I started this post at the start of April, returned to it with the demise of Flip but finally finished it after Andrew Beeken shared his own thoughts yesterday.

April saw the demise of Flip. Despite being the leading camcorder brand in the US, parent company Cisco judged the marketplace to be unsustainable in the face of the competition posed by our mobile phones.

Given that they paid $590m for the technology two years ago it’s a bold move. Equally, their quitting from a position at the top is shrewd because of the inevitable future of hand-held video recording.

I really like my Flip camera and when the product was first introduced it disrupted the market but I expect to get similar functionality from my next mobile phone without having to carry something else in my pocket. Whilst convergence is not good for the 550 employees at Flip, the rest of us benefit – we get one thing where once we might have had to use more.

It’s that sort of approach which lies behind Martha Lane Fox’s vision for a single government domain and over the last three months it has been brought to life by 11 people somewhere in London. There had been glimpses of what they were working on and The Telegraph had featured a couple of screenshots as well as some interviews but this week we were able to get our grubby mitts on this “proof of concept prototype“.

This 261k investment is the start of something greater with Chris Chant, the (interim) executive director for digital government telling SOCITM’s spring conference “it’s not perfect and it could be significantly different when we go live with the real deal, which will probably be in about a year” and Tom Loosemore (who is heading up the project) calling it a three year project in his interview with The Telegraph.

Unlike the world of mobile technology the public sector doesn’t have disruptive companies redrawing the playing field for market advantage and the lack of impetus that can cause provides a barrier for innovation. So it’s good to see the drawing board being dusted off and a team starting from scratch to explore how you might transform the way we do stuff with central government. But taking that approach centrally has repercussions for the things we access locally and perhaps even the role of local government websites full stop.

There’s nothing the British public love like a good postcode lottery debate and local decision making and local priorities can often lead to sometimes large differences in very similar policies or services. Normal people don’t tend to visit any council website other than their own so this particular postcode lottery debate doesn’t come up very often. Even a brief consideration of how different Yorkshire councils approach the web highlights the fact that where you live determines the quality of relationship you might have with your council online.

As a result, some councils are limited in their use of the internet to save money by getting people to do stuff online but there’s also an increasing democratic impact on our ownership of local decisions and access to opportunities to participate in place shaping discussions.

Local authorities have expended time, energy and money developing online solutions for very real and present local needs. Each council has a mapping solution, they’ll tell you when your bin should be collected,  publish their £500 spending data, provide mechanisms for paying council tax or renting social housing. But they don’t look the same and they’re of varying quality. Andy’s post calls that perplexing and it’s hard to disagree. He goes on to wonder

if local authorities open their data up, share it in easily consumable formats that Alpha can suck in and push out via location to their users, why do we need distributed websites?

That’s a threatening question for all those whose livelihoods depend on the local government web because it questions their existence. It suggests that myriad council websites are a layer of complexity too far when a single, location aware portal could aggregate what’s relevant and unify the experience of being a citizen.

Such an experience sounds attractive and I think he’s asked a good question because there are clear merits in the convergence of local government’s best web tools. When it comes to local information, or local transactions, the most important thing has to be the quality of experience for the public. At the moment that quality varies wildly. Perhaps you can achieve that from scraped content within whatever AlphaGov becomes. That’s already been in the public consciousness as Stef Lewandowski‘s involvement with first BCCDIY and then DIYcouncil (the site was down at the time of writing) attests. That approach does little to resolve the fun and games with back office systems which is the Holy Grail in terms of both experience and savings.

There’s another aspect to a local web presence that could get lost in this convergence. And that’s participation. Local issues are shaped by our local needs, by our local characteristics and our local politics. Strengthening local democracy is important and that’s part of a local council’s responsibility (obviously without being partisan).

There is already a disconnect between the services people receive and their relationship with local government. The life of the council, so effectively demonstrated by Walsall24, is a rich story that deserves to be told. The efforts of local people whether elected, employed or volunteering their skills warrant being heard. I don’t like focusing on the ballot box as the sum of democracy but it helps highlight the issues. Last week the balance of power in York shifted, apparently decisively, but the new council’s mandate is 16.5% of the city’s electorate because a majority of people didn’t vote.

The nature of the relationship between citizen and state is beyond the remit of AlphaGov. It’s not attempting to recast democracy, its focus is on creating an effortless experience of the services our tax pays for. It’s a prototype that showcases a very different approach. That approach may be reflected in future designs from across the country. It will definitely change expectations, particularly in 12 months’ time if the central government experience is so different to things locally.

I think it would be a mistake for the local response to be “how can we adopt the best bits of AlphaGov?”. That’s the status quo – web teams trying to achieve the same outcomes in a myriad of different ways. That’s localism but it isn’t the best use of limited public funds. Cisco decided their model was no longer sustainable. They’d invested a lot of money in buying a product and even though it was still good they recognised it was not the future of hand-held video and took a decision.

It’s probably overly naive and simplistic to ask whether local government can do something similar. Humour me. Could there be a proactive, shared response to what’s happening centrally? Instead of waiting for the fruit of AlphaGov to push local government towards a single portal (not entirely unexpected as Gordon Brown suggested this last March) can local government pool its talent and test whether a common platform, an Alpha(Local)Gov, could work? Instead of suffering under the weight of rubbish technology or wrestling with archaic attitudes could those involved with the local government web be freed to invest in things that enhance local participation and involvement instead?

Like I said, naive and simplistic.

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...