Author: Richard Fahey

Government spending cuts: Who knows best?

The recently announced UK Government Spending Challenge, has this week, invited members of the public to send in their ideas on how to get value for public money.

The UK Spending Challenge was announced last month, but was initially only open to public servants. As Chancellor George Osbourne explained above, the response from public servants has been impressive. It has yielded over 60,000 ideas in just two weeks:

A couple of weeks ago, I asked people working in our public services for their ideas, and an amazing 56,000 people got in touch. It just shows how people respond when given a chance. We’re already putting into practice many of their ideas.

Now I’m asking the general public for their views. Tell us where’s the waste. What should we cut out. What can we improve. What’s working really well that we should be doing more of. You let us know. You can get in touch via the Spending Challenge website, or by going to the Democracy UK section of Facebook.

Your Government needs you. Please get in touch.

The 60,000 ideas will now be analysed by a central government team who will ensure the best ideas are taken forward as part of the Spending Review. The conclusions of the Spending Review will be published on 20 October 2010.

UK’s Spending Challenge versus US SAVE Award

The opening up of this Challenge to the public coincides with President Obama’s launch of the 2010 SAVE Award. The competition was announced on Thursday with the launch of a new Ideascale site where .gov workers can submit saving ideas and vote on other suggestions from Federal employees.

The site has already received 2,000 ideas, with the current most popular being an expansion of telecommuting, transportable security clearances and the donation of surplus government property to schools.

There’s quite an interesting contrast between the top ideas on the US SAVE Award site – which is currently restricted to Federal employees – and those available on the UK Spending Challenge website which is open to the public. There is however, noticeable similarities between the ideas submitted by UK Public servants and their US colleagues. For example, transferable security clearances are highlighted on the SAVE Award and were also suggested by public servants through the Spending Challenge site.

Some of the most commented upon public ideas, however, on the UK site relate to benefits, immigrants and membership of the European Union. These ideas relate to larger strategic policy areas, rather than the relatively nuanced ideas on improving government efficacy proposed on the SAVE Award site and by UK public servants.

One of the top public ideas on the Spending Challenge relates to the website itself and suggests it should itself be ‘shut down’ to save money. In this vein, it’s interesting to look at the government’s collaboration with Facebook and their involvement in the Spending Challenge.

Facebook: ‘public engagement for free’

On announcing the Facebook tie-up Prime Minster Cameron participated in a video chat with Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He said :

We are really excited about having Facebook involved in the Spending Challenge…

There’s enormous civic spirit in this country where people want to take control and do things in a different way. We are giving people an opportunity with Facebook and I am sure that they will take it.

He went on to echo some of the thoughts outlined by the idea that the Spending Challenge site itself should be ‘shut down’ to save money:

Normally if Government wants to engage with people we’d probably spend millions of pounds, even billions, on our own website, and with your help we’re basically getting this public engagement for free.

That’s quite a good start for saving money.

The Spending Challenge site is based on an Open Source theme and Delib’s Plone-based Dialogue App platform. While this emphasises the government’s reuse of Open source code, the site is not without its criticisms and failings.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes has described the collaboration as “the largest public engagement project ever launched by the British Government”. As part of this the social networking site will ask its 23 million members in the UK to submit and vote on ideas for where cuts can be made.

The Downing Street press release is vague on Facebook’s specific involvement, however, except to say:

The social networking site will support the Treasury’s Spending Challenge by providing a dedicated space for Facebook users to come up with ideas on how to make savings in public spending.

Along with this the government says Facebook will be its “primary channel” for communicating with the public about spending cuts. Interestingly, the reference to WikiLeaks on the Spending Challenge site (highlighted in a previous blog) is no longer active. The entire paragraph where it says it will “monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums”, has been removed from the site suggesting perhaps that Facebook will be the only platform upon which the debate over spending cuts will be monitored.

The primary question regarding the tie-up with Facebook is whether it provides an appropriate platform for informed debate on government spending and how to improve its efficacy.

Facebook comments

Many commentators have pointed out that the tie-up with Facebook is rather nebulous and currently very limited. In a blog post on techPresident, Nancy Scola notes how their current involvement appears simply to be a link to a government website: “Somewhat confusing matters: Facebook’s involvement in the Treasury Spending Challenge seems limited to, at this point, linking from its Democracy UK page to, yes, a custom-made official British government website.”

Andrea Di Maio, a Gov 2.0 analyst at Gartner, suggests that adding a Facebook channel will not broaden the debate:

So at the end of the day Facebook will be no more than a channel to point to the Chancellor’s Spending Challenge site. Whoever believes that the sheer presence on Facebook will broaden and rebalance participation of UK citizens in this contest is wrong.

People who have an interest (and often a vested interest) in participating in the Spending Challenge will do so with or without the Facebook page.

The quality of the comments and debate on Facebook regarding the Spending Challenge launch does not instill confidence in its use as a debating platform. The Register notes the number of “bewildering” comments and “spam posts” the page has already received.

Reading through the 491 comments this has already received, highlights the difficultly the coalition will have in stimulating constructive debate on such sensitive issues as spending cuts.

Difference in Ideas

There is a clear and noticeable difference in the ideas on the SAVE Award site, in comparison to those on the Spending Challenge site.

The SAVE Award site is only open to Federal employees and consequently has a strong focus on operation efficiency within agencies. As Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director noted:

The basic premise here is that many of the best ideas exist on the front line. Those doing the work on the front lines have the best ideas on how to make changes.

George Osborne published a sample of ideas put forward by public sector workers in the first phase of consultation. These ideas represent many good suggestions for improving back-office services for public sector organisations. They include merging back-office services for public sector organisations, switching off office computers over the weekend and better mobile phone contracts (an idea President Obama highlights in his SAVE Award video and expected to save the Government $10m).

In opening up the idea platform to the public, however, the UK government has shifted the focus away from those ‘working on the front lines’ of government services. Thus, the ideas posted by the public have primarily focused on major public policy questions e.g. reform of the welfare state or immigration policy. These are not ideas for which governments will change course because of an online debate. Rather they represent principles upon which political parties are elected. There is a danger, therefore, that public involvement in the Spending Challenge will morph into a policy debate, rather than the operational efficiency debate for which I believe it was intended.

Generating great ideas in the Public Sector

As part of the doing what works program, the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a report called Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector. It analysed 24 ways in which Governments and Organisations are generating great ideas in the Public Sector. These were arranged under five themes:

  1. Unleash the creative talents of government employees
  2. Setup dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation
  3. Divert a small proportion of your budget to harnessing innovation
  4. Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems
  5. Look at an issue from different perspectives to notice things your wouldn’t otherwise

The Spending Challenge was initially focused on unleashing the creative talents of government employees to suggest ideas to cut spending. However, its current focus on collaborating with outsiders risks diluting the initiative from producing concrete frontline ideas that could reasonably be implemented, to a policy discussion the outcome of which may-be too nebulous to result in any government action. This has the potential to increase public cynicism in such endeavors if no specific ideas are acted upon.

The essential difference between the Spending Challenge and the outside collaboration examples CAP highlights, is the absence of any specific problem for the public to solve. The challenge of how to ‘re-think government to deliver more for less’ is far too broad and can result in a paradox of choice with the effect that ideas representing the lowest common denominator rise to the top.

The Capital Ideas report highlighted Innocentive, DC’s Apps for Democracy, and Social Innovation Camp as successful examples of collaboration with outsiders. All these focused on specific challenges, for which an experienced minority could focus on.

The real opportunity to collaborate with outsiders and transform the way that the public sector does things, requires posing concrete problems requiring specific outcomes. These can be affected through either product or service innovation, but where possible should be substantiated by evidence-based reasoning. The worry is that opening up the Spending Challenge initiative to the public without reference to clear problems, degenerates it into an idea free-for-all with all the associated online comments we’ve come to expect from such initiatives.

For more check:

UK government launches Spending Challenge: ‘Help us get more for less’

UK Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off a consultation exercise on ways to reduce government spending. Together with Nick Clegg he has written to public service workers asking them to share their ideas on where to make spending cuts.

A Spending Challenge website has been launched to solicit suggestions from Britain’s 6 million public sector workers. The challenge states that “Every single idea will be considered and the best ones taken forward by departments, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office”. Ideas will be analysed through a five step process:

  1. All ideas considered by cross-government team
  2. Serious ideas go to ‘champions’ team in Cabinet Office/Treasury
  3. Most promising ideas sent to departments and Treasury spending teams to be worked up
  4. Selected ideas reviewed by Ministers
  5. Spending Review announced October 20th

The rational for the challenge is laid out in Cameron’s letter:

The biggest challenge our country faces is dealing with our huge debts – and that means we have to reduce public spending.

Reducing public spending will require innovative and challenging ideas, best developed by those working on the frontline of public services:

We want you to help us find those savings, so we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible. You work on the frontbench of public services. You know where things are working well, where the waste is, and where we can re-think things so that we get better services for less money.

[…] Don’t hold back. Be innovative, be radical, challenge the way things are done. Every serious idea will be considered: by government departments, by the Treasury, by our teams in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office – and passed to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to make sure we don’t miss anything.

While the website states the government “will look at every single idea that comes in”, however, there is no guarantee any of the suggestions will make it through to the final Spending Review report in October. This will set detailed spending plans, with budget cuts of up to 25% over four years for many government departments.

The Spending Challenge will be opened to the general public from 9 July. A summary of all submissions will be published later this year.

Partner with Wikileaks

The Spending Challenge site will also monitor social media as a means of fulfilling its mandate to find innovative ideas for saving money. This represents a recognition that some of the most “out of the box” suggestions may be outlined by on blogs and forums, rather than a newly created government website:

Although this process allows you to submit ideas anonymously, we respect the fact that some people will not want to contribute directly to a government website. As part of this exercise, we will monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums and also http://wikileaks.org.

Save Award similarities

The UK Spending Challenge has many similarities to the Obama Administration’s SAVE (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency) Award. On launching last year’s competition President Obama called for “a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better.”

David Cameron’s recognition that public sector workers often have the best ideas was outlined by Jeffrey Zients, chief performance officer and deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, when he said it was important to listen to the voices of those on the front lines:

In the government and in the private sector, it is often those in the front lines that have the best ideas and who know the most… We are looking for ideas that save money, improves the way the government operates by lowering costs, simplifying processes, streamlining processes, getting rid of unnecessary red tape and that has an impact on citizens’ lives. It could be a wide range of ideas.

The competition was seen as a success with over 38,000 ideas being submitted in the three weeks of the competition. Given this, the SAVE Award was turned into an annual event with President Obama issuing his own “spending challenge” to government workers:

I’ve issued a challenge to every man and woman who works for the federal government: If you see a way that government could do its job better, or do the same job for less money, I want to know about it

Saving through Open Source

The twitter reaction to the launch of the new site has been generally positive. The initiative is one of the latest examples of the coalition seeking to harnessing the collective ideas and experience of those working outside of central government.

As a nod to this the website itself is based on a WordPress theme developed by Simon Dickson for the recent Programme For Government site. Seeing the government use Open Source tools for the website, and reusing previous themes, demonstrates the spirit of the spending challenge.

The extension and reuse of such open source technology throughout government could help to bring down the cost of government websites. The axing of many government websites has already been proposed by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, but ideas from the public on reducing the costs of current sites e.g. through using free templates such as Govfresh’s Gov 2.0 theme, would be welcomed – especially when some current sites have a per visit cost of £11.78.

The winning idea from the US SAVE award is expected to save $2 million for 2011, and $14.5 million between 2010-2014. Any similar savings arising from the UK Spending Challenge should help establish the power of consultation with the public as a means of saving money and improving government efficiency.

Further reading

UK Gov’s Digital Revolution: Digitise, Personalise, Economise

Gordon Brown’s speech last week on “Building Britain’s Digital Future”, covered a wide range of topics, but focused particularly how digital technologies such as the “semantic web” could drive a radical reshaping of government and its interactions with citizens.

He outlined his ambition for Britain to be the world leader not only in the digital economy, but also:

in public service delivery where we can give the greatest possible voice and choice to citizens, parents patients and consumers; and the world leader in the new politics where that voice for feedback and deliberative decisions can transform the way we make local and national policies and decisions.

Linked data

Mr. Brown explained how the concept of Linked data and the semantic web has ‘the potential to be just as revolutionary as the web’. He went on to say:

in both the content and delivery of public services the next stage of the web will transform the ability of citizens to tailor the services they need to their requirements, to feedback constantly on their success, to interact with the professionals who deliver them and to put the citizen not the public servant in control.

As part of this, he announced £30m in funding to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science – headed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt (expert in web science) – to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web. The idea is to ensure the UK is at the cutting edge of research on the semantic web and other internet technologies.

Digital revolution

Brown outlined three steps to ensure the UK realizes the ambition to become a leader in the next stage of the digital revolution: digitise and improve the digital communications infrastructure; personalise service delivery and government interactions; and harness the power of technology to economise .

  • Digitise – Make the UK a leader in the provision of “superfast broadband”.

The prime minister said access to broadband was a fundamental freedom in the modern world, and would save government billions of pounds while at the same time revolutionizing how people access public services.

Superfast broadband is the electricity of the digital age. And I believe it must be for all – not just for some.

[…] Faster broadband speeds will bring new, cheaper, more personalised and more effective public services to people; it will bring games and entertainment options with new levels of sophistication; it will make accessing goods and services immeasurably easier; it will enrich our democracy by giving people new ways of communicating complaining and challenging vested interests.

  • Personalise – Seize the opportunities for voice and choice in our public services by opening up data and digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government.

He announced that from 1st April, ordnance survey information will be made freely available to the public and in the autumn the government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.

[..] we must use this technology to open up data with the aim of providing every citizen in Britain with true ownership and accountability over the services they demand from government.

And in doing so we can put in place the best most personalised but universally accessible digital public services in the world, and harness the power of technology to economise – shaking up Whitehall and making us the most efficient, open and responsive government in the world.

[…] The new domesday book will for the first time allow the public to access in one place information on each set of data including its size, source, format, content, timeliness, cost and quality. And there will be an expectation that departments will release each of these datasets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.

Any business or individual will be free to embed this public data in their own websites, and to use it in creative ways within their own applications.

Along with opening up data Brown also set out a raft of measures to create personalised web pages for everyone to engage with government services. It’s called Mygov and is seen as a replacement to the first generation of online citizen interaction with government i.e. e-government:

Mygov will constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government – making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping. This open, personalised platform will allow us to deliver universal services that are also tailored to the needs of each individual; to move from top-down, monolithic websites broadcasting public service information in the hope that the people who need help will find it – to government on demand.

[…] Online, Mygov will give people a simple “dashboard” to manage their pensions, tax credits or child benefits; pay their council tax; fix their doctors or hospital appointment and control their own treatment; apply for the schools of their choice and communicate with their children’s teachers; or get a new passport or driving licence – all available when and where they need it.

[…] This bold new approach will transform the way services are delivered but, more importantly, it will be the vehicle through which citizens will come to control the services that are so important to their lives and communities. With Mygov, citizens will be in control – choosing the content relevant to them and determining their level of engagement.

  • Economise – The Pre-Budget Report we set out the government’s determination to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.

The prime minister explained how restructuring and reform government departments should provide for major savings on running costs – while providing better services to the citizen. This transformation will be driven through the use of new digital technologies which can enable the change from a “paternalistic, closed Whitehall to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalise shape and ultimately control their services.”

He explained how the government is committed to achieving £4bn of savings from back office functions by 2012-13. To drive this forward, the government intends to establish a number of business service companies that will handle the routine back office functions of Whitehall departments. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as held up as an example of how this could work:

The prototype for this new approach already exists – the shared services centre in the department for work and pensions, which already supports 140,000 staff in three departments and plans to take on four more in the next year. DWP also has plans to establish its shared services as a trading fund within the next twelve months, and will explore in parallel the scope for bringing further commercial expertise into its work.

Deliberative democracy

While the majority of Brown’s speech focused on harnessing new technology to refashion the structures and workings of government, he also envisaged how it could “open the door to a reinvention of the core policy-making processes and towards a renewal of politics itself.”

Digital government can open new ways of enabling people to influence and even decide public policy (check San Francisco’s recent example of such Policy consultations).

[…] Since it was established at the end of 2006, the number 10 e-petitions service has received more than 70 thousand petitions. There have been more than 12 million signatures placed and the Government has replied with more than 8 million e-mail responses.

Each week I record a podcast and use twitter most days. Number10.gov.uk carries out daily conversations with more than 1.7 million followers. There have been almost 2 million views of our images on flickr and 4.3 million views of our films and videos on YouTube.

Perhaps, as a reference to the US government’s recent citizen engagement initiative – as part of the Open Government Directive – he explained how he was inviting people to directly share in the task of government that is there to serve them.

And I am today tasking every department to identify the far wider scope for deliberative engagements with the public, specifiying the outcome expected from such engagement.

It’ll be interesting to see how departments gather together the scope for such an exercise, and whether they go to the same lengths as US government agencies in crowdsourcing ideas.

Future

Gordon Brown has signaled his determination to harness new digital technology to reshape government and create a new generation platform upon which citizens can engage more efficiently. However, with an election expected to be announced next week, it’s unsure whether he will still be in office to see these ideas implemented.

Nevertheless, many aspects of the speech above are also contained in the Conservative’s recent Technology manifesto e.g. the release of more government data, improving broadband speeds and utilising more ‘Open Source’ software to reduce IT costs. Whoever wins the next election it looks like the central tenets of Open Government – transparency, participation, and collaboration – will become more and more integral to the delivery of public services and the efficacy of government departments.

Related

€1m-plus fund for ideas to move Ireland forward

Earlier this week, President Mary McAleese launched a search to find two “game-changing” ideas that will help secure prosperity and jobs for Ireland.

The initiative comes in the form of a competition – Your Country, Your Call – that is offering two winners a cash prize of €100,000 each and up to €500,000 for implementation of their ideas.

The initiative describes itself as “a competition to ignite imaginations and inspire thinking.”

The goal is to pick two truly transformational proposals so big that, when implemented, could secure prosperity and jobs for Ireland. Proposals that could help change the way we do things, allow businesses to grow, employment to be created and prosperity to flourish.
[…] Your Country, Your Call is all about Ireland. It’s about helping to create sustainable employment and prosperity, whilst at the same time generating hope, confidence, and positive thinking.

Economic gloom

On launching the initiative President McAleese said the mood of the country was currently one of pessimism and deep disappointment. Unemployment in Ireland currently stands at nearly 13%, the highest in more than 15 years. This, along with a recent budget of severe cuts to public services, has led to deep public anger and resentment with the state of the economy.

The President, however, said Ireland had “formidable brain power” and, if utilised, the country could go forward again:

We need fresh thinking and action to shake off these doldrums and get us into forward gear. Ireland has formidable brainpower and a determination forged and tested over many generations. Your Country, Your Call is a challenge to this generation to come up with workable proposals capable of helping to put Ireland back firmly on its two feet.
[…] It is hoped that Your Country, Your Call will become a “mind meitheal,” which will generate interest and debate in families, workplaces, clubs, organisations, institutions, schools, colleges, communities, promoting positive thinking, faith hope and confidence in our country’s future.
[…] Your Country, Your Call is essentially an act of faith in our brain-power and our ability to create an exciting and realizable landscape of opportunity for our country and our people. It is now officially open for your proposals. So get talking, thinking and proposing.

President McAleese, who is patron of the initiative, said the winning projects might involve new ways of doing everyday things or might identify a completely new industry or service. They could be in any area, from education and sport to science and tourism, from agriculture and religion to arts and industry.

Process

Those interested have until April 30th to lodge their idea through the website YourCountryYourCall.

The thousands of ideas expected will be sifted throughout the summer. These will be distilled down to the 20 most viable which will be considered at the semi-final stage of the competition. These finalists will be assigned a coach for a 6-week period, who will work to help them develop their proposals.

Following the 6 week coaching period, each semi-finalist will be interviewed. Out of these interviews 5 finalists will be chosen to participate in a two-day event that will conclude with awards being presented by President McAleese.

Ideas

In the first two days after the site was launched it received over 40,000 hits. More than 1,700 users have registered, submitting some 650 ideas, nearly 900 comments and over 2,600 votes. The current most popular idea, with over 230 votes, surrounds the creation of a Talent Tank where businesses can get in touch with people who have the skills they need and will work for free to showcase their talents.

Other ideas which have received popular support include: how the Health service can save money, the creation of an Irish sea Tunnel and the development of the railways. Some ideas, however, such as relocating the Vatican to Cavan look less certain of achieving popular support.

Competition backing

The competition is being governed by a charity, An Smaoineamh Mór, who will oversee the idea process and also coordinate the development of the two winning ideas.

The initiative is being largely supported by “corporate entities” and a “small amount” from government. An Smaoineamh Mór, chairman Dr Laurence Crowley said the identity of those who are providing the funds – capped at €150,000 – would be revealed in due course, but that €2 million of the estimated €2.5m required had already been secured.

Cisco and other IT companies based in Ireland are expected to be supporters of the imitative.

Get Thinking!

A television advertising campaign began this weekend to encourage people all over Ireland to enter the competition. It features prominent Irish personalities such as singer Christy Moore, writer Cecelia Ahern and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary.

Summary

While the use of Idea platforms has been widely used within corporations and other countries – witness the Open Government movement in the US – such a campaign soliciting ideas from citizens is relatively new in Ireland. While we’ve had the Ideas Campaign, it did not offer a prize fund, nor significant development opportunities for proposals.

The fact that this initiative has an engaged and powerful patron, along with significant financial resources, suggests it will be able to engage people in a way other requests for ideas on economic renewal have not.

While the process conforms to suggestions from experts on how to solicit ideas and engage the public, more transparency is needed on how ideas will be brought forward to solutions. Innovation platforms need to have 3 distinct phases. Citizen involvement in each phase – other than in the Participation stage – is not outlined, nor is the relevance of the voting mechanism i.e. we don’t know if the ideas with the highest number of votes automatically go through to the semi-finals, or if there is a judging panel involved. Having citizen involvement throughout the engagement and implementation phases could be a significant tool in successfully implementing the winning ideas.

Overall the initiative is a welcome and positive development. I’ve already submitted an idea and hope to help develop others on the site. The competition is not just restricted to Irish people, but is open to anyone who has suggestions on how to create sustainable employment and prosperity for Ireland.

It’s time to get thinking. Over to you – Is leatsa e.

More about ‘Your Country, Your Call’