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.
- centralise the age-old problem of identity verification
- enable federated identity to happen in a low cost way
- prevent cyber bullying / harassment
- 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.