The Coalition, the Big Society and Web 2.0 mythology

“Everything can be reduced to politics. Like soup.” – I can’t remember

“Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” – John Maynard Keynes

So, I’ve already committed the cardinal sin of blogging – failing to update my blog regularly  – and therefore I have no right to expect anybody to visit again, still less subscribe. I know how annoying it is when a blogger doesn’t update frequently and you are left wondering whether they will ever write anything again. When a blog just sort of tails off and dies. So, apologies for my absence. The last few weeks has been very busy indeed, but I fully intend to keep it up and to post more regularly from now on.

I usually like to avoid politics altogether, but sometimes it just won’t leave you alone. And sometimes, and with increasing frequency, politics and technology overlap to such an extent that writing about technology means you have to write about politics. Never more so than now.

The Government’s big idea, the insipidly-titled ‘Big Society’ (a glancing and disingenuous reference to LBJ’s 1965 domestic policy programme ‘The Great Society’) draws heavily for its inspiration on the Web, and specifically on some of the key concepts of the Web 2.0 era – ideas that, if they ever held true in the first place, were largely misunderstood at the time and are now considered by many on Planet Geek to be well and truly out of date.

Charles Leadbeter and Hilary Cottam wrote an essay in 2007 called ‘The User-Generated State: Public Services 2.0’ http://www.charlesleadbeater.net/archive/public-services-20.aspx which argued, very forcefully and presciently, for reform in public services to allow ‘users’ to take greater control of those services and for investment to follow demand/need more closely through a more participatory and flexible funding model. This essay made an important contribution to an argument that had been raging since at least 2001 and Tony Blair’s vow to increase the pace of public sector reform. What it showed was that, by using technology to open up control of services to ‘users’ in an ‘on-demand’ model, you could increase the efficiency with which resources were allocated.

This essay also came at a time when in the private sector the triumph of websites and web applications such as eBay, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and Wikipedia, seemed to have established forever the superiority of the de-centralised, crowd-sourced and increasingly personalised web-based service to deliver enormous public goods with a fraction of the cost and infrastructure traditionally required. Of course, to idea-starved and ambitious politicians and policy makers, this was like Sex on a Stick. The Web promised to square the circle of public spending by increasing pareto optimality (non-wonks see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_efficiency) while at the same time reducing overall investment.

Now of course all politicians want to deliver better outcomes for less money. Or so they say. But what was especially appealing about these ideas to the Conservatives was that they seemed to prove not only that radical reform of the state could bring major improvements in efficiency, but that their whole political ideology of de-centralisation, individual control, the stripping away of bureaucracy, was not only possible, but that it was positively de rigueur. They had found, in other words, an unlikely source of inspiration and they could see the prospect of a huge political windfall by grasping this new mood of technological utopianism to strip away the Whitehall mandarins and replace them with servers and modems.

There have already (for a long time now) been some excellent projects that have used network effects and the best of the Web to improve the delivery of services. One of the best examples is Lee Bryant’s Headshift – http://www.headshift.com/about/public-services.php, but there are many more, such as Social by Social, Social Innovation Camp, The School of Everything and so on… and this territory has been explored in great detail and with a great deal of success by a new generation of very brilliant social entrepreneurs and activists. Some of them also are committed to the replacement of unwieldy centralised public services by nimble and responsive organisations or groups who can deliver services more efficiently. But very few of them, I would guess, would ever agree that these small groups can effectively replace the work of major public services altogether, or that investment in these services in toto should fall simply because some of the work can be farmed out now to these more agile and cheaper providers, or even to users themselves. Indeed, many of them would find the idea repellent.

Because although the Web does allow you to do some amazing things, and does allow small organisations to deliver highly efficient services in some areas at a fraction of the cost of more traditional institutions, it is not a magic bullet. It is very important to understand what it can and can’t do, and what role it can actually play in improving provision, without suddenly being expected to replace whole swathes of the public sector. And it is important also to understand in some detail the structural problems and characteristics associated with de-centralised and web-based services.

As an enormous fan of Wikipedia, I acknowledge that it has created possibly the most comprehensive and widely read body of knowledge in history (an amazing achievement), but Wikipedia works not just because it is a free for all, and not just because it allows anybody to write anything. It is a carefully organised collaboration between the public and a small but significant community of power users, and a team of professionals who are the final editors. It is also not without problems – problems of inaccuracy, abuse, vested interests, misinformation and controversy, which have to be corrected constantly.

It is very important that we don’t just get caught up in our (admittedly well-founded) enthusiasm for the wonders of the internet and fall victim to the mis-application or misuse of this technology that some people would like us to for their own rather different purposes. My nightmare is that the new lions of Web 2.0 social enterprise and social innovation are used by the Coalition as a kind of intellectual Trojan Horse (metaphorical in the Greek/Trojan sense or the electronic one – you decide, afterall, you are the Boss), even against their own wills, to ameliorate massive reductions in public spending on the basis that ineffectual and monolithic quangos are being replaced by a few coders and a batch of Ruby on Rails. Because it doesn’t work like that.

You could argue that politicians have just drunk the Kool-Aid, and if I didn’t know better I’d like to believe it. But what I worry about is the exploitation of the hype and confusion that surrounds these technologies to ease the implementation of destructive spending cuts and to back up a philosophy, nay a religion, of small Statism. This is not, I hasten to add, an argument against the introduction of technology in many discrete areas of service provision. In fact, I spend most of my life arguing and fighting and making the case for just that. I want more and more of it. In more radical moments I have even wondered if the Web will and perhaps should enable us one day to do ourselves out of a job altogether.

But I also want it to be fully recognised that the Web can’t do everything. It doesn’t hold all the answers. It is very, very good at some things, and very, very bad at others. Apart from anything else, some of the brilliant projects that we have seen have yet to demonstrate how they can be effectively scaled beyond working with a few hundred or a few thousand users to millions. I have no doubt that one day they will, but the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. And even if we can replace large parts of the bureaucracy with smaller, nimbler organisations, should that automatically mean that we reduce overall investment? I don’t think that necessarily follows. Otherwise we may end up with some very patchy and under-resourced  services.

One other important lesson of the Web 2.0 experience is that it doesn’t necessarily come cheap. If you want it to be done well, you need to factor in a lot of indirect costs, especially the costs of maintaining and running the thing on a daily basis. When websites scale to the size of a Flickr or a YouTube, they themselves require a small army of workers to keep going. So it can’t simply be about saving money.

So please, when you start to hear the Government talk about The Big Society taking up the slack of the slashed-and-burned public sector, and how the Web is going to make it all ok, because everybody is going to control their own services, think twice.

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  1. The Coalition, the Big Society and Web 2.0 mythology | how to … « Social Computing Technology

    […] more here: The Coalition, the Big Society and Web 2.0 mythology | how to … costs, important, indirect-costs, […]


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