Friday, 25 June 2010

Public sector killer apps

My passion is finding killer apps for the public sector which will be cheap or free to develop and make a real difference to the way we live.  More than ever, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are being adopted by people as their medium of choice to meet, chat, share stuff and get things done.  Traditional media is in a decline.

In recent months I have realised that government cannot 'create' killer apps for the unsuspecting citizen to use.  We have to exploit things they already use in their everyday lives.

We didn't try and invent a government telephone network for reporting crimes and calling the hospital.  We used what people were already used to.  Websites have their use but people only visit if they have a specific need and if Google can translate their search term into a top three result.  We cannot force people into doing what we want or listening when we have something to say.  We need to to be there to listen to them, understand what they want and respond appropriately.

If someone wishes to report a crime via Twitter, Facebook, email, text, phone, mobile, letter, telegram or messenger boy we have to be able to receive it.  But that is only the first challenge.  We also have to respond well to the request.  This can be tricky in the police service because for over 150 years, forces have considered it the role of a police officer to deal with crime.  A crime is reported; the police solve it; job done.

Crime cannot be dealt with like that anymore.  Officers are vastly outnumbered by the public and it is not conceivable to expect the police to be able to have all the answers in order to solve the crimes all by themselves.  We have now moved forward - we conduct public appeals for information but we have to go further.  All the police information systems are geared up to serve the police, not the public.  We need to overhaul the information systems so that the public can be involved right from the beginning and the victims can be informed every step of the way too.

Only if the IT systems hold the data in the correct formats can the information be delivered efficiently to the public via the web.

It is customary for officers to try and solve a crime using their own resources and information.  Only when they can't get any further do they seek help form the public.  How often do we see public appeals for a crime on the 1 year anniversary rather than a few hours after it happened?  The public hold all the answers and we already know that Crimestoppers and Crimewatch UK have helped solve hundreds of crimes by getting the public involved in the investigation.  Why did it take a charity and the BBC to develop these tools?  Surely they should have been developed by the government or the police service?  For the next generation of communication tools, we are continuing to rely on external third-party resources to come to our aid - is working on a service like this right now.

It is clear we cannot be trusted to develop big systems so we must instead trust the public to assist us.  We must work with,,, and all the others.

We can no longer use the excuse that the system has to be built using an expensive, licensed product by a large company and the inevitable huge cost.  There is no more guarantee this will future-proof the service than if it is built in-house on open sourced technology and supported by the people who built it.

We have recently dumped a perfectly serviceable website which was built by us using open sourced software.  It worked faultlessly for 6 years and was continuously developed by us, as-and-when required.  Sometimes a change was achieved before I'd even got off the phone from the person asking for it.  In contrast, we are now running the service on an expensive hosting platform with licensed database, OS and CMS.  Everything we need to add to the system now needs to be costed, quoted and built be an external company which can take weeks and months and many hundreds of pounds where we could have done the same thing for free in a few hours before.

We have to get real about how to create innovative, cost-effective solutions.  We need to work big, think big and be prepared to listen to the public and join in with the creative process.

Things I think we need:

National Crime Reporting System extending to
National Incident Reporting System

National Victim's Portal

National Property Database incorporating Lost and Found Property and VirtualBumblebee auctions

National community meetings system - can extend to councils and all other government departments

and Finally . . .

What about bringing back National Service?  Not in the armed forces but in the public sector?  You have to get involved in your local community somehow - attend meetings, vote, paint fences, help with after-school clubs, join neighbourhood watch, litter picking.  Every activity earns you points and you have to earn enough points to finish National Service.  It has to be the equivalent of two years.  It can be points or minutes - attend a litter picking event for 2 hours and you earn 120 points.


Today I received an email asking me to come up with ways the public sector and in my case, the police, can do more for less.

I have been employed in the public sector all my working life - 25 years in total.  I have another 25 years to go (probably 30 by the time they have finished with the pension reforms).  During that time I have submitted many ideas to our 'suggestion scheme'.  One thing I have learned over that time is that the more innovative and ground-breaking the suggestion you make, the more likely it is to fall at the first hurdle.  If your idea is 'safe' you will probably win a modest sum.  By 'safe' I mean something that doesn't upset the status quo, doesn't put anybody's nose out of joint and doesn't require any imagination, innovative thinking or risk.

Here is an example of one of my more 'radical' concepts which I submitted to our suggestion scheme around 1994/95.  I worked in a video production unit then and we were trying to think of new ways to distribute video to the workforce instead of VHS tape.  Computers had landed on our desktops (no networks then) and I thought how great it would be if we could give everyone a computer, connect them all up on a network and share the video alongside text and photos.  In essence I was talking about an Intranet without knowing it at the time.  We have an Intranet now; its not very good and still cannot handle video.  At the time of my suggestion, I was told that the cost of giving everyone a PC would be too high and that the concept would not be practical - any network was for 'IT data' not to share information and videos.  What i was meant to suggest was a different coloured noticeboard for posters to be pinned onto.  That would have been easy to understand, it wouldn't have threatened anyone and it would be easy to put in place.

So the Intranet came anyway despite my suggestion.

So the big question is this. Does David Cameron and Nick Clegg want me to tell them what a great move it would be to standardise the colour of government paper clips so they can be ordered centrally or do they want ideas that will actually make a difference?

If they receive big ideas from the public sector folk, are they big enough to see the big picture?  Maybe we'll just get those pink paperclips instead.