Re: Government and "web basics"

John - I've been thinking about this mail and wanted to make some
comments from an English local government perspective -


Mick Phythian
Research Student
Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility
School of Computing, 
De Montfort University 
The Gateway, LEICESTER, LE1 9BH

>>> "Sheridan, John" <> 01/10/08
2:41 PM >>>
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
* as infrastructure, to enable others to build their own products and

Mick > There is no agreement academivally or otherwise on the number or
tpe of modalities. I've recently heard three expressed: Informational,
transactional and judegemental but Ebbers, Pieterman and Noordman (2007)
'Electronic government: Rethinking channel management strategies', have
expressed five - conversation, consultation, allocation, registration
and transaction.

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

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.

Mick > I would challenge the colume of active usage, along with the
influencw of social exclusion upon these media.

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 savinglikely 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.

Mick > These have exiisted for some years in English local government
with the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL), Local Government
Service List (LGSL) etc - see the ESD-Toolkit

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

Mick > Not many consider ALL channels!

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. 

Mick > There is a need to ensure trust at the end, which government can
provide - few others can!

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? 

Mick > We need consistent data nad system architectures across all

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. 

Mick > Agreed!

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,

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

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

Mick > A major issue has been the rush to transactionalisation -
Canadian research has shown two things: even banks stabilise at around
30% of potential users on e channels and the citizens are primarily
concerned in the provision of good and timely information.

Mick >

Received on Monday, 13 October 2008 07:06:36 UTC