Sunday, 1 November 2015

Increasingly meaningless

I should start this piece by saying I understand that the English language evolves and no doubt have also used terms incorrectly myself in the past. So consider this as a disclaimer that I know things change, and that there's also a touch of hypocrisy in me writing this.

I saw a few things this week that prompted me to write this piece, and one was this tweet

which neatly highlights the problem.

Another was watching a presentation from a well respected thought leader around government digital in which he said that "digital platforms aren't tech". I beg to differ. Take away the tech and see how far a digital platform gets you. See how these new ideas and service designs work without ones and zeroes.

I'm reminded of this spoof of "Utah Saints Unplugged"

Whilst digital platforms certainly aren't all about tech, and tech should be an enabler rather than a driver, we are redesigning things around what tech now allows us to do, so tech shouldn't be forgotten or downplayed.

Mind you, the speaker also said that re-designing government around digital was a "once in a lifetime opportunity" which fundamentally misunderstands that digital design isn't a one off, it's an iterative process that evolves as both user needs and the tech that could be used to meet them does too. When I see people questioning that the Government Digital Service (GDS) are looking at rebuilding bits of GOV.UK
I say good on GDS. Three years is a long time in tech and they're a different organisation to the one that originally built GOV.UK. They should be looking at their core offering and considering how they could do it better, every organisation should.

The tipping point this week was when I saw someone write that "Open source is not really about the tech". Yes it is. The term was coined to describe making the source code of something open and usable by everyone.

So why's this happening?

Well at best it's a misunderstanding of the terms being used and at worst an attempt by some to jump on the digital bandwagon to sell their wares. Think "technical sales" in IT. A generalisation I know, but these are often people with a little bit of tech knowledge and a slick line in sales patter trotting out buzzwords to flog something.

So what's the problem with this, surely no one owns these terms and they can be used as seen fit? Yes that's true, and as I said at the start language evolves, but terms like "digital platform" and "open source" are now being used to define an increasingly different array of concepts and products so much so that they're becoming meaningless.

Ultimately this harms the process of producing better, cheaper, user centred services because no one knows what anyone talking about any more, and we're starting to see the same old stuff being re-sold with a shiny new "digital" badge.

So next time you hear "digital platform" or "open source" think about what it's being used to describe and the motives of the person using it. Are they doing so to promote better, cheaper, user centred services through the use of tech, or to flog a product or their own services which just offer a passing nod to enabling tech to meet user needs.

Thanks for reading; my book and speaking tour on enabling digital transformation by engaging communities with open source thinking will be available soon. ;-)
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.