Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


October 2011

13 days to workshop: who are the civic developers?

In the context of the study which we will present at the workshop (Brussels October 27th), we did a survey of developers.

This survey received so far few answers (only 17) and is still open, but the early results are insightful.

82% of civic hackers do it voluntarily, without financial rewards or funding. Only one receives government funding. However this is possible because their costs are in 80% of the cases below 1000 Euros per year.

In terms of drivers, 90% are motivated by identifying a need not yet covered, and 80% by the desire to make a difference, and 40% for visibility. Money plays a minor role.

60% say that the main obstacle is non-availability of public data. Costs and business models instead are mentioned by a minority (18% and 29%). About one-third mentions lack of interest by the public as a problem.

Government attitude has generally been indifferent (50%). Only 18% defines it as supportive. None however defines it “hostile”.

Finally, the profile. 85% men; 94% with university degree (29% with Phd); 87% between 25-44 years old; half employed and half self-employed.

I found these results very insightful. They are available as open data here.

If you are a developer, please fill the survey so that we can have a more accurate picture. You have time until the end of October.

Should government have own engagement platforms?

I am more and more involved in advising government on online engagement and collaboration. When government think about this, the first idea is to build “their own” platform, and we’ve long argued that government should instead reach out where the discussion is already happening.

However, it is true that this is more difficult to manage, because conversations and contacts are dispersed. It is difficult to track the discussion and distill knowledge out of it, not to speak about concrete action.

Many governments have their own engagement platforms. Most of these do not work well because government is typically not very good at choosing and designign platforms.

But there are good cases. For example the department of Innovation and Skills, NESTA, the UK Technology Strategy Board. But also the US is a platform for action.

So my tentative hypothesis is that:

  1. government should have some forms of own engagement platform in addition to reaching out
  2. it should be a readily available platform, not a custom-developed one
  3. it should accept third party authentication (openID, twitter, google, facebook, linkedin) in order to allow for maximum integration of the discussion

Do you agree? and what are the best engagement platform you know used by government?

14 days to workshop: what is new about collaborative e-gov?

In this series approaching our workshop, we now further clarify the definition by exploring “what is new” in collaborative e-government. This is particularly important in order to avoid the risk that the concept moves obscurity to oblivion “without even a nanosecond of coherence“.

The notion that government is not the only provider of public service is far from new. It is necessary to have a brief overview of the cultural roots of such tradition in order to spell out the basis for the reflection, which will then inform the results of this analysis. The three historical elements of the debate are privatisation, philantropy and self-help.

One powerful political concept is privatisation. Contrarily to the current appearance, the history of government is not a history of progressive privatisation, but rather a oscillation between public and private provision of services. In the Ancient Greece and in Rome governments contracted out almost everything to the private sector, including tax collection, army supplies, religious sacrifices and construction. The creation of the modern state in the 16th century somehow restarted the move towards centralisation and public provision, which culminated in the 20th century welfare state. The late 20th century, and mainly from the 1980s, saw a resurgence of privatisation in the western world.[1] The notion of contracting out and privatisation is unavoidable when dealing with collaborative e-government: any observation about quality of service and accountability should build on the existing body of knowledge.

The second notion is philantropy and its role vis-a-vis the state. Again, the roots are in the Greek and Roman tradition, with particular relation to the religious prescriptions. But the debate become more interesting in the 19th and 20th century. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the 19th century the important role of civil society in the provision of public services in America with respect to France; and during the years of the creation of the welfare state, in particular in the Edwardian UK, the vision emerged of the voluntary sector as the “extension ladder” of the welfare state, catering for new and unmet needs. In the 1980s, the emerging role of the nonprofit sector became recognized as fundamental in the delivery of public services.[2]  More recently, both left (Obama in the US) and right wing (Cameron in the UK) government have shared the notion of government-citizens collaboration to the delivery of public services.

Closely related in both time and meaning, the notion of self-help has very ancient roots, but became a core social policy concept in the 19th century through the increasing importance of mutual organisations and cooperatives. By the end of the 19th century, over 80% of British working age men and 90% of Australian working age men were members of one or more Friendly Society.[3] In many domains, the importance of horizontal peer-to-peer exchange and collaboration has been acknowledged: tacit knowledge exchanged between workers in communities of practice is a factor of economic competitiveness;[4] peer tutoring between students is demonstratedly effective in increasing pupils performance,[5] and patients who turn to colleague and friends for health advice understand their condition better and generally show a greater ability to cope.[6]

These concepts are now yet again on the table of policy-makers, through the new “buzzword” of social innovation.

So is collaborative e-government simpy an expression of these long-term trends?

We argue that this is not the case, that it represents a significant discontinuity. The novelty lies in the dramatic increase in scope and granularity of collaboration, enabled by low-cost ICT. As Clay Shirky puts it, ICT play lowers the costs of collaboration and thereby increase exponentially the applicability and the impact of collaboration.[7] This multiplies the capacity of citizens to self-organize and of business to develop innovative business models out of government data. Furthermore, because of the low cost of technology, no longer this collaboration requires previous permission and formalisation: with can therefore talk about a new paradigm of “collaboration without permission“. There is no longer the need of an explicit agreement with government : for instance, was launched without a previous agreeement with the municipalities affected. There is no longer the need to establish formal organisation in order to deliver the service: collaborative e-government services can be delivered by informal groups.

This paves the way to new, softer and more difficutl forms of accountability and governance.

In the particular field of e-government, we’ve seen in recent years the emerging paradigm of government 2.0, where apps and public services are developed by third parties, largely on top of government data, and where citizens become coproducers of services and sensors.

In summary, collaborative e-government builds on the tradition of privatisation, philantropy and self-help, but is a disruptive innovation because affordable ICT makes this collaboration far easier, more pervasive and does not require formal agreements nore organisations.

[1] These macro-trends can also be observed in other geographical context, but with different timing and patterns.

[2] Salamon, L.M. & Anheier, H.K., 1996. The Emerging Nonprofit Sector: An Overview (Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Sector Series, 1), Manchester Univ Pr.

[3] Weinbren, D. & James, B. (2005) “Getting a Grip: the Roles of Friendly Societies in Australia and Britain Reappraised”, Labour History, Vol. 88.

[5] Merrell, C. & Tymms, P. 2011. Changes in Children’s Cognitive Development at the Start of School in England 2001 – 2008. Oxford Review of Education 37(3): 333-345.

[6] Mayo, E. & Steinberg, T., 2007. The Power of Information : An independent review.

[7] Shirky, C., 2009. Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, Penguin.

15 days to workshop: the definition of collaborative e-government

In order to prepare the discussion for the workshop on collaborative e-government, from today I am presenting on a daily basis the key results of our work.

The first issue deals with the definition of collaborative e-government.

When dealing with emerging trends, definition is not a basic formality but a fundamental goal of the research. In particular, the notion of “collaboration” is so wide that it could even encompass traditional online services where forms are filled directly by citizens.

In this case, the typical narrative is that while traditional government produces the data and builds services on top of them, collaborative e-government is typically considered when third parties build “cool app” on top of open government data.

Our definition goes beyond this. We define as collaborative e-government any public service that is electronically provided by citizens, NGOs, private companies and individual civil servants, in collaboration or not with government institutions, based on government or citizens-generated data. In other words, this definition includes government-provided services built on top of citizens-generated data.

This definition spells out the 2 architectural components of collaborative e-government: the data production and the service provision. As illustrated in Table 1, we include in this definition services that are based on both citizens and government generated data; and that are delivered by government, citizens, or private organisations.

We originally considered that excluded from this definition were services produced by government based on government data (the first cell top left), but we then corrected this in order to include mash-up and services built informally by individual civil servants. It is in fact now widely recognized that the web not only unleashes the creativity of individual amateurs, but also of employees, which are considered the main source of innovation for organisations.

Table 1: the visual definition of collaborative e-government

Service provider


Data source

Government Civil society (citizens and NGOs) Third party players
Government Civil servant’s innovation Apps and visualisations Private-public partnershipsCommercial apps
Citizens Crowdsourcing Self-help and collaboration Crowdsourcing

Furthermore, we start to provide an empirical definition of these cells, from crowdsourcing to self-help, from partnerships to apps and visualisation.

Finally, we consider collaborative e-government alongside the typical dimension of service: design, implement, evaluate. With regard to design, we refer for example to the crowdsourcing of ideas implemented through services such as; with implementation, we refer to the actual provision of services, such as the provision of transport information by Google Transit; with evaluation, we refer for example to the visualisation of government spending such as We consider that collaboration can happen at any of these stages.

Clearly these definition do not simplify, but rather complexify. But they provide the limits of the playing field and set the scene for further analysis.

Tomorrow we will rather focus on “what is new” about collaborative e-government with respect to traditional third party service provision.

Practice what we preach: self-evaluation of the Gdansk Roadmap

In a previous post I suggested indicators for evaluation of online engagement initiatives. So here I apply the proposed framework to the Gdansk Roadmap initiative.

The proposed indicators were:

  1. Avoid technical hiccups: number of complaints; degree of innovation (from mature to world first implementation)
  2. Ensure takeup: number of contributions, number of contributors
  3. No spam: number of spam comments
  4. Ensure high quality content: % of contributions judged as useful; % of new contributors (previously not engaged)

So the application to the roadmap says:

1) no technical hiccups at all, the application worked perfectly. It is a very consolidated application provided as-a-service, which basically requested only editing of a single webpage. No complaints about the platform were received. Only 2 comments were received via e-mail. And it was a real innovation: for the first time in EC consultations, comments were visible for all to read (many-to-many approach) and the commentable document was federated across website.

2) participation was good , albeit not great. 174 comments were received from 37 contributors. This is a good result considering the context: EU eInclusion policy is not the sexiest topic on the web.

3) no spam at all was received, only one comment mentioning to include Bosnia (?). Moderation was ex-post but there was simply no need for moderation.

4) I don’t know about the quality of the comment, I need to get feedback from the client and you can check for yourself. But I can say that the final roadmap was substantially changed and enhanced following the comments. See below the two world clouds.

Do you agree with this assessment?

Wordle of original roadmap text

Wordle of roadmap with comments

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