Houdini was once quoted as saying that it is easier to break out of a safe than it is to break in to one. Well, how difficult is it to break out of our government? Earlier this week, Steph Gray over at DIUS released the results of a little skunkworks project he ran to answer this question. As he describes in his original post, his objective was to:

We have the Civil Service guidance on participation online, and yet in organisations across the UK, public servants and others are being prevented from engaging online at work thanks to restrictions placed on their internet access by their IT providers. Some of these are well-intentioned: designed to prevent malicious attacks through unguarded use of attachments to webmail messages. Some are questionable, but understandable, like blocking access to webmail to prevent leaking of sensitive material. But often, they’re just bloody-minded and a symptom of a lack of understanding that social networks, wikis and online video are increasingly important tools that people need to access from work in order to their jobs properly.

To address this problem, Steph created his social media suite, a compendium of tests, and released them through his network to test. (I believe a nod also goes to Mark O’Neill at DCMS who may have started the bandwagon).

As an entrepreneur developing a hosted platform (i.e. external to government), these results clearly cause me some concern, as it means that it is entirely likely that a number of central government departments will not be able to use our software, irregardless of what demand might exist from inside policy departments, without our first negotiating some serious bureaucratic hurdles. But, to be honest, we already knew that. It is why our particular model is predicated on uptake from the outside in: from all the myriad local authorities, politicians, advocacy groups, representative bodies, etc. that form the hidden bulk of the public/third sector and who likely have a bit more freedom of motion.

But enough of my whingeing; Bravo to Mr. Gray

But actually, I didn’t want to write this post to criticise. Quite the opposite. I’d like to publicly congratulate Steph on this project (one of many from the lesteph/mlyons/DIUS skunkworks, I might add). Steph saw a need, had a good idea, and rolled up his sleeves to make it happen. It was clever, rapidly executed, and generated some important insights. It is why, during my foray into the public sector over the past several years, I have grown such respect for the civil service and its potential. Steph, like many other civil servants, could easily take his talents elsewhere – but he chooses instead to apply them to the betterment of his nation. Bravo.

Extending the idea: Building an OpenGov Index

It is also why I am moderately embarrassed to build on his great idea with my own, far less clever, suggestion: creating an OpenGov Index. Yes, yes, I know that this is an “old school” approach. But just as contemporary Govt 2.0 wisdom is to engage in those places where your constituents reside, we the OpenGov community must apply the same reasoning to our own target market – the Govt. Politicians love indices. So does the press. They make for good, quick press releases and articles.

So how about we apply this logic to shine a light on those departments which are actively trying to embrace the new world of collaboration and engagement, and perhaps shame those that couldn’t care less. The OpenGov Index could use Steph’s statiscs as part of an “Inside-Out” component of the index. These would be augmented with some “Outside-In” measures, such as a department’s use of blogs, wikis, twitter, etc. in communicating – and engaging – its constituents. I imagine it should also include an analysis of offline approaches, as well. Extra points should be given to particularly bold experiments, or rapid adoption (or creation) of new tools.

Given yesterday’s launch of the Digital Britain interim report, it strikes me that yet another star has come into alignment, all generating more pressure for an OpenGov. Steph and his colleagues have long been champions of this notion, and I applaud them for yet another exceptional contribution.