Sustainability of third party services
The Taskforce believes that if digital engagement becomes a more mainstream activity for government, as we feel it should, then questions of sustainability and support will become more pressing.
Many sites and services of public value are entirely created and maintained by communities or social entrepreneurs and do not require government intervention. However, the Taskforce also found that without some capacity for appropriate intervention there is a risk that public value from this sector will not be maximised.
We believe that there is scope for intervention at all phases of site development.
In the initial development phase, the main measures to consider are in the opening up of public data sources and in the provision of a supportive environment for innovation. These measures are addressed by other recommendations in this report. We also believe that innovation competitions and small grants can make a significant contribution in this phase. This conclusion is based on our own experience of the ShowUsABetterWay competition as well as our observation of the positive impact of similar exercises, such as AppsForDemocracy in Washington DC, and of the small grants from the Ministry of Justice’s Innovation Fund for Democratic Engagement.
Other issues arise during the later phases of growth and ‘normal’ operation. We have become informed about this by the experience of Netmums and MySociety, who are both represented on the Taskforce, and of other sites such as PatientOpinion and TheStudentRoom, who have met with various Taskforce members. We recognise that there is more work to be done in understanding the issues in depth and developing models that address them and this is reflected in our recommendations.
We believe it is important to be clear that while many sites and services are developed on a shoestring budget this does not mean that they can be sustained on a shoestring as the costs of supporting users can rise dramatically once a site enters the mainstream. This is especially significant if they become integral to the delivery of public service objectives.
There are issues of straightforward financial viability, of fairness in terms of rewards for services delivered, and of appropriateness in terms of maintaining independence that all need to be considered if government is to depend on the availability of these services.
There are a number of models for providing support to develop and sustain services. These include:
the provision of high quality, relevant public service content;
technical assistance and technology platform support;
funding through a paid-for advertising model;
funding for specific events/exercises run in partnership with public services;
- direct grant support.
The Taskforce believes that models for providing support are insufficiently developed at present, largely due to the relative novelty of these services as potential public sector partners. We fear that much good work may be threatened if consideration is not given to developing such models as a matter of some urgency. Our goal in this should be to create a menu of options that is most likely to create sustainable innovative digital services that support public service objectives.
We note that the experience of the Public Service Broadcasting sector, whilst not directly applicable, may have some relevance here. We have a long experience in the UK of promoting investment in high quality public service broadcast content via a number of mechanisms similar to those described above.
We also note that a key tool in the PSB sector has been a mechanism to establish the limits of the BBC’s services. Again, whilst not directly transferable, we believe that there are important lessons here for the public sector web estate to consider so that it sends clear signals about where it will and will not develop its own centrally-funded web services. We are more likely to see innovation by parties outside government where there is such a capacity to define the spaces in which government is not intending to operate.