Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Evolution in the making

Going though the latest E-government Bulletin, I kind of got -gosh- excited. Why? Not because of any single item in particular, but merely down to the change in the direction of thinking that does, against all my scepticism, seem to be sweeping the ranks of the public sector.

I think, though, the triggering moment was looking through the new e-GIF accreditation site. Now, buying certificates and accreditation to say (officially) that you know how to use XML may not be ground breaking stuff, but it did highlight to me the efforts that are being put in so that information can reach the public more easily. Things start to tie together, very slowly. I agreed heartily with Jason Kitcat's vision of joined up government earlier in the week, but the scale of things didn't quite hit home until just now.

There are still some huge gaps though between the public sector's "belief" in technology, and what can possibly be achieved given "only", even, the technology available to us today. In fact, maybe that's it - maybe we have now reached a point where the technology is good enough. Perhaps we can finally stop looking at new ways to shunt information about and actually build a working infrastructure on top of the specifications and libraries that are now gaining stability and credibility all around us. In other words, maybe the human factor is the bottleneck - the skills, the motivation, and the vision.

But I probably digress. My moment of realisation linked up the tendencies being revealed today with where they'll take us in the future. Why is information flow so important? Because information is power, in an ever-clichedly way. Information allows us to make reasoned choices, and decisions that are less affected by emotion, spin and hype. Once the public has the information, not only can it decide things much better for itself, but also it can build the tools it requires that process this information. This phase has already started.

So governments moving towards a culture of dissemination rather than mere trust (as in "we're your representative, just trust us...") is a good thing. But still, the gulf between the public sector and the rest of the technological sphere is too big. Yes, there are great efforts to get information around, but at the same time, the truly useful vision of being "joined up" is hampered by a general lack of willingness, on behalf of the government, to actively integrate itself with the tools being built by those who already understand and are using the technology. For instance, the government are keen to promote their own, in-house projects, but I hear nary a peep out of them regarding many of the extremely useful ideas built by both the private sector and volunteers alike. Why is this?

I am excited because I think that the role of the government is changing, from that of representative and arbitrator, to co-ordinator. The technology available to us should finally allow us to organise ourselves, given the right information, rather than simply ask for change and hope that a central reservoir of electeds sees things the way we do. Granted, we will still need figureheads to stand in the middle of everyone, but they become more like a chairman at a meeting - someone to smooth the discussion and push for progress - and less like a spokesperson for an organisation.

This is a ripple that goes all the way through the systems we have in place, and it's this sense of scale that has given me more of a sense of motivation and "faith" in what we're doing today. For a while, I've figured that we can't just take our existing processes, stick an "e" in front of them and put them on-line. But now I think that it may be time to think differently about everything - the role of MPs and wards, the relation between a mass of people and a single channel of communication to those who decide the laws we live under, and the control we have over our own lives.

I think that if we keep pushing for more information, and so long as the technology remains available to us, the change in attitude will slowly become more reflected in the hierarchy that rules over us. Local councils and local MPs will merely reflect the efforts of the people under their "control", rather than acting as decision-maker and project-instigator, and the gap between how the public sector sees itself and how it can function will narrow.

Perhaps the government doesn't realise the power inherent in the move towards an information-based society. But really, they don't have to, so long as the information keeps being opened up like an oil pipeline, and there are people to look at it, and manipulate it. Bit by bit, I hope, democracy will take on a new meaning.

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