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What will VRM mean for public services?

Posted on: Tuesday 2nd of June 2009

So what do Doc Searls’ far-reaching ideas about “vendor-relationship management” (VRM, or the imminent trends variously referred as buyer-centric commerce, customer-managed relationships, user-driven identity and permissions-based marketing) mean for public services? VRM hasn’t yet crashed around the ears of an unsuspecting world of business, even though in all the big companies we’ve talked to there’s someone who can hear the rumbling and can see how big this is going to be. But no-one is really thinking what this means for the 48% of our economy which is our public sector.

It’s a big question. The public sector employs 5m and spends £16bn a year on IT. It grabs, manages and shares huge, unimaginable swathes of personal data. It offers more and more “personalised” and means-tested services all dependent on a discredited “CRM” mentality. The Home Office, the MoD, RAF, health, tax and education authorities have all been known to mislay people’s personal details in industrial quantities.

It’s not as if no-one has been thinking about it. I broached the matter on the Idealgovernment blog two years ago, and have returned to it several times. Carrie Bishop led on it at Adriana’s last VRM Hub meeting. She made a good start but I felt she and I were the only ones in the room interested in it. Hardcore VRM thinkers are very into personal empowerment, and some may wish there were barely any role for government at all.

Jerry Fishenden has raised the question on his excellent blog and links these VRM themes to the contempory political thinking of David Cameron and Vince Cable. Jerry (“The Thunderer”) is quietly outspoken, deeply thoughtful man, and he is well-connected. VRM thinking is moving into the political mainstream and it can’t be too long before we have a serious think-tank paper coming out on it. So if we at Ctrl-Shift are to be the world’s thought leaders on this, we’d better get some thoughts down now. Here goes.

It seems to me the effects of VRM on public services will be of four sorts. It will improve public services. It will cut costs. It will de-tox the “database state”. And it is the perfect basis for co-creation of our public services.

Instead of Transformational Government‘s CRM-era plan to pour concrete into the living heart of the state, VRM will allow a transformation that is living, human, and compassionate.

Let’s examine those four ways in turn.

VRM will cut costs

We are on public-sector databases hundred of times – perhaps 200 times each. The cost of maintaining these databases will be in 10 figures. But the real damage comes from poor data quality: incomplete, replicated and inaccurate data. Present efforts are focussed on more data gathering, and removing barriers to data sharing. Increasingly, public services and law enforcement swim directionless in a sort of toxic soup of our valuable personal data.

With VRM, people collect, maintain, augment, share, and selectively disclose their own personal data. That means the cost of maintaining and sharing the data falls on the individual, who has to maintain it anyway and who cares more about accuracy and deletion. It saves the costs of data cleansing on the state side, and reduces the knock-on costs of trying to operate public services with data of often unimaginably poor quality.

VRM will improve the quality of public services

The VRM-based approach made possible by a service such as Mydex would solve the Tellusonce problem straight away, and without compromise to people’s privacy. It would transport Whitehall, as if in a time machine, forward to 2005 (sic) the date by which we were promised a single change of address service (this was always going to be a more monumental achievement than was admitted when it promised back in 2000).

VRM is the natural ally of co-creation. It allows for universally rich, detailed and nuanced expressions of need and emand, and descriptions of circumstance. Lockheed Martin’s census? Pouf! CoI ads? Paf! Millions of pounds on market research? Pah! VRM is the very architecture of citizen participation. If we wanted lean, just-in-time public services then VRM is the first credible technology to make it possible. That way public services could start to think like Toyota in the 1970s and work their way forward through the next 30 years. Or leapfrog it for heavens sake.

VRM can de-tox the “database state”

The present “Transformational government” policy was dreamed up by former consultants and went down well with the IT trade association Intellect but lacks common sense. It eliminates human empathy from the front line, forcing data subjects through mechanised rules-based processes. It’s also, as other and I have argued (pdf), substantially illegal under European law on data protection and human rights.

VRM solves the problem of how to offer personalised services legally and without compromising the dignity of the individual. It helps in two ways. It avoids unnecessary gathering, processing and sharing of personal data by organisations with out consent (which is unlawful when not duly sanctioned by law and necessary and proportionate in a democratic society). And it provides a powerful basis of informed consent where data is collected stored and shared, giving public organisations strong legal protection.

VRM as the basis for co-creation

VRM restores the clear distinction between the obligations owed by data subjects to a coercive state (border control, law enforcement etc) and elective participation in a co-operative and increasingly co-created democracy. It goes beyond letting us be managed “customers” of health, education and welfare services: it makes us active participants. That’s what we should be.

If necessary, VRM can work very well with a National ID Register, invoking it when that level of authentication is truly required. Thus the NIR becomes an unobtrusive service which individuals use to their benefit, and not – as at preesnt – an unwelcome imposition which can only be retrospectively justified by the creation of new barriers in life which only the ID Scheme can overcome. It loses the “big brother” aspects. Together the NIR and VRM can provide the sort of national identity architecture that meet the Crosby criteria. And it doesnt have to be administered by the banks.

To conclude, VRM holds great promise for the health of public services in terms of reduced cost, better specified, targetted and designed services, and restoration of trust in the government’s capability with personal data. Politically and socially I foresee that it will be extremely healthy to have empowered and self-reliant individuals operating with capability and confidence in Britain.

People should be the stewards of their own personal data to the greatest possible extent, and in a more structured and competent manner, better supported by purpose-developed technology. And it’s far better that they should themselves benefit from the value of that personal data, rather than have it routinely taken from them and shared by the state in a manner that is too often undignified, disproportionate and unnecessary.

That’s the outline of a big change. Does that work for you? Do you think it will happen? When then? In a couple of Parliaments? In a generation? Did I miss much?