If I could commission one government IT project

I’ve been pretty critical of two massive government IT projects – the existing plans to introduce mandatory identity cards with a huge database behind them and also the Home Office talk of a database of all phone calls and emails made anywhere in the country.

My criticisms in both cases are three-fold: the money involved could be better spent on other projects (such as giving us more police rather than keeping huge databases of the activities of innocent people), they involve a huge infringement of our liberties and privacy, and – thirdly – big IT projects like this are likely to go wrong and to be vulnerable to misuse.

But I’m not a Luddite. Over time I’ve found embracing IT innovations has made my life easier and made me more efficient – whether it was years ago buying a laser printer to speed up production of casework letters or more recently starting to use the text-messaging based blogging service Twitter to help keep residents informed of what I’m up to as an MP.

Indeed, the idea of organising information in an efficient way so that it helps people make decisions and find out what’s going on is fundamentally a very liberal approach – getting computer code to do the heavy lifting so that individuals can find out and act.

So this has got me thinking – if I could commission just one IT project from government, what would it be? Because that’s really the implicit fourth reason for my rejection of ID cards and logging all emails and phone calls – if you were going to spend that amount of money and hoover up that amount of IT expertise, surely there are better things they could go on?

Having pondered this a bit, I think my choice of project would be one that there isn’t currently any clamour for but which in a quiet way could revolutionise the way in which people contact public services – and so in turn the benefits garnered from having those services.

It all boils down to this. There are a myriad of different contact details for public services which most people – even MPs who are making numerous contact each week on behalf of constituents! – struggle to remember, if that is they even know they exist. For example, how many people do you think know how to contact their local police, other than on the emergency 999 number?

But we pretty much all know the postcode of where we live. So why not introduce a national scheme for matching up email addresses containing public services with the relevant public service? Imagine if you could email yourpostcode@police.gov.uk and you knew it would automatically go the relevant team? Or yourpostcode@nhs.gov.uk or yourpostcode@libraries.gov.uk or yourpostcode@schools.gov.uk or any other of a myriad of public services?

There’s no doubt it would be quite a meaty set of data sitting behind all this, but these days matching up postcodes to geographical units to public services is increasingly common – just look at what http://www.writetothem.com or http://www.upmystreet.com achieve – and this database would frankly be tiny compared to one holding records of all the phone calls and emails in the country or the national ID cards database.

Sure you have to factor in the email forwarding and other overheads, such as having to deal with the emails because the whole point of making contact easier is that you end up with more contacts.

But it seems to me feasible and practical – and is the sort of innovation that, once introduced, we would soon end up wondering how we ever lived without.

So my choice is ‘the Peoples’ Database’ – a database we the people might actually want rather than one that they – the Government – want to impose. What’s yours?

This article first appeared on Liberal Conspiracy, where you can also post up your comments.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008