Governments and public agencies should begin thinking of themselves not as depositories of information for citizens to access at will, but instead reposition as technology platforms providing useful insights before citizens realise they are even needed.
This is the position of Drupal creator and Acquia co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert, who says governments should take heed of the gradual rise of the “reverse web”, wherein fewer citizens actively search for the information they need and instead are provided that information, along with relevant insights and calls to action, by platforms with knowledge of their behaviour.
“I think governments need to think of themselves as platforms,” said Buytaert. “They need to offer a core set of capabilities available to government departments, and then enable agencies to innovate and transform services, or build on top of that platform.”
Over the next decade, Buytaert says, the internet will completely transform from users “pulling” relevant information to organisations and providers “pushing” that information whenever — or even before — it is relevant.“A lot of these experiences will blend into the background of your life.”
Facebook’s news feed is a good example of this, Buytaert says, by contextualising and pushing users information that is relevant to them. In the future notifications will take on more of a context akin to Google Now, Buytaert argues, which gives users information on a range of activities based on their past behaviour. For instance, notifying a user they would have to leave for work at a particular time due to traffic conditions — without the user accessing that information first.
These examples are just the beginning of this shift, Buytaert says, towards automated, real-time decisions.
“A lot of these experiences will blend into the background of your life,” he said. “You’ll get these notifications, and you won’t have to go to your browser. I don’t think everything will be magically pushed to you, but more and more will be.”
This shift in the transfer of information comes as government and public agencies are attempting to overhaul their approach to technology. Moving systems to the cloud, unifying content and distribution platforms through initiatives such as govCMS, and adopting Agile development methodologies are part of a shift towards embracing innovation, simplification and transformation in government.
Moving from a “pull” to a “push” environment online, Buytaert says, fits will within the context of public agencies undergoing digital disruption. Emergency services contacting citizens automatically and transformation to higher education access are just some examples where this approach can do good, Buytaert says — but the key shift is in how agencies start thinking about what citizens want, and how they want it.
In this sense, agencies should not compare themselves to other agencies — but the types of services and information offered by companies such as Facebook and Google.
Buytaert points to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. In the immediate aftermath, Facebook released a feature which allowed users to mark themselves as “safe” — 4 million people in Paris did so within hours of the attacks. Buytaert says public agencies should start thinking about these types of initiatives and how they can create IT systems to allow them.
‘It’s really an IT story’
“It’s really an IT story. It’s about investing in software and technology, data and data centres and making sure that as a government you have a strong enough muscle … how can a government be as good as an Apple, or a Facebook, or Google, in doing some of these things? [Governments] are going to look more like technology companies,” he said, which means agencies should begin “staffing up and building up talent”.
Agencies should not only position themselves alongside large technology companies with regard to the types of services they offer, Buytaert says, but also consider how to reposition their use of data.
“There is a big role in government that can take on personal data,” he said. “I could see a government building and providing even more regulation to make sure organisations are not abusing that information … or becoming some sort of information broker.
“How can governments become really good at software, data and machine learning?”“It’s all about experiencing delightful things for users.”
Buytaert says governments should start thinking not about how agencies can start communicating outward to many people, but focus on the end user experience and adopt a “one to one” mentality.
“It’s all about experiencing delightful things for users,” he said. “Data accuracy has an impact on that, but also the design of the experience and the usability of those experiences.”
Buytaert says agencies need to invest more in understanding each user profile, gathering relevant data on that user and then delivering an experience that is tailored specifically to them.
“We have tech now which allows newspapers to personalise the front page so that visitors get more information based on what they’re interested in,” he said. “They will track how long you read an article, how long you’ve spent there, and so on.
“Governments will have to build something similar so they can start to gather data about the users, and obviously governments have an advantage there. They need to think more about how they can use that information.”
But it is imperative these notifications are connected to actions for citizens to fulfil, says Buytaert.
“If you think about the internet of things, you need to somehow have a platform and connections into those platforms to orchestrate actions, so sending an SMS, or even a paper letter if you want,” he said.
“You need to integrate the data with all of these different systems, wherever they are. The power comes in connecting all the data — so you can create experiences that are relevant, and contextual.”