example helping one another to navigate the complexities of the public sector, such as accessing advice on taxation issues (e.g.

The prevalence and shear scale of these communities is significant. This is not a blip or a fad but a new social trend that is making the web relevant to every area of public policy. For officials with a background in information technology and long standing interest in the web it is striking to be joined by policy colleagues whose primary concern is health or education. The motivations can be starkly different but there is a growing level of interest in the true potential of the web.

Another important part of the context for the e-Government Interest Group is a significant tightening in public expenditure as a consequences of the turmoil in global financial system. Many governments have made a significant investment in their web presence and with declining revenues will need to achieving efficiency savings in the immediate term. Communications and Information Technology budgets are likely to come under increasing pressure. In response governments are likely to want to consolidate their web presence around fewer sites, in order to reduce costs and deliver more comprehensible and joined-up public services. It will be important for this group to articulate the case that the use of standards and knowledge sharing saves costs. Doing the *right* thing is not necessarily more expensive than not - and in the long run saves money.

When characterising governments' current use of the web a number of general observations can be made. Whilst increasingly cognisant of the opportunities afforded by social media, typically  governments are still operating a broadcasting paradigm. Websites are a vehicle for mass communication and for the delivery of transactional services. In this environment statistics showing the scale of usage are celebrated as indicators of success in themselves. The structure of a government web estate is often organisationally driven. This is problematic as the structures of government continually change, resulting in significant disruption to the presentation of government on the web. Government departments can be a surprisingly transient entities. Transposed to namespaces and URIs this is quick sand on which to build an essential information infrastructure using the Web.

To give an example of the consequences of this churn, governments have difficulty maintaining persistent URIs even to documents. Increasing volumes of official reports and documents are published on the web alone making the long term availability of those resources an important issue. In this context 'link rot' is not just an inconvenience of the user, it undermines public accountability as documents cease to be available.

Firmly in the “provide mode” many governments have devised a channels strategy for their web estate. This has been developed primarily from a communications perspective. What is more generally absent is a data strategy from a web engineering perspective. It is rare in government to think about website development as the engineering of basic information infrastructure. Surveying governments use of the web, RESTful principles are not widely in evidence. It is as if when developing a channels strategy sometimes governments forget that they are part of the whole web.

Underlying these issues is one of particular interest to the W3C as a technology standards organisation, not just about adoption and usage of its standards, but about the understanding of them. As a supplier and provenance source of information on the web, governments have an important role to play. There is potential for significant social and commercial innovation using public sector information made available using the web. 

It is an important architectural principle of the web that “global naming leads to global network effects”. Is this, and the other basic principles of web architecture, properly understood? 

The reality is that few officials responsible for commissioning or managing government websites are familiar with the basic principles of the web – how many will have read the volumes “Architecture of the World Wide Web” for example? Lacking a government context and being aimed at a more expert audience, the W3C guidelines and specifications are almost impenetrable to many web decision makers in government. 

What is needed is a bridge into that corpus – a simple statement of “web basics” in the context of government activity on the web. This can be supported by the use-cases which address more detailed issues in each of the modalities of governments use of the web (“provide, engage, enable”). 

Unless we (the people in governments responsible for what we do on the web) can develop a basic understanding of how the web works and why, there will be a significant constraint on governments' ability to reach their potential on the web and thus on the potential of the web itself. 

For example, there are entities and concepts that deserve an identifier (a URI) that the government should properly assign. These range from URIs for all the schools, hospitals, police stations – even the courts, through to URIs for interoperability artefacts such as XML Schema that are being used. 

The importance of giving resources URIs is something that is not sufficiently understood, particularly in the context of governments' role on the web. There are other examples of basic web principles which are being overlooked, overwhelmingly through lack of knowledge and understanding.

If the e-Government Interest Group is able to address this one issue – finding a way to convey the basic web principles in a simple way to the non technical audience - it will do both governments and the W3C a great service.

John Sheridan

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Received on Wednesday, 1 October 2008 13:42:25 UTC