Tom Steinberg is a clever man, of course. When he says “Governments don’t have websites: governments are websites”, I think he’s wrong – but he’s a clever man, so at least he’s wrong in interesting ways.
“Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website.”
Really? When was the last time you looked at the Army’s website? Did you drive home tonight seeing only HTML, or did you keep your eyes on the road? Do you feel some confidence that a plane won’t crash on your head because you’ve checked on caa.co.uk? Is the first thing you do in the morning is have a look on police.uk to see if you’ve been murdered in the night? No, Tom, your main interface to government is not through a web browser: it’s through something called everyday life, through the environment in which you live and breathe, in which you transact business, through the rules you observe or ignore.
“To [most] people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon.”
OK, so the key point is that word “interacting”. You’ve reduced all the stuff government does to create and sustain a great part of the environment you inhabit to a question of what it feels like, essentially, when you want something – either because something has gone wrong (you’re sick, the bins haven’t been emptied, the road has a pothole) or because you’re obliged to (you owe them money). If you only look at the aspect of government that is a little bit like Amazon then it’s not a surprise if it looks like Amazon.
Now of course the slogan “governments are websites” is just a slogan, as the rest of Steinberg’s piece makes clear. What he say is that he doesn’t like government websites and he thinks public sector organisations don’t worry enough about the fact that their websites – particularly the transactional bits of their websites – are horrible. Fair enough. Or nearly fair enough. When I saw the slogan being repeated and retweeted (Steinberg said it first at SOCITM’s Building Perfect Council Websites 2012 event), it had an oddly nostalgic air to it. Its language reminded me of dotcom boomery and clicks not bricks and those heady days of e-everything. Do we even use websites any more? We use web pages and web services and bits of web functionality – but we experience them through searches, in apps, from links or QR codes. And yet public sector bodies, according to Steinberg, should be thinking more about “their” websites.
There’s a whole lot of thinking about finding services against finding websites that’s really fascinating (and which Amazon, on the whole, doesn’t have to bother its pretty little head about). I don’t want to go to my local authority’s (hideous) website to check the bin delivery day: I want to Google “bin delivery day” and for my device, the apps, Google, and whoever else is needed all to get together to tell me when my bins will be emptied – full stop. Yet when the service goes horribly wrong and I want to know the names of the buggers who’ve been failing to empty my bins properly for the last year, I absolutely want to know the name of my councillor, her address, and how I can vote the lazy bugger out. In the former transaction, branding only gets in the way of telling me what I need to know. In the latter case, branding does something that it will probably never do for Jeff Bezos (no matter how good his politics may be): it enables democratic accountability. Weirdly, for the man behind “MySociety”, Steinberg’s article doesn’t even hint at the existence of democracy. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit into a slogan very well.
In the last part of his piece, Steinberg makes some very good points about governments (and agencies and local authorities). Essentially he is saying “The public sector should think more about its digital services and in order to do that they should have some senior people who understand the first thing about it”. That’s not a very snappy slogan, but at least it’s kind of reasonable. But please let’s not, by overselling the point and indulging in slogans, give space to the claim that Amazon has the answer to running the public sector.