Having a significant
interest in social networks and social media, I have often thought about their
potential for wider adoption. In other words using them for things other than catching up with
friends and telling people what you have been doing. Therefore, it is
perhaps timely that a number of drivers have recently emerged which have
allowed me to encapsulate a compelling idea regarding their use.

The idea is that of a
social identity approved and verified by Government. I will explain
more about that later. However, before I do I think it would be useful to
discuss some of the drivers for the idea. 
Recently the UK
government has announced significant
cuts in spending across all areas including IT programmes. It has also
acknowledged and announced that there are some 10 million people within the UK who do not have access to or use the internet. As a result Martha Lane-Fox is now
spearheading a new campaign to get those 10 million people online by the end of
2012 (
race to get online). As it happens I found out today that Capgemini are supporting this campaign too.

The
previous government had planned to provide every UK citizen
with a
personal web page and a unique identifier to enable the public to business with
the government in a secure way. One would assume this would encourage members of the public to
engage with the government in a standardised, low cost, self service manner just like many have
been doing for years now with utilities, banks, and retailers.

However, the
afore mentioned cuts in government spending would perhaps make it unlikely that
any such project would go ahead. It is also worth considering that
£94.5m per year is
spent on government websites and this figure doe not include staffing costs either. The long-term plan
to reduce costs in this area is to migrate websites onto “common
infrastructures” such as DirectGov and Business Link.

Another example of “common infrastructures” are social networks such
as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. These networks can no longer be considered niche as those who are
online use them frequently. Indeed Hitwise reported in March 2010 that more US internet users went to Facebook rather than Google for the first time. Therefore, perhaps the government should consider
driving cost reduction and innovation through the endorsement and use of such
platforms within its overall IT and communications strategy. The
US government already started something similar with
Facebook over a year ago now.

In doing so the government could maybe improve some of the negative connotations associated with social networks; and
at the same time address security
concerns regarding their use. After all many of the “security hacks”
reported in the media have occurred as a result of misuse through providing too much personal information, inappropriate privacy
settings, and weak passwords for example.

With regard to privacy
I am sure there are many who would prefer not to have an online presence. Like it or not improvements in search engines over the past 5 years has resulted in few individuals who remain
‘ungoogleable’. Even if you personally have not uploaded any information
about yourself to the internet it does not prevent someone else having done so on your behalf. In addition people have numerous opportunities to provide user generated content about using feature rich websites which could refer to you or one of your online digital identities. It is clear that the privacy issue needs to be dealt with but that is not the debate and this idea could indeed assist in resolving some of the privacy issues.

Moving onto the idea; which is in fact quite simple and has obvious benefits, so frankly I am astounded that others have not thought about it previously. Maybe someone has and
maybe I am naive to think the idea is feasible – the amount of process and
political change needed to implement it would be significant. However, if it is
not discussed and debated it will never happen, and if it was easy to do it
would have been done already. Therefore, this is why I am blogging about it to see what others think and crowdsource opinions.

If social networks were
able to assure your social network identity as government certified then others
would be able to rely on it as a form of identity management and verification.
Think of it as a little badge or logo that is attributed to the profile of your
social networks of choice. Aside from saving money I can think of many reasons why this would be a good
idea.

  1. centralise the age-old problem of identity verification
  2. enable
    federated identity to happen in a low cost way
  3. prevent cyber bullying / harassment
  4. bring new levels of trust to on-line relationships

Twitter already
supports this concept to a certain extent through the use of
Twitter Verified Accounts, an additional level of process and the submission of documentation to government authorities could move this to another level. Note the US Government already use OpenID for some government online services. Both of
these existing technologies could be the beginnings of a solution for implementing such an
idea.

Think about the many
government departments under contract with external credit reference agencies
such as Experian and Equifax providing
identity verification services. Centralising such a function could
save a considerable amount of money. 
Next think about how
television advertising for government services is likely to become a thing of
the past. The benefits of wider adoption would allow government to take advantage of the viral marketing
opportunities presented by such social networks, not to mention the fact that
they are used by many so people already know how to use
them.

Once that has been
considered think about the “free” search engine optimisation government
would get and the “free”
web-hosting and content management systems on offer. 
Social networks might
not be perfect but they are probably good enough for people to get benefit from
(as well as reduce the number of usernames and passwords you need to
remember). I for one would prefer to see less spent on government websites than
less spent on health, education, pensions, and other important public services.

Of course any such
move would need to satisfy government security guidelines and adhere to the
minimum requirements for the identity
verification of individuals
. However, building appropriate privacy settings, enforcing strong
passwords for such verified accounts, and supporting multiple levels of trust
is not complicated. What should not be underestimated is addressing the issues that
implementing such and idea would bring. There would be a number of political, process,
and social challenges in addition to the more significant consequences of and an increased opportunity not to mention benefit for identity theft.

Personally, I
think it would be better for a small number of key social networks to offer a
certified by government status and adhere to these standards. Surely it would
be more cost effective than a myriad of individual programmes and projects
within the corridors of public sector offices across the UK trying
to do the same thing. It is food for thought and not without its challenges, some of which I have outlined. However, it could be just the sort of
money saving idea that warrants being examined in more detail. Your thoughts and
comments, as ever, are much appreciated.

Mark Walton-Hayfield is a Consulting Enterprise Architect
working in the Outsourcing CTO Team in the UK. You can follow him as markw_h on Twitter.