Innovate and co-create with citizens online (draft)


A ‘backstage’ model for government

The Taskforce endorses the sentiment of this passage from the DIUS White Paper on Innovation:

‘Innovation in public services will be essential to the UK’s ability to meet the economic and social challenges of the 21st century….The Government is uniquely placed to drive innovation in public services, through allocating resources and structuring incentives. Major forces such as attitudes to risk, budgeting, audit, performance measurement and recruitment must be aligned to support innovation. Together, and with effective leadership, these will progressively overcome existing cultural and incentive barriers. Those responsible for public service delivery must also learn the lessons of open innovation and adopt innovative solutions from the private and third sectors.’

Quoted from DIUS Innovation Nation section 44.

The web enables and indeed is enabled by open innovation on a large scale.  There is an opportunity for the public sector to work with the web community to drive  innovation in public information and web services.  The Show Us A Better Way competition, a simple online call for ideas on reuse of public data attracted 500 entries. One of the UK’s and arguably the world’s leading examples of information-based open innovation is the BBC service known as ‘‘.  In its FAQ, the BBC explains its backstage model thus:

Who is for? is for individual developers and designers to build things using BBC content and anyone who has an idea for how to use BBC content in new ways. It is not for big corporates to play around with. is for non-commercial use by the little people. is part of the BBC’s wider remit to “build public value” by sharing our content for others to use creatively. How do you “build public value”? One of the ways is through supporting innovation as the BBC Governors response to the Graf report of BBC online makes clear:

“The BBC will support social innovation by encouraging users’ efforts to build sites and projects that meet their needs and those of their communities … The BBC will also be committed to using open standards that will enable users to find and repurpose BBC content in more flexible ways”. aims to promote innovation amongst the design and developer community: if people are able to do interesting, productive things with the content then we’d like to support them. Finally and as a useful by-product of the above, is an opportunity to identify talent in the online community.

The Taskforce sees a number of advantages for the public services in adopting this model.

  • It would create an ongoing source of innovative ideas for the use of government data, some of which may be rolled back into the principal websites whilst others remain free-standing.
  • It has the potential to build stronger working relationships between developers inside and outside government strengthening the capabilities of both parties.
  • And it would provide a useful channel for resolving some of the technical issues around access to government data that is made available under the Public Sector Information reuse regime.

The Taskforce has discussed at some length with the government website Directgov the potential for innovation along the lines of  We understand that Directgov welcomes this initiative, is considering an innovation platform along these lines and is expected to make an announcement shortly.  The Taskforce judges that leading public sector sites should create a Government Backstage capability as a joint effort.  This will concentrate developer talent and public interest in one place and create a virtual centre of excellence in public sector data mashing. If Government Backstage were to work closely with BBC Backstage there is the potential to create a world class innovation and R&D resource.


Unlock innovation in leading public sector sites using a ‘backstage model‘, a standing open online innovation space allowing the general public and staff to co-create information-based public services.  This capability should be a standard element of public information service design. The government should start by creating a live backstage service for Directgov by end June 2009 or earlier.

RSS feed of comments 15 Responses to “A ‘backstage’ model for government”

  1. Tony Hirst says:

    As well as the BBC Backstage model there is also the Chennel 4/4ip [ ] seed/venture funding model, which seeks to commission”not content in any conventional sense but tools and content that enable the public to do things online which at present they are not able to do” [ ]

  2. Tony Hirst says:

    Could the 4ip model work as a way of directing public money towards supporting public good ventures in this area?
    Didn’t UK gov get into venture funding before, with 3i? (”The company was formed in 1945, as the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (ICFC), by the Bank of England and the major British banks to provide long term investment funding for small and medium-sized enterprises. Its foundation was inspired by the government, and resulted from the recognition in the 1930s, given new impetus in the postwar era, that smaller businesses faced a gap in available corporate finance: the banks were unwilling to provide long-term capital and the companies were too small to raise capital from the public markets” [ ]

  3. Alex Jackson says:

    Punctuation, guys, please remove the apostrophe from the last sentence of the second paragraph:
    “In it’s FAQ”
    The quote marks aren’t showing properly – the closing quote mark seems to be facing the wrong way.
    Directgov doesn’t have a capital G either.

    MODERATOR NOTE – Thanks, these typos have now been fixed.

  4. No equivalent for Businesslink? I’d have thought there’s a (start up/SME) business audience for this.

  5. Jeni Tennison says:

    The Directgov “innovate” site is up at Should be linked to directly.

  6. Sebastian Crump says:

    Yes, this recommendation has largely been anticipated/met. The model may not yet be perfect, but it should be updated to reflect progress and future direction.

    Also near the top can we rephrase the ‘[click] here’ links!

    MODERATOR NOTE – thanks, the ‘click here’ links (which breach our own usability guidelines) have been fixed.

  7. I think Tony makes a really good point. This recommendation should include something about seed funding.

    This is covered in part by Recommendations 5 and 24, but both of those seem to place their emphasis on in-house/government-commissioned work.

    That’s fantastic, but not enough. Proactively seeking out viable and valuable efforts in the third sector and giving them a modest amount of money with a minimum of bureaucracy would be a really effective way to keep them running, to see if they work, and to reward good efforts — not to mention being a fantastic incentive.

  8. Jacky Smith says:

    Harry Metcalfe’s idea of “modest money & a minimum of bureaucracy” is good – but if you add a basic level of outcome monitoring (eg top 2 for each of what worked / what didnt work / what are you aspirations now?) you can turn this into something really useful & use it to track changing needs / wants in a fast moving world.

  9. Steph Gray says:

    There are other holders of public sector information whose ‘backstage’ operations might be at least as valuable to developers as Directgov: perhaps the ONS Census 2011 might be designed with a backstage element from the outset, or data from Ordnance Survey, TransportDirect etc.

    There would be benefit to a single backstage for government though, if only because the skills needed to publish, licence, support, document and structure data and APIs is likely to be rare and expensive and it is unreasonable to expect individual organisations to do it well across the board.

  10. POIT Moderator says:

    Thanks for the comments re

    This is a great development which the Taskforce fully welcomes.

    The fact that it is not referenced in the draft reflects some of the awkwardness of having to publish a report (an event) during what is really a continual process. So Directgov, to their credit, have been able to work on an implementation of the backstage concept in tandem with our developing a policy proposal around this without either of us waiting on the other.

    Now, if we can only get all our other ideas implemented in the next week or so then we can quietly archive the whole report and retire happily…. :-)

    Richard Allan, Taskforce Chair.

  11. I think this recommendation could be stronger by not calling it a ‘backstage model’. Not sure that this term will carry beyond webbies. Small point but worth considering? Can see the media picking up on it, right enough.

  12. Phil McAllister says:

    One of the great successes of BBC’s Backstage, in my opinion, was publishing the details of the publically available feeds and APIs to a single page. If there’s one thing I could wish for as a user of a UKGov ‘Backstage’ it would be a single-page listing of all feeds & APIs I could make use of.

  13. Alan Cox says:

    Agree “Backstage model” is perhaps the wrong phrasing. In governments only digital speak perhaps it could better be described as “enabling innovation” or “delivering opportunity”.

    Another reason that this model is good for government doesn’t seem to be mentioned (or I missed it). Enabling services by delivering data and query interfaces doesn’t just allow the public to do interesting things it helps to clearly define the lines between data, services and presentation. In doing so it allows the state to more easily mix and match software from multiple suppliers – driving down costs, and even more importantly it enables internal innovation.

    When there are general interfaces it becomes possible for the state to perform the same kind of adhoc data-mashing as the public at low cost and this enables government departments to build internal cross departmental tools without high administrative and co-ordination costs (just use the public interface) and for them to integrate aspects of other departments into public websites when useful without having to jump through managerial hoops.

  14. Andrew Lewin says:

    I’d agree that “backstage” is the wrong term too, and Directgov have got it right by leading with “Innovate”.

    While “Backstage” has a certain sense for a media organisation like the BBC, it otherwise just implies some sort of special access-all-areas permission, whereas the point of POIT is that it’s opening up this information for all and making it part of the ordinary and everyday.

  15. POIT Moderator says:

    Very interested in the comments about the term ‘backstage’. I had thought of this as a shorthand for describing the concept, based on the BBC model, of a public innovation space offered by a large data-rich organisation rather than as necessarily the public brand for the actual service.

    So, it may be other names for the facility will be more appropriate depending on the context and I fully approve of the ‘innovate’ label that Directgov have chosen.

    Alan Cox’s points about the potential benefits very much reflect our own thinking about how an innovation platform can also benefit the host organisation. We will look at whether we should make these advantages more explicit in our text.

    And, yes, there should be such a facility for Businesslink.

    Richard Allan, Taskforce Chair