Saturday, 26 June 2010

12. The iPolis

This idea is an extension of the very elegant idea, put forward by Tim O'Reilly, that government can be understood as a platform.

I found this idea (like many others) through the very well informed Dave Briggs.

I have called this version of local democracy the iPolis (Ok - I know, but bear with me) as it uses the iPhone/iPad as a metaphor for government.

Tim O'Reilly argues that government can be seen in a similar way.  A basic platform is provided on top of which different applications can be run.  O'Reilly makes a number of fascinating points:

  • Whilst the whole Gov 2.0 thing (i.e. 'government as a platform') is borne out of web 2.0 technologies, the concept should be applied to government as a whole - not just the techy bits
  • Think of of the original U.S. constitution as a platform which was developed and improved and onto which states ran their different 'applications' (although this was, of course, Gov 1.0)
  • Once the basic platform  is provided (in the right way) then the market will innovate and provide applications - just in the same way that Apple provided a small number of applications for the iPhone but the market soon came up with many, many, many more
  • The Apple example also highlights the importance of being willing to strip away anything that isn't working or relevant.  The basic government platform should, in the same way, be simple, well designed, functional and appealing.
So that is the broad approach.  The idea of the iPolis develops this a little further and applies it to local government and democracy. It revolves around three core concepts:

  • Central government provides the operating system / platform.  It provides the core constitution for each local democratic unit.  It sets out how the core processes will work (the same in every area) and it employs the people that support the core functions (legal, finance, ICT, etc etc).  Central government is just like Apple
  • The applications are provided mainly by the market.   Delib provides an example of the sort of company that might do this from a web 2.0 perspective - I'm sure there are many others.  Budget consultation and online participation are the sort of 'software' apps we are talking about here but any democratic innovation whether representative or participative, whether online or off could be on the menu.  One advantage is that highly specialised companies could develop these tools in national markets in a way that local governments acting alone never could. 
  • The user is the elected government of the local area.  The user is not (as you might expect) the citizen.  For the metaphor to work the iPolis (like the iPad/iPhone) can only really have one user - the local government.  The accountability of that government to the citizens can work in any way and ultimately the citizens are the beneficiaries.  But the user is the final decision maker about which apps to use and what apps can be afforded - hence it is the local government.
What I like about this is that it provides an interesting angle on the age old debate between those who argue for local autonomy and those who believe that services should be provided fairly across the country (this normally comes with a call to dispense with post code lotteries).  For the iPolis, central government could determine and run the core elements of democracy and service provision and this would be paid for through tax.  These core elements might also extend to essential services such as child protection and waste collection.  Local government would then determine which 'apps' to run on top of the basic operating system and this would be paid for through local taxation. So museums, leisure centres, recycling centres, welfare benefits advice teams might all be apps.  A national apps procurement system would provide a regulated environment though which apps could be 'downloaded'.

The iPolis also provides an angle on the debates in the UK about the Big Society.  Apps could also be provided by the third sector or the community.  They might or might not be supported financially but by adding them to their platform local governments would be providing basic support, sponsorship and recognition.

Update:  About the same time I wrote this, David Wilcox blogged about a recent open night for the Big Society Network:

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.


Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.
David suggested that the two ideas dovetail together rather nicely and I agree.  Hopefully a case of great minds think alike or maybe a case of when metaphors collide...

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