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September 28, 2010

An App Store for the Government?

I listened in to a G-Cloud web-cast organised by Intellect earlier this month, the primary intention of which was to provide an update on where things have got to. I use the term 'update' loosely because, with the election and change of government and what-not, there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of externally visible progress since the last time I heard someone speak about the G-Cloud. This is not surprising I guess.

The G-Cloud, you may recall, is an initiative of the UK government to build a cloud infrastructure for use across the UK public sector. It has three main strands of activity:

The last of these strikes me as the hardest to get right. As far as I can tell, it's an idea that stems (at least superficially) from the success of the Apple App Store though it's not yet clear whether an approach that works well for low-cost, personal apps running on mobile handsets is also going to work for the kinds of software applications found running across government. My worry is that, because of the difficulty, the ASG will distract from progress on the other two fronts, both of which strike me as very sensible and potentially able to save some of the tax-payer's hard-earned dosh.

App stores (the real ones I mean) work primarily because of their scale (global), the fact that people can use them to showcase their work and/or make money, their use of relatively micro-payments, and their socialness. I'm not convinced that any of these factors will have a role to play in a government app store so the nature of the beast is quite different. During the Q&A session at the end of the web-cast someone asked if government departments and/or local councils would be able to 'sell' their apps to other departments/councils via the ASG. The answer seemed to be that it was unlikely. If we aren't careful we'll end up with a simple registry of government software applications, possibly augmented by up-front negotiated special deals on pricing or whatever and a nod towards some level of social engagement (rating, for example) but where the incentives for taking part will be non-obvious to the very people we need to take part - those people who procure government software. It's the kind of thing that Becta used to do for the school's sector... oh, wait! :-(

For the ASG to work, we need to identify those factors that might motivate people to use it (other than an outright mandate) - as individuals, as departments and as government as a whole. I think this will be quite a tricky thing to get right. That's not to say that it isn't worth trying - it may well be. But I wonder if it would be better unbundled from the other strands of the G-Cloud concept, which strike me as being quite different.

Addendum: A G-Cloud Overview [PDF, dated August 2010] is available from the G-Digital Programme website:

G-Digital will establish a series of digital services that will cover a wide range of government’s expected digital needs and be available across the public sector. G-Digital will look to take advantage of new and emerging service and commercial models to deliver benefits to government.

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