One plus one equals none

This is the basic argument of a lightning talk I was going to give at NDF2012. Life got in the way, so I didn’t give the talk, though I touched on some of the digital ecosystem bits in my opening remarks.


It’s about two policies playing out in public institutions: user pays and NZGOAL. User pays has been around for a while; I’m not sure how long exactly, as a lightning talk I wasn’t going to have to be too specific. NZGOAL is relatively new – the New Zealand Government Online Access Licensing framework (framework doesn’t get capped, no idea why not, but I guess NZGOALF looked stupid).

User pays feels like a hangover, from a time when the public service was just discovering its shiny 80s post-walk shorts self. Education, health, the conservation estate, cultural institutions all realised (or were made to realise) their worth and some kind of value in charging users. Fast-forward to the 21st century and a new ethos in government about making stuff available for  public and private re-use, supporting innovation, sharing the great asset of material held by public institutions. But add to that declining baselines (that’s bureaucrat-speak for having less money), and a public service under pressure to do more with less, and user pays is probably taking on a palliative role for organisation finances.

The two policies are in direct opposition to each other.

I don’t have answers but I do have questions and want to challenge organisations to ask themselves which approach is the one their organization is following. I expect it’s more complicated than that, and organisations are treading a careful line between the two policies – supporting openness where they can and charging users where they can’t avoid it. But it goes to a bigger question than that: our content is an asset with value, but who owns that asset and who has the right to exploit its value – the institutions/government or the public/taxpayers?

Virginia Gow had some good thoughts on this (based on the sort of collection institution experience I don’t have), that charging is warranted sometimes but not all the time. For example, charge for the initial digitisation but don’t charge for subsequent reorders of the same digital file. And Sean Murgatroyd had some thoughts after the NDF barcamp in Wellington, that argued against the simplicity of seeing it as a dichotomy. I’ll revisit his email soon.

But what I touched on in my opening remarks was why I think it’s the public and even commercial organisations that should be exploiting the value of our collective asset, and how that’s potentially more valuable to organisations than the money they might make through charges. Free content generates demand; commercial use creates greater exposure of our content and brands; content being used makes collections indispensable.