Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


January 2009

it’s happening! European meeting of great examples on web2.0 in public services – Brussels 16th March

We are organising (on demand of the EC) a European meeting of great examples of web2.0 in public services. It will take place in Brussels on March 16th.  “We” means Lee, Dominic and Justin, myself. Plus a wider network of friends already guaranteeing their participation.

Why? We’re fed up with making presentations about what you can do with web2.0. Our aim is to gather the best people around and show how web 2.0 projects already are changing public services, in order to change government perception for good. And we feel there is a strong interest of web2.0 people to meet at a European level.

Participation is free: we have no budget, we do it on a voluntary basis and the EC ePractice platform offers premises with wifi and food (thanks!). And yes, it is all very close term, so we really count on word of mouth to reach out.

Please do come to the event, either to present your project or just to discuss. And please, help us spreading the word about this and let’s make it together a memorable event, not just another workshop on web 2.0. Sponsors are also welcome for covering travel and additional costs.

Below I reproduce the text from the official website.

Over the last 3 years, we have seen a dramatic rise in user driven, web 2.0 style initiatives in and around public sector service provision. Initiatives such as Patient Opinion, Farmsubsidy and Theyworkforyou all seek to challenge, disrupt and improve on traditional models of public service delivery from the outside, built on the web 2.0 principles of openness, transparency and sharing.

The promoters of this event perceive a GROWING GAP between the innovation culture underlying these initiatives and the way that government approaches ICT innovation in public services. This gap is cannot be filled by repeating the same PRESENTATIONS ON WHAT CAN BE DONE with web 2.0. It is long time to DEMONSTRATE WHAT IS DONE ALREADY and to learn from experience.

There have been similar event in European countries, but it is now long time for a EU-level event: firstly, challenges are similar in different EU countries, thereby making the exchange of experiences particularly
meaningful and useful; secondly, we are at a particular moment of re-design of European policies, when a new ICT policy is being discussed following i2010.

The workshop will therefore bring together the best experiences from all over Europe, with two goals:

  • share experience and knowledge between the people running these projects, and promote the surge of collaborative initiatives
  • raise awareness and better understanding between government officials about WHY and HOW to promote web 2.0 in government

The workshop will focus on:

  • projects that apply web2.0 in government, run by civil society, individual citizens, private companies and government
  • existing policies on how to enable and promote web 2.0 in government

The structure of the workshop will be very interactive and hands-on, with short, to-the point 10 minutes presentation of projects, long time for informal discussion and knowledge exchange between participants.

The workshop is jointly organized by Tech4i2, Headshift, FutureGov and the European Commission / ePractice portal.

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quarterly financial results for MS, Google and Apple: just a coincidence or a signal of a paradigm change?

Last week financial results for last quarter of 2008 were published, and is was a striking difference between the negative results of microsoft , and the positive of Google and Apple. It is a more nuanced picture than this, but please beg with this schematisation.
This is even more striking, because in a recession situation one would expect enterprise-oriented and monopolistic business to be more resilient than customer-oriented and advertising-based business.
The blogosphere has long been discussing the apparent decline of MS and surge of Google and Apple. Yet most of the discussion are partisan, based on expert perception or short-term evidence.
This time or me we have somehow stronger evidence. Does this signal a real, important change happening?
In Perez‘s theory, paradigm change (apols for using this abused term) are characterised by turbulence, institutional change and the emergence of new players, which is accelerateed by the turbulence.

So the ultimate question is: is this recession going to accelerate change, and favour new actors and new business models, or will it kill these innovative products and services and bring back the old players?
My impression is that Google and Apple are both so established and cash-rich that they are likely to take advantage of crisis.

On the other hand, I am not so sure that web2.0 startups and, more important, web2.0 attitude will thrive.
The real question I’m interested in is : Will recession kill/reduce the spread of hacker’s ethic (altruism, openness, sharing, etc) in favour of more short-term, money-chasing attitude?


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Google Translate: a soft revolution in intercultural dialogue

I have been a fond user of Google translate for some time, it’s good enough to understand the main points. For example, thanks to gTranslate I was able to detect and correct the manipulating interview I got form a Danish newspaper.
I just realised 2 dramatic upgrades (new for me):
– a firefox button that automatically translates any page you’re viewing in your language.
– embedding the translator into GReader (clicking on feedsettings): this is dramatic because it enables conversations to happen between people speaking different languages! This  removes an important barrier to circulation of knowledge, especially tacit knowledge. The impact on innovation and learning, can be outstanding, especially in Europe where it is still very difficult to learn from each other.

These are incremental innovation, from the point of view of technology. They mainly make GTranslate more USABLE.
But we know the dramatic impact of usability. I alwasy repeat the same anecdote: when I asked Tom Steinberg what was new about MySociety projects with respect to traditional e-democracy projects, he answered usability and flexibility.
The history of innovation teaches us that Incremental innovations can have a disruptive impact, often more then radical innovation.

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public policy on information society: a change of direction

I am working on a strategy for the information society in a region, which is interesting because it is like a “god-simulator” game – very stimulating but so wide you can easily get lost.
While working on this I realize that there is a switch going on in information society policy. In the years 2000-2006 (the previous “programming period” of EU regional policy) the emphasis was on widening the approach from a narrow infrastructural policy to a service-centred policy.
We now see a second change, from a supply driven policy (on both infrastructure and services) to a demand driven policy. Whether you talk about business, citizens or government, the emphasis is on applying ICT to solve real-life problems. This also corresponds to a wider socio-technical change of paradigm: in Perez’s theory of installation and deployment of technology, the age of installation is led by supply, while  deployment is led by demand.
Here is how I visualized it.

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Government using transparency against public sector workers

I am a big fan of web2.0 and trasnparency but I also like to explore the dark side of it, as you know from previous posts.
I am seeing a small dangerous trend taking place now. Governments seem to start understanding the power of transparency and to use it in their internal fightings. In particular, they start to implement transparency NOT ON HOW PUBLIC MONEY IS SPENT, but on WORKERS’ SALARIES.

Here are the two signals:
– the Italian Minister for Innovation published one year ago as a flagship initiative the salary paid to all consultants of the Innovation Agency, without any reference to what were the obligation linked to the salary. So you have plenty of the people on the top gaining 50K-100K Euros and you didn;’t know if this was for a small study or for a year’s work (see my previous post)
– the Basque government, in the middle of a labour conflict with the civil servants,  published an announcement on the newspapers containing the details of the work permission allowed to civil servants in order to turn citizens against the civil servants (through administraciones en red).

Of course both information are and should be fully public. But one thing is to make it public, another to use it against individuals, especially while transparency is not applied to the main activities of government. For example, in the Italian case, one can find no information on how public money is spent on large scale project like the 80m Euros to create public internet access point.

This is even more striking when you add the italian initative to publish data on the declared revenue of each citizen.

I see a pattern here of government leveraging transparency not to empower individuals but to manipulate them.

Now I would say, either as an Alorza “commandment” or as a William Heath’s “WIBBI”:

Government should start to implement transparency on the way public money is spent and politicians act, and not on information on individuals and civil servants.

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