Gordon Brown – photo by Paul Clarke

Well, he didn’t say Gov 2.0, but he may as well have done. This morning UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a sweeping set of changes to the way that technology is used in government. In a speech on Building Britain’s Digital Future, he was talking about digital technology’s role in a plan to secure recovery, growth and jobs in the global marketplace.

A telephone levy has been introduced to support the roll out of 100% broadband, a hotly debated topic here in recent times. Gordon Brown said that we can’t rely on an open market to look after all Britons, but rather the country must depend on an open partnership of business, economics and government. If this sounds like ‘light touch’ regulation, then that is a fair description. “We will support the independence of Ofcom and the BBC to encourage competition and innovation in the digital sector,” he said.

Gordon Brown’s speech touched both on those that do not have Internet access for physical or economic reasons, as well as for challenges in digital literacy. Not much was said about those that simply don’t want to interact with the government on-line, other than the implication that the services will be so good that they will change their minds. The topic of ‘digital exclusion’ will become an even hotter one after today, for reasons that will become clear…

The Prime Minister is seeking a more open and interactive model for the UK’s public services. Today he said that he is prepared to cancel current projects unless they can deliver results, saving huge sums of money. He sees the “Digital Britain” agenda as essential to economic recovery, aiming to place Britain as a world leader in the new age of digital economies. Underpinning this “next generation” of Britain is the next generation of the web – semantic web technology. Sir Tim (Berners-Lee) and his associates have clearly been a strong influence on Gordon Brown’s thinking, and that came across clearly in today’s announcement. £30m of funding is being made available to suport an Institute of Internet Science, headed by Sir Tim and Professor Nigel Shadbolt

A significant percentage of the UK jobs are already IT related, and Gordon Brown believes that the UK is uniquely equipped to lead a digital age. A new “MyGov”  initiative, starting with central government, will expand to local government, to support public engagement at both national and local levels. Brown cited £11bn of savings through using the web, as part of a£20bn of budget savings.

The ‘next stage’ of (UK) Government is an expansion of two-way communication between providers and consumers of government services, Brown mentioned smart energy meters, e-doctors/e-medicine and virtual classrooms. Increased efficiency and transparency will come for the open use of linked data web to provide visibility and access into these new services. Gordon Brown hailed the Internet as a “fundemental freedom” and the “electricity of digital age.”

The Prime Minister believes that opening up government data is central to building a more efficient, open and honest government. A new condition of future franchise partnerships will be that data is open and released (which sounds like a direct knock at TFL who have been slow in providing data for transport applications). From next month, bus stop location data is being published and Ordinance Survey data is coming too. There will be a new tendering portal for all contracts  over £25k. A prize comment on Twitter:

“Gordon almost rapping his speech he’s got so much good news in such a short period of time #gov20 #bbdf” DominicCampbell

Gordon Brown announced that all future government websites must have digital engagement functionality built in, and new websites would not be allowed unless they meet a strict set of criteria. This sounds like a big step forward for communication, and potentially accessibility too. The government will close 500 more .gov websites, as new services are consolidated around the new infrastructure.

“No more one size fits all,” he declared, as he proclaimed an agenda centred around personalisation, transparency, feedback and ease of use, and a potentially radical new model for public service delivery. The aim is that MyGov makes interacting with government as easy as banking and shopping online – co-opting commercial levels of functionality into the government’s infrastructure.

Martha Lane Fox will broaden her existing role and become digital champion for the UK, launching a new digital government department within the cabinet office.  “The digital net will become the safety net,” said Brown. A clear nod to Martha’s work on digital exclusion. The PM also announced that in the autumn all non-personal government data will be released – a “New Domesday book” – but it isn’t just about the data. The Digital Public Services unit will have a big efficiency emphasis, looking at restructuring government services themselves. Traditional departments have a three part structure including a policy unit, a public facing (transactional) functional, and a back office. Digital technology, in the form of business services, will be used to transform the back office, and also used to open up the policy making function. Gordon Brown talked about breaking down silos and increasing cross-functional working. Make no mistake, these are big changes, with huge challenges.

I did have one “groan” moment during the press conference, when an iPhone app was announced. A bit of overly trendy glitz – a much better investment would have been a mobile friendly portal that works across all smart phones rather than the closed, minority player that is Apple. Other than that, this was government being “with it” in regard to technology.

The Digital Economy Bill came up in the question and answer session, and the Prime Minister offered up the minister responsible for a Q&A session with those interested afterwards – I look forward to the notes from that meeting! – the brief answer to the question was that disconnection, and more generally technical measures, were a last option. However, it did highlight the gap between the backward looking UK Digital Economy Bill, and the forward looking use of open standards and open technology that was a central part of today’s announcement.

What does this all mean? It’s too early to tell. There are clearly aspects of today’s announcement that are re-announcemnets of existing initiatives, but over all the picture is one of a strategic and systematic embracing of digital technology to create a more efficient and more open government here in the UK.