Data and governments

There have been three pieces of information in the last couple of weeks on the push for citizen access to government data. They caught my eye because I am doing some work with some government departments. Taken together they make three points about this drive for data transparency:

• It "forces bureaucrats and creative types to interact in new ways'' (see: February 4 the Economist printed an article 'Of governments and geeks')

• It seeks "to merge two cultures: the risk-averse ethos of the civil service, and the free-wheeling spirit of open-source developers, who seek continuous incremental change and see failure as a step to improvement" (Same article)

• It accelerates the requirement to "figure out how we change our operations." He [Chris Vein, San Francisco's CIO] insists that providing more information can make government more efficient, necessary for all government agencies who with budget shortfalls. (See:the Economist, February 27, on The Open Society) .

• It allows "site visitors to track government performance" (see: February 9. Government Accountability Web Site ). This piece draws attention to the website TrackDC which the writer claims "Both substance wise and technically, … out-athletes the White House's Open Government dashboard." (Side-note: I haven't come across 'out-athletes' before – another entry for the management jargon competition).

Focusing on the benefits of data access to citizens is good – but what is less discussed is how exactly the design of governments will have to change to offer this form of (to them) service innovation. It seems relatively straightforward to pump out data, but less straightforward to organize behind it to give the users of the data a positive experience in accessing and using it.

To get to a positive user experience means that governments, local, and national need to systematically think through the designs of their organizations and adapt them to meet the conditions of different ways of interacting, changing the culture, making their operations more efficient and cost effective, and taking accountability for performance.

So, in tandem with launching data streams government managers need to ask (and, more importantly, answer) such questions as:

• Who are the key customers/users of our service and how what can we offer to make life easier for them?
• What 'bundles' of services are we offering the users? How do these 'bundles' relate to each other – who are the stakeholders in each?
• What do we need to have in place in terms of practices, processes, people, systems, and structures, and measures to make life as easy as possible for our users and ourselves?
• What 'look and feel' do we want our users to experience as they 'buy' our services?
• How can we develop and offer transparent services in a way that cuts costs and gives better service to the citizens

This is, in fact, taking the approach of treating services as if they were products. Product design goes through a well-documented life-cycle: design and development, testing and market research, and refinement over time. Oddly, organizations rarely have formal processes, roles and practices for developing, managing or innovating their services as a portfolio. Without this formal, full life-cycle development process for their services, organizations usually fail to maximize return on investment, infuse discipline into the development process and manage expectations and customer needs. Governments, in responding to the data push demand are in a unique position to demonstrate how to do this in systematic and innovative way.