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At PDF Italia, Tom Steinberg Explores Five Digital Asks We Should Make To Our Government

BY Antonella Napolitano | Thursday, November 20 2014

As the first edition of PDF Italia revolved around "the data society" we live in, there was probably no better person to start the conversation than mySociety's founder Tom Steinberg.

Here's a writeup of his speech, together with the video of the event (as well as all the other plenary talks.)

[Note: the video has audio in both English and Italian; tune on your left earplug for English, or right for Italian]

"We are currently in the middle of a war of ideas."

That is how Tom Steinberg started the day and his talk. He expanded by saying, netizens are currently fighting two such wars: the war on privacy –- or “The Snowden war” as he also dubbed it –- where the victims are normal citizens and their privacy.

And then there's the war on unfettered connectivity, the net neutrality war, where the designated victim is rapid and equal access to information.

Both are defensive wars, Steinberg pointed out.

But what if we wanted to conduct an “offensive campaign,” he asked the audience, where our requests, rather than being reactionary, actually started a process of better governance?

The founder of MySociety knows very well about the open data movement, which, in his words, “has swept the world these past five years.” But what the movement has been asking the government -- releasing data and information -- amounts to a “soft” vision that has a been a strategic mistake, he said. The change demanded of the open data movement was not difficult, not painful enough for the government to make.

Steinberg offered a solution, a first “offensive campaign” request that consists of tough laws that give citizens meaningful and strong digital rights: who owns companies, how government contractors are chosen (later in the day, Chris Taggart would have shared lessons learned in running OpenCorporates) -- all available in a machine-readable format, of course!

Today, governments are websites

Steinberg then focused his talk on good government websites and digital services as his second and third requests.

Governments are websites, he declared: meaning that the technology is not just something that you add to your services, it is essential to a government's identity and performance (who knows if this resounded to the notable civil servants present in the room).

"Today governments with crap websites aren't just governments with crap websites, they are crap governments," he declared. The failure of the launch of was in the background, serving as a cautionary tale.

In order to change the status quo, governments need to work on the next generation of public servants, i.e. train and hire a new cadre of leaders and public servants (his third request): “We need a change of generations and a change of values,” Steinberg said. Actively putting citizens' needs first is clearly one of them.

Universities and training centers haven't adequately educated those who want to work as public servants in the digital age, the founder of mySociety explained: “They don't combine education in governance and in technical and digital concepts.”

One link, one webpage

In Steinberg's speech, his fourth request has to do more specifically with digital services: “cross-sell services and democratic education from digital services,” he said to the audience., the UK government digital service wasn't cross-selling digital services, wasting a potential of traffic, he recalled.

But when they started experimenting with that, the results proved the strategy immediately right: when a link on how to become an organ donor was added onto a webpage on how to obtain a driving license, 350,000 signed up to became donors.

In the private sector, this kind of practice has generated enormous profit. In the public sector, this could constitute a significant improvement in the life of citizens.

And it's all the more important, Steinberg argued, as government websites are the only place where you can go to get some services (like driving licenses or passports.)

A role for big, publicly-funded institutions

Last, but not least, though admittedly more complicated, was Steinberg's fifth request: finding a role for big, publicly-funded institutions.

“State broadcasters are brilliant storytellers *but* in the modern Internet there are valuable things that are not stories,” he told the audience, mentioning services like online banking and flight tickets purchase.

His suggestion is to start talking about how to create a state-funded digital corporation with a public interest mission in serious, broadcast-scale budget: “those entities could provide data sources, tools that the market wouldn't otherwise provide, big databases, security tools of high quality,” he continued.

To the audience this kind of description may have reminded previous (clearly very unsuccessful) attempts of EU-funded tech aimed at replacing Google. While Steinberg acknowledged that, he also pointed out that this was the result of an older generation panicking.

“There is a new generation of ideas coming from us,” he concluded.