March 08, 2007

Open Source Politics

  George Osborne 
  Originally uploaded by Edublogger.

Are we being nearly radical enough? This is the opening question from George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Conservative who speaks a good Web 2.0 game.

Every misdemeanor is carried with you for the rest of your life; every posting is there for everyone to see and is indelibly marked on the web. What are the implications for the definitions of ourselves in this age?

Anyone can share their thoughts in video or in text, through YouTube or their blog, challenging traditional media, traditional concepts of Governmental control. Politicians and the public services must resist the temptation to push back. They must harness these new technologies by having a willingness to change, at a pace which matches the speed of technological change.

We need to recast the political settlement for the digital age.

There are three pillars on which we should build:
1. Equality of information
Eric Schmidt was invited to speak at the Conservative conference, whre he talked about the "democratization of access to information". Before it was the wealthy few that had access to information. Now individuals have the power to search the same quality and amount of information that Governments alone had only five years ago, and they can search it far faster than any Government clerk.

Government thinking is a long way behind this, though. While we can fill in forms online (and not just in PDFs ;-) we are still doing old things in a new way. We need to new things in a new way, moving away from Government-centric models to citizen-centred models. The shift implies a culture where criticism is welcome, where fresh thinking from users and deliverers affects the services we offer.

2. New social networks
Each week MySpace attracts 250,000 new members - that's the same number of individuals that are members of the two main political parties in the UK. They are not organised by someone else, though, in the same way as political parties are. They are self-organising and are now self-organising not around the Sex Pistols and Britney Spears, but around politics. In the US Barak Obama has his own social network. In the UK things are beginning to change, too, although (yikes) it's mostly the Conservative party that is promoting the socio-cultural change (I guess Labour are too busy running the country, or something ;-) is a site which constantly picks out the faults of the shadow Cabinet, but Osborne thinks this is a good thing, forcing the politicians to up their game.

Some say that online platforms merely give a platform to the angry activist. But these platforms are also opening up the voices of those who normally would have had no influence in the political sphere. Politicians have it in their interest to pay attention and adapt. Do public services?

3. Open Source
Geoffrey Sachs was talking about Open Source politics a few weeks ago. Open Source means that we draw on the expertise and skills of millions, that we transfer control (not *some* control, all of it) to the users.

Patient Opinion website encourages GP outpatients to discuss issues in their health care provision. The discussion is open for all to see and can help people navigate the health system, and see where improvements can be made.

Why is the UK so slow in Open Source?
95% of Forbes Global 2000 companies have strategies in place for the use of Open Source software. The German government in 2001 passed an act that made the use of Open Source necessary where it could be used. Primary schools using OS cut their PC costs by 50%.

But in the UK we are otherwise relatively poor in the public service at adopting OS. Most central Government departments don't use OS software, with no OS suppliers in the central purchasing system.

Government IT systems are based on non-open standards infrastructure and software. Projects are incompatible with others, costs spiral out of control.

The Conservatives plan to make OS a top priority if they are voted into power in the next elections. An interesting proposition... I am left wondering, though, how much of this 'knowledge' of Web 2.0 is from the copious script George had (and which his PA read in time next to me) and how much is genuinely him. He did have a good off-the-cuff knowledge of the social web, but his PA noting down the groovy catchphrases of "Open API politics", suggested by another speaker, will no doubt appear in yet another highly crafted speech.

An interesting fellow and one, I am sure, who would actually write a pretty damned good blog.

Update: In the absence of a blog his wonderful Parliamentary aide Poppy has forwarded the speech to me via email. Enjoy

Update: The RSA have posted audio from this first part and the second part of the conference.


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I think government bodies won't go down the Open Source route because either they simply don't understand the concept or have concerns about having their budgets reduced. After the initial outlay of deploying an open source product the licensing costs don't come into play for upgrades and hence a reduction in budget? Anyway I came across this good example for arguing for Open Source.
A Day Without Open Source

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