TWITTER GRITTER: Beware Inferior Private Sector Product

We’re told local government should be more like the private sector.

If that means charging £20,000 to make a change to a Government website then I’d rather not, thanks.

This week the website, built in-house by geeks using open source (ie free) software was launched.

I’m not a webbie but even I can see the value in being able to make changes and tweaks suggested by people and there’s a great piece on it here on the Cabinet Office digital blog.

In an entirely different scale and in an entirely different corner of the digital allotment there was a public versus private issue in local government I stumbled across.

A private company is approaching councils offering to take over grit alerts.

That’s an area I do know something about as Walsall Council, I’m proud to say, was amongst the pioneers of the Twitter Gritter model along with places like Derbyshire County Council and Kirklees Council. Our engineers looked at us a bit funny at first, heard us out, trialled it and now are big advocates for it. It’s cost us £0 in three years but we’ve connected scores of times with people.

What’s Twitter Gritter?

It’s real time alerts keeping people up to speed on what their council is doing to treat the roads.

If we go out at 2am to treat the roads and only two shift workers and a drunk see what we’re doing isn’t it a good idea to tell people?

It’s also talking back to answer questions and pass on serious problems like a burst water main that’s turning to sheet ice.

I’m not against the idea of the private sector. Far from it. I’ve spent a big chunk of my career there and there are plenty of freelancers and organisations whose time would enrich the organisations they help. You’ll know them by the track record they have. Others in the private sector? They’re poor bandwagon jumpers, to be fair.

What I see in the public sector with events like UK Govcamp, Localgovcamp and other events are people willing to share and develop ideas to make the world a better place.

That simply wouldn’t and isn’t happening in so much of the private sector.

What does the private sector Twitter Gritter look like?

You can read the text I’ve posted to a Google Doc here. I’ve taken out the name of the company to spare their blushes. Nothing against people looking to make a profit out of something, per se. But when someone you don’t know asks you to hand over the keys to your Twitter account so they can do a poorer job and charge you for it then forgive me for being underwhelmed.

Why is it bad?

I’m tempted to just leave it to Mike Rawlins’s 140 character reaction.

But here are FOUR cut and pastable reasons and can be shared with gritting engineers to help them avoid making the wrong decision.

1. If it means handing over access then don’t. You wouldn’t do that with your email. Don’t do it here either.

2. If it’s broadcasting then don’t. The social web works best when it’s two way. People can ask questions and report problems. Run simply and sensibly that’s possible. Talk to your council’s social media person. They’ll tell you. Don’t if it doesn’t.

3. If it’s not their area of expertise then don’t. It looks what it is. Something developed by people who don’t know how the social web works. You wouldn’t let non-engineers loose on an engineering project. Don’t do the same here.

4. If it costs when it can be done far, far better for free in house then don’t. So many other councils already do it. Look at what Birmingham City Council’s in-house freelancer Geoff Coleman has achieved on a budget of nil, for example. Good freelancers will always work with you to shape something. They’ll pass you the skills so you can flourish. If they don’t then don’t.

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  1. From what I’ve seen of it, looks very exciting, the next big concept for government websites to follow around the World.

    However one important point, people use the term “open source” implying that everything to do with open source technologies is free. It isn’t, you still need to pay those geeks you refer to. And if your organisation is very biased towards Microsoft technologies (as one council I worked for in the UK was) there is also potentially a huge learning curve for existing IT / Web staff who have no idea about open source platforms and software.

    I note from the BBC’s website that the project has a budget of £1.7 million. I could do 85 changes @ £20,000 to your website for that much, blue 😉

  2. They will pick up customers, Dan. That’s because there are many local authorities with management systems that see no need to run tech in-house. They see their job as to manage services. And note that I say “manage”, not “run” or “offer” . They aspire to be commissioners and get every encouragement from government to be so, even if that comes in the form of the progressive withdrawal of funding that enables them to do anything else. Sadly, how well something is done in house then ceases to be a consideration. The ruling philosophy dictates that it just should not be being run in house. Out goes baby and bathwater.

  3. See, this is where neighbouring councils should really look into sharing resources – if one can’t do it but a nearby one can, why not talk about helping each other out? Shared services done well.

    Great article, Dan – I hope it gets the exposure it deserves. Coming from that background I know full well that there are some people looking to stuff over authorities in ways like this…

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