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Why government is finally learning the lessons of the private sector

ITProPortal spoke to Julia Glidden, founder and president of 21c Consultancy, ahead of her upcoming talk at the NextGen 2014 conference.

Julia spoke about how government is finally learning the lessons that the private sector has learnt from the new digital age.

"ICT is permeating all of our lives, and the only area where it's not embedded into just about everything we do is government," Glidden told me.

"So if you take a look at how we go online today and sign on to Amazon for instance, the site knows that if I liked Grey's Anatomy, therefore I might like to watch Private Practice. So they say 'welcome back to the site Ms. Glidden, and if you like Private Practice, why not watch whatever else'. They have a personalised view of you."

According to Glidden, that's the kind of approach government needs to imitate.

"When I had my first child, I really didn't have a clue about playcare groups and Mother and Me and support groups and all the options available," Glidden told me, "and living in London why couldn't Brent council have that same kind of personalised view of me? I had to trawl through esoteric websites trying to find information, and eventually just relying on a friend who knew the answers. Why couldn't they help make me aware of all that was on offer? If Amazon can do it, government should be able to do it too?"

"Now government doesn't always cover itself in a halo of glory," she added. "What do we think of when we think of government? It's losing our child benefits, leaving child maintenance details on trains, and the Snowden leaks. We never heard about government using information to actually help us, all we hear is losing our information, putting our information at risk and so on."

But, according to Glidden, this is down to a lack of motivation for change within government.

"Why was the first transactional government system to go online the tax system? Because government tends to do what works for government, from the perspective of government, not the perspective of citizens. That's why social media and the explosion of bottom-up change is transforming it. Now government has to be bottom-up."

"So paying the car tax disc online, which was a brilliant innovation, took a lot longer to come along than the change to the tax paying system, because for the government there wasn't much of a benefit to allowing us to pay our car tax faster. But it's so brilliant to be able to just go online and pay it within two minutes. That's really cool stuff – it really matters to people, and really makes your day better."

So what aspect of government is working in this new open way already?

"I think Martha Lane Fox's call for open APIs in government to allow more collaboration with citizens is really cool, as is the police using social media and data to identify crime and help deal with it in communities is pretty path-breaking," said Glidden. "I think the Open Data Institute, which the UK has been a huge driver behind, is really world leading, and a shining example even in the US."

So does government need to conduct itself more like a business?

"I'm wary of the idea that government should be more like a business, and then everything will be okay," Glidden told me. "Government has a different set of responsibilities, with life and death implications, whether it's healthcare or child benefit or defence. But I do think that looking at the way corporations embrace social media in the spirit of openness and transparency – I think government is starting to learn that, and it's a really powerful trend for how government services are delivered."

"It would be impossible for Nike for instance to develop a new kind of trainer that would change the way we run, and not reach out to runners and doing product research, and extensive testing, and then when it is finally released, they don't tell anyone."

"But actually that's how a lot of government programmes are working. We get a lot of policymakers in a room who just decide what everyone needs, and then they don't engage people when a new system comes along."

"This is about using Twitter and Facebook, using open data and engaging people in the co-creation process from day one. That's something government is only now learning to do."

Julia Glidden is founder and president of 21c Consultancy, and is moderating the NextGen 2014 conference in Derby on 11-12 November. To find out more, visit the NextGen 2014 website.