Recently the Conservative Party has been trying to convince the public that it ‘gets’ the internet. The best example is Maude’s Conference announcement that much more government spending would be published on the net so an army of “armchair auditors” could find the dodgy or wasteful and bring to account. Make no mistake, it is a cracking idea and should be adopted by every party.
However, there’s a less favourable response to Jeremy Hunt’s recent attempt to move in this space. Jeremy says a Conservative Government would pay a million pounds to the company that produces a website successfully engaging the public to provide instant feedback on policy initiatives. It’s an open competition and any company – big or small, can enter. The belief is that the ‘Wisdom-of-the-Crowds’ will help avoid the policy banana skins you fall victim to when in a Westminster bunker sunk in ‘groupthink’. Labour has given us textbook examples of what needs avoiding – think the ten-pence-tax-band, the Ghurkha saga, Childcare vouchers etc.
Predictably, this idea has been seen by the media as less ‘cracking’ and more ‘crackers’. In typical discussions on the proposal the word ‘gimmick’ is bandied about freely. Howls of “X,Y or Z Website already do this” are used to then make the point that the Conservatives don’t even understand what is already out there, “waste of taxpayers money” is another accusation from the Labour camp (irony noted). Without a loud challenge to the naysayers it has the whiff of an own-goal. It should not have. This is an idea with genuine merit. The cheap shots are a reaction to the headline without reference to detail.
The devil is, of course, always in the detail.
The inspiration for the ‘competition’ is the fabled ‘X-Prize’ foundation. This has proven that you can drive innovation (at low cost) through competition. Its first famous success was a prize for a privately built ‘spaceship’ that could reach orbit. Now that sounds ‘crackers’! – but it worked. A small company working in a small hanger in the United States managed what twenty years earlier had taken super-powers significant parts of their GDP to develop and still defeats many nation state-funded space programs today. With an eye on the prize, an eye on a tight budget, and without the politics and grandeur that stick to state funded programs – they innovated, accelerated and delivered.
The critical success factor was in the detail of what you needed to do to claim the prize. It wasn’t about drawing up plans for a spacecraft. It wasn’t about building a mock-up. It was about building it, launching it and doing it. In short: delivering it. No delivery, no prize. And it wasn’t about a one-off either. To claim the prize you had to put three people into space, in the same machine, and bring them back in one piece twice in two weeks. Any cost of failed development was shouldered by the private enterprise – not the taxpayer.
And so it can be with this ‘crowd-source’ government prize. Get the right criteria in place before the million can be claimed and you have it cracked. This cannot be about simply knocking up a website with ‘Web 2.0’ or social media features. It can’t be about just naming the technology or ripping off an existing platform and rebranding it. No – it has to be about ‘delivering it’. So to claim the prize, you should have to have something like the following auditable criteria met (I’ve plucked the numbers from thin air by way of example):
- 250,000 UK taxpayers as registered members.
- At least 25,000 unique visitors a month for a six month period
- Mechanism built in to ensure ‘trust’ (perhaps similar to ebay user ratings)
- Watch system and checks and balances built into identify and catch and attempts to manipulate the system (which defeats deliberate attempts from the judges to manipulate the system)
- Ease of use (could be demonstrated by requiring 100,000 of your registered users clicking to confirm that they believe the site is worthy of the prize – with any inducements for clicking leading to disqualification)
- 24/7 uptime of 99.99% over a six month period
And you can add and add criteria to the list. You could happily have very many websites co-existing for years as they tried to hit all the required performance indicators – the only winner in the development period would be the taxpayer. It would cost us nothing, the government would be getting the kind of voter input it could only previously dream of and when there is finally a winner it would have a solution they would be far, far cheaper, far more stable and far better user-tested than any other government IT project. A million pounds really isn’t very much at all in the scheme of Government IT projects. This could easily represent the biggest taxpayer ‘bang-for-buck’ in recent history.
So Jeremy, ignore the naysayers – press on with this and let’s prove that perhaps the Conservatives really do ‘get’ the internet. Your success or failure will rest entirely on those claim criteria…. get them right prove the naysayers wrong!