Public Diplomacy and the Evolution of the UK Government on the WebJune 10, 2011
The British government is currently experimenting with a single government website Alpha.gov. Part of the team developing Alpha.gov is Jimmy Leach head of digital diplomacy at the FCO and yesterday he posted some ideas about how Alpha.gov should work for users outside the UK. It’s worth looking at this because its quite a different idea of what the official web presence is about. In the PD community we think about ICTS as means of communication and engagement while in e-government the concern is with service delivery.
The new website is intended to organize all government services in a single space so the user can find them easily. Rather finding things on FCO.gov.uk you would go to gov.uk/fco. It is also organized around the top 100 things that people search for on government web sites which covers 90% of what people look for – so you can easily find out how to pay your car tax or dispose of a dead animal. In the original concept there’s an explicit emphasis on making government web presence work more like that of a commercial service provider including syndicating content and using APIs ‘to go where the users are’. The bulk of UK government activity is actually service delivery but does this work externally? Organizations that do the bulk of their business in their domestic market tend to try to apply the same model to foreign markets and fail to recognize the differences that exist. To put it more bluntly is there a danger of imposing a model derived from the UK domestic situation where it doesn’t fit?
The idea is that an user outside the UK would be automatically be located by their IP address and presented with a page optimized for their country. This page would be semi-automatically generated using tagged content from across government in accordance with the editorial priorities based on objectives for that country. The post suggests that editorial control should be exercised by the Department with the major responsibility for that country possibly UKTI or DFID rather than the FCO (I wonder what @williamjhague thinks about that?)
The FCO has been quite successful in meeting its service delivery targets (eg consular activities) but much less so in meeting its foreign policy goals. The Alpha.Gov model will probably improve external service delivery which will improve perceptions of the UK. The issue would be whether this reworking of the digital presence impacts on core policy activities and associated engagement activities.
The issue I see in Jimmy’s post is the question of editorial control in the context of the overall management of 1) the overall communications activit aimed at the country and 2) the relationship with that country. The fact that Alpha.gov is a cross government resource seems to create plenty of opportunity for different departments to deliver cross cutting messages. Alpha.gov may enable cross government content management but I can see plenty of opportunity to work at cross purposes. Because the technology enables coordination this doesn’t mean that it will happen.
At a more academic level the Alpha.gov evolution marks another aspect of the long running process by which MFAs are having to compete with other departments.
Most of the readers of this blog are outside the UK? Any thoughts?