Should Governments have websites?

There have been a number of different threads discussing whether Government should even have web sites at all.  Starting back in the spring last year the Garner analyst Andrea Di Maio proposed ‘The future of Government is no Government’, and since then the theme has been picked up by a number of different people. This paper put also puts forwards the following:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Add in some other eye watering statistics that “There are approximately 24,000 US Government websites online (but no one knows the exact number)” and you start to wonder if a Government should be creating and managing sites!

I think there are areas where this could well be right.  Especially where Government is interacting with companies and organizations that are all mature users of IT, or dealing with more generic facilities such as transport and road repairs.  I was thinking about this at Christmas when I get to be with my extended family; and then spend most of the time providing ad-hoc technical support and advice to them all.  I worry that once we start to look at citizen interaction this fails my ‘mum test’.

My mother is an internet user, not a particularly advanced user but she happily shops online, emails people, researches stuff etc etc.  Pretty average user.  What people in IT regularly fail to understand is that the rest of the population don't think like them, or have the same instinct when it comes to dealing with new technology.  If my mother wants to find out something online about a government service – ie Tax or Planning.  She will search for that Government department and navigate through their site, the same way of she wants to buy medicine she will find a pharmacy.  The concept that she should go to a 3rd party to find that information; sorry but that is not intuitive to her and she will understand or trust it.

As we use the internet to open up information, improve things and go all Gov2.0, please can someone bear the users in mind? The majority of internet users treat the internet as a vast set of shop fronts.  To interact with Government they want to go to the Government shop front and interact with them – it makes sense and we have to be careful breaking that paradigm.