In a new blog post, Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio asks if it’s time to pull the plug on government websites? Di Maio cites one Japanese city’s decision to migrate its online presence to Facebook as an example of an outside-the-box approach to government web operations.
One comment from ‘Carolyn’ makes a strong case why the Facebook approach is short-sighted:
Believe it or not, some people trust Facebook even less than they trust government. Why make civic participation dependent on surrendering portions of your privacy to a corporation that will monetize it? I don’t want a crowdsourced opinion on when my garbage will be collected. I don’t want to have to sift through the mass of information out there on the web to find the proper permit application, or tax form for my business. And I don’t want corporate interests controlling my access to my government.
Related to this, one of my favorite quotes about Facebook comes from blogger Jason Kottke (2007):
As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the Internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the Internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.
Di Maio’s general point is that when government builds websites they "almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it." But just because this has been the case to date, doesn't mean public sector IT should transition its entire online operations to the trendiest social network.
It’s time for government to radically reconsider its online service offering to citizens with a more sustainable approach.
Centralizing government websites into one portal is something I’ve advocated for years (see here and here). In fact, the White House is exploring this and other options around improving the .gov ecosystem (they addressed my question specifically on this subject at a White House ‘Open for Questions’ live chat here).
If government really wants to focus on IT efficiency and cost-savings, CIOs and CTOs need to construct a more focused, organic strategy that includes the following:
- Centralize your web ecosystem into a single CMS and uniform brand/theme
- Develop using open source software
- Create an open data portal
- Leverage APIs
- Migrate as much to the cloud as possible
- Create topic-based content and ensure distribution via RSS, email, and all social media means available
- Develop a mobile strategy based on accessing the data above and empowering external, entrepreneurial ventures to compete in a free market to provide the best services (i.e., build less apps in-house)
The above list is by no means comprehensive and perhaps one day I’ll have more time to elaborate. It is, however, a general, sustainable strategy for addressing pubic sector budgeting constraints given the current economic conditions. Some or all of this could be done in-house or out-sourced. If the latter, it needs to be highly extensible and portable.
I’m all for radical re-working and thinking different, but don’t let fiscal uncertainty or short-term instability drive irrational IT decision-making, especially when it comes to public services and citizen privacy.