Helping people online where they seek help (draft)

 

Sustainability of third party services

The Taskforce believes that if digital engagement becomes a more mainstream activity for government, as we feel it should, then questions of sustainability and support will become more pressing.

Many sites and services of public value are entirely created and maintained by communities or social entrepreneurs and do not require government intervention.  However, the Taskforce also found that without some capacity for appropriate intervention there is a risk that public value from this sector will not be maximised.

We believe that there is scope for intervention at all phases of site development.

In the initial development phase, the main measures to consider are in the opening up of public data sources and in the provision of a supportive environment for innovation. These measures are addressed by other recommendations in this report. We also believe that innovation competitions and small grants can make a significant contribution in this phase. This conclusion is based on our own experience of the ShowUsABetterWay competition as well as our observation of the positive impact of similar exercises, such as AppsForDemocracy in Washington DC, and of the small grants from the Ministry of Justice’s Innovation Fund for Democratic Engagement.

Other issues arise during the later phases of growth and ‘normal’ operation. We have become informed about this by the experience of Netmums and MySociety, who are both represented on the Taskforce, and of other sites such as PatientOpinion and TheStudentRoom, who have met with various Taskforce members.  We recognise that there is more work to be done in understanding the issues in depth and developing models that address them and this is reflected in our recommendations.

We believe it is important to be clear that while many sites and services are developed on a shoestring budget this does not mean that they can be sustained on a shoestring as the costs of supporting users can rise dramatically once a site enters the mainstream. This is especially significant if they become integral to the delivery of public service objectives.

There are issues of straightforward financial viability, of fairness in terms of rewards for services delivered, and of appropriateness in terms of maintaining independence that all need to be considered if government is to depend on the availability of these services.

There are a number of models for providing support to develop and sustain services. These include:

  • the provision of high quality, relevant public service content;
  • technical assistance and technology platform support;
  • funding through a paid-for advertising model;
  • funding for specific events/exercises run in partnership with public services;
  • direct grant support.

The Taskforce believes that models for providing support are insufficiently developed at present, largely due to the relative novelty of these services as potential public sector partners.  We fear that much good work may be threatened if consideration is not given to developing such models as a matter of some urgency.  Our goal in this should be to create a menu of options that is most likely to create sustainable innovative digital services that support public service objectives.

We note that the experience of the Public Service Broadcasting sector, whilst not directly applicable, may have some relevance here.  We have a long experience in the UK of promoting investment in high quality public service broadcast content via a number of mechanisms similar to those described above.

We also note that a key tool in the PSB sector has been a mechanism to establish the limits of the BBC’s services.  Again, whilst not directly transferable, we believe that there are important lessons here for the public sector web estate to consider so that it sends clear signals about where it will and will not develop its own centrally-funded web services.  We are more likely to see innovation by parties outside government where there is such a capacity to define the spaces in which government is not intending to operate.

Recommendation

Government should encourage and assist the development of capability outside government in online empowerment or mutual support for public service outcomes, particularly in the Third Sector.  It should also address the issue of those online organisations or people which are delivering clear, highly leveraged social value but which do not have a sustainable funding model.  HMT and Cabinet Office, particularly the Office of the Third Sector should bring forward proposals by end June 2009



RSS feed of comments 7 Responses to “Sustainability of third party services”

  1. Tony Hirst says:

    “There are a number of models for providing support to develop and sustain services. These include:”

    I think you could also include the provision of “developer tools” and supports to (maybe even hosting of) third party developer tools.

    So by developer tools, I mean:
    - documentation of APIs;
    - code helper libraries in popular web development languages (PHP, Python etc);
    - code examples.

    See also: JISC Good APIs project – http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/reppres/GoodAPIs.aspx

    Cf. documentation – YUI documentation: http://developer.yahoo.com/yui/

    Cf. hosting 3rd party tools/libraries – Google hosting of 3rd party AJAX toolkits: http://code.google.com/apis/ajaxlibs/

  2. Noel says:

    I would add diversity as well as sustainability of third party services. Many government departments & other public sector agencies use the same photo-sharing service, video-sharing service, blogging platform, etc.

    Limiting the diversity of third party services we use could limit the opportunities for innovation in this field and shut out entrepreneurs who can provide higher social value, but don’t have the “cachet” that instantly recgonisable web2 services have.

  3. I don’t like the use of the word “intervention” here. I think something like “support” would be better.

    Supporting, stimulating, helping to develop, etc, are quite different — at least in my mind — to “intervening”, which could have negative connotations.

  4. Steph Gray says:

    The principle of paying a fair price in exchange for access to community members (whether through traditional advertising or for partnership marketing/consultation) should hopefully lead to financial support from government for those communities which offer value to their members, perhaps with a small grant fund for niche but valuable support groups.

    A more interventionist approach is unlikely to support the long-term development of strong, user-led communities driven by their members’ needs.

  5. Phil Agulnik says:

    You could say more about government helping third party services to flourish through not encroaching on the services they currently provide.

    The benefits calculator website I run, http://www.entitledto.co.uk, is a free site that allows members of the public to calculate the benefits and tax credits they are entitled to. It’s very successful and performs about a million calculations a year. DWP are fully aware of the service and I have tried to engage with them about working together. Nevertheless, they have developed their own benefits adviser service (see http://campaigns.direct.gov.uk/benefitsadviser/). Fortunately it is far more difficult to use than our service and so unlikely to attract many users. However, apart from the resources wasted, it also represents unfair competition which undermines our ability to develop our existing service.

    These issues were discussed in the e-government unit’s intermediaries policy document (see http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/e-gov/policydocs_list.asp?topic=59). The proposals made there seem to have died – could your report help to put this back on the agenda?

  6. James Munro says:

    I would like to add my support to Phil’s comment above.
    The experience of Patient Opinion is well known. We launched an innovative patient feedback service in January 2006, backed by a robust business model with distributed revenue streams to protect the independence of our service. In June 2007 a competing but more limited service was launched by the Department of Health, funded centrally by the taxpayer. This has adversely affected our ability to innovate and grow, and the rationale for competing in this way has never been explained.
    I would like the report to recognise that some services of public value are sustained not by advertising, government grants or charitable donations but by business models carefully designed to create income and public value simultaneously.
    The report should also consider how best to support such services. (Clue: don’t compete with us unless you have a good reason.)

  7. POIT Moderator says:

    The comments about the importance of government not crowding out social innovation are well taken. We do make some reference to this in the last paragraph before the actual recommendation but can look at strengthening this.

    Richard Allan, Taskforce Chair