Net Neutrality-Are we headed for a ‘two-speed’ internet?

29 11 2010

“My first and overriding priority is an open internet where consumers have access to all legal content”. These were the words of Ed Vaizey to the Telegraph last Friday defending his position on net neutrality laid out in his speech on 17 November.

But does this really constitute a free internet as laid out by Tim Berners-Lee in 2006: “freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, (as) the fundamental social basis of the internet and the society based on it.”

Ed Vaizey stated in his speech that: “We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want. This could include the evolution of a two sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

It is this ‘two-speed’ internet that raises the concerns. By allowing ISPs to differentiate between content on the basis of payment the internet will cease to be the level playing field that has defined it so far, and in many ways framed its success.

The effects of this would be twofold: The proposals would damage innovation (by unfairly disadvantaging start-ups) and also freedom of speech (by making capital a factor in publication and promulgation of views). ORG director Jim Killock blasts this approach, highlighting that “money and commercial interest can easily over-ride public interest if we do not assert it.”

In reply, it has been argued that the greater choice of ISP in the UK would allow market competition to regulate any abuses of the proposal, while Ofcom provides a regulatory check.  Indeed, the BBC is already considering one market mechanism to such effect – a traffic light system for rating how your ISP is handling its iPlayer traffic. That is a good idea in principle – if, that is, consumers are willing to shop around to get a better service. The reality, though, is that not everybody can be bothered – which is why letting net neutrality go by the board is such a troubling idea.

Moreover, picking through Vaizey’s words, he does still appear open to the idea of priority access for websites who pay ISPs for the privilege, though he’s not happy with the idea of blocking out competitors’ services altogether. This will still constitute a non-neutral internet.

Although it is clearly important to generate new revenue for ISP investment in the internet infrastructure that is so important to business and social interaction today, the government has to seriously consider how this impacts its long-term goals of a digital economy and the accompanying promotion of technological innovation.

Sean Kirwan





Government spending data released

29 11 2010

On 19 November the government published detailed spending data allowing the public to see for the first time how money is spent. This constitutes an enormous amount of data- some 157 spreadsheets containing every transaction by each one of 24 core departments detailing every item of spending over £25,000 for the last 6 months.

The release represents perhaps the greatest step for government accountability yet made. The idea is for the publication to release a raft of armchair auditors who will hold the government to account on its spending and flag up misdemeanors, as well as producing value-added and useful apps and information.

Maude, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, stated: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. This government should be held to account for every penny it spends and I believe that with the weight of public interest on their shoulders, greater transparency will drive departments to make the right decisions about how they spend taxpayer’s money.”

It has certainly revealed some interesting facts, most prominent of which is the governments struggle to wean itself off high-cost contracts with an elite few companies. For example, the top four private companies together account for £4628.3m of government spending (Capita £3352.4m, Telereal Trillium 569.5m, HP Enterprise 435.3m, Aspire 271.1m).

There are issues though. Despite efforts to ensure uniformity, including the production of a release handbook, the data is still in need of considerable cleanup. Each department has a different terminology for classifying its expenditures, meaning it is difficult to group similar costs across Government. The supplier VAT numbers have been excluded making it difficult to identify the same companies across datasets.

Moreover, the vast majority of spending was transactions between public sector bodies, such as grants to local authorities. As a result, it will remain difficult to see the true impact of public spending on the private sector until smaller public bodies’ spending data becomes available.

There’s also a lot excluded: the NHS, benefit payments, spending by quangos, information removed for “national security” and personally confidential reports, totaling about £80bn of an annual spend of £670bn.

Overall though this represents a considerable step in the governments accountability and transparency agenda. Already questions have been raised about how the government spends its cash, and a whole host of apps have been developed to help make sense of what has been published (spotlightonspend and wheredoesmymoneygo).

The government needs now to maintain this momentum and develop an impetus to improve the quality of what it publishes.

Sean Kirwan





Government Business Plans

29 11 2010

On 8 November the government published business plans that set out in detail the work of Government for the next four years. The plans include information on department vision, how this fits with coalition priorities, structural reform plans, department expenditure and information on transparency. Taken together these lie at the very heart of the coalition’s radical agenda for accountability and transparency.

In launching the plans David Cameron spoke both of a ‘horizon shift’ and a ‘power shift’ that would “change the way that government works”.

“Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these business plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people.” This means a horizon shift to long-term government planning for the people rather than short-term political goals.

The Prime Minister also lauded the plans as a move towards greater transparency in Whitehall, part of a “power shift” giving people enough information to hold government to account.

Under the new initiative each department will have to produce a monthly progress report – and the secretary of state will have to account to the prime minister if they are not on track.

The most significant development that differentiates these from the previous government’s public service agreements is that the departments’ business plans show when they are due to start, due to end and what progress has been made.

In an example of how they can work, and create a “rod for (the governments) back”, they  also shows that three projects are already overdue – two at the Cabinet Office relating to publishing details of big IT projects and guidance about the cost of IT projects, and a Ministry of Justice strategy to reduce re-offending and improve rehabilitation – which was due in October.

The potential provided by the business plans for improved accountability and continued increases in transparency is considerable. It will be interesting to see how civic society makes use of these opportunities.

Sean Kirwan





As Government data releases continue apace potential hurdles need to be addressed

2 11 2010

Two recent government releases signal that the drive from the top for transparency and data publication remains strong and healthy. On 28 October the Government published details of hospitality and gifts received by ministers and special advisers, ministerial meetings with external organisations and all overseas trips by ministers across government. The Prime Minister has also published an updated quarterly list of special advisers and the salaries of those earning above £58,200. Francis Maude, in commending these latest moves, stated that: “The data published today is yet another step-change as we strive to make transparency an integral part of government business.”

Furthermore on 29 October the government published the latest round of Structural Reform Plans (SRPs), continuing its commitment to promote accountability and transparency across all government departments and to allow people to check that departments are meeting their commitments in turn. The Prime Minister first launched the draft SRP’s in June with departments setting out their reform priorities and the actions they will take to achieve them, within a specified timetable and alongside measureable milestones.

However, the freeing of data has not been all plain sailing. On 18 October the API (datafeed) that many third party developers rely on to produce transport planning apps for London went down, leading to a clash between TfL, third party producers and London’s Datastore/Government policy. While TfL claims the API was not switched off intentionally, but was interrupted following a routine security update; the truth seems more elusive. Malcolm Barclay, the developer of London Travel Deluxe which relies on the API, believes the move is a deliberate one and is about control, citing the fact that many other similar APIs have remained operational and that he was in not informed of the change. Meanwhile Jonathan Raper, CEO of Placr, a member of the mayor’s digital advisory board and a consultant to the London Datastore, pins the blame on TfL’s middle management. While the senior executives at TfL support the move, he says, there’s an institutionalised fear of developers lower down — where coders are thought of as hackers, and there’s a fear that public data will be misrepresented.

These issues of control and institutional reticence to release data are likely to be ongoing within TfL for some time and are indicative of a broader concern for the future of the the transparency agenda. High level support for the process has been strong and visible: witness the Coalition programme for government and the speech made by Boris Johnson launching the London Datastore. However, it will require sustained pressure,  commitment and political will for the final goal to be achieved: to fundamentally change institutional perceptions of the nature of public data (open, not owned) and the ways it is used. TfL may be the precursor of difficult time ahead.

Sean Kirwan





COI letter regarding the Government Transparency Agenda

22 10 2010

Dear Supplier

Government Transparency Agenda

In ‘The Coalition: our programme for Government’ the government set out the need for greater transparency across its operations so that the public could hold to account public bodies and politicians.

To help achieve greater transparency in how central government spends public funds and to help deliver better value for money, the Prime Minister has set out specific commitments in procurement and contracting:

  • All new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • All new central government contracts over £10,000 to be published in full from January 2011.

The commitment to publish contract documentation applies to the result of all competitive tenders from existing framework agreements which means that the majority of COI’s procurement activity is within the scope of this commitment. COI is awaiting further guidance as to whether the contracts will be published on COI’s website or on a single government website. Further information regarding which website will be used will be published on the COI website as soon as it is available.

Under the terms of this commitment, certain redactions may be required prior to publication in order to protect certain types of information which may be considered exempt from publication. Redactions of contractual text will be permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act.

For new framework agreements, COI will include two new clauses covering our right to publish and redactions. However, as COI frameworks operate on a four-year cycle, this exercise will not be complete until 2012. Therefore, the decision has been taken to introduce the following two clauses in all existing framework agreement terms and conditions, effective from the date of this letter:

RIGHT TO PUBLISH

1) The parties acknowledge that; except for any information which is declared by COI to fall within one or more of the exceptions in the Redactions Clause; the content of any Contract is not Confidential Information. Notwithstanding any other clause of this Agreement, the Contractor hereby gives his consent for COI to publish a Contract in its entirety, including from time to time agreed changes, to the general public.

2) The Contractor shall assist and cooperate with COI to publish any Contract content.

 

REDACTIONS

COI may, at its sole discretion, redact information from the Contract prior to publishing for one or more of the following reasons:

  • national security;
  • personal data;
  • information protected by intellectual property law;
  • information which is not in the public interest to disclose ( under a Freedom of Information Act analysis)
    • third party confidential information;
    • IT security; or
    • prevention of fraud

 

These clauses are not considered contentious and should be acceptable, however, if you wish to discuss them or the wider transparency agenda, please feel free to contact me.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Bob Ager

Head of Procurement





Government releases new department structure charts

20 10 2010

On the 15 October, in what the Cabinet Office terms a ‘huge stride forward for government openness’, the government published new details about civil servants working at the heart of government. Along with a fresh wave of information detailing civil servant salaries over £82,900, government departments have released detailed ‘organograms’ showing how departments are structured.

These charts set out details of the number and grade of staff working in different departments. They include the names, job titles and salaries for all senior civil servants at director level or above, as well as the job title of all senior civil servants at deputy director level, along with the number of staff in their team and the breakdown of their grades.

The professed aim is to build on the government’s drive for transparency and accountability. Where before the public could only access a breakdown of total civil servants by department (through the Office for National Statistics), now they can discover which areas they work in. In theory this provides unprecedented insight into the structure, focus and size of government departments and does throw up some interesting findings. For example, education has over twice as many people working in its press and marketing operations (427) as in the section dealing with academies (211), while it emerges from data on HMRC department that Corporation tax and VAT accounts for only 755 people, compared to 6,295 on benefits.

In reality the information is not yet complete and presented mainly in pdf format rather then csv, making third party use of the data more difficult. However, its publication is in line with the government’s transparency agenda setting the release of data, not its quality, as the main priority, and represents another welcome step towards public scrutiny and engagement in the processes of government departments which are accountable to them.

Sean Kirwan





An Invitation to Make Local Government Better

18 10 2010

Dear Friends,

 

It is our pleasure to invite you to ‘Different: Lateral thinking meets the Department of No’: An afternoon of real-world examples, radical proposals, citizen empowerment and local government technology.

 

The aim of the afternoon is to show you how radical things can be achieved in local government, both quickly and effectively. We will provide you with the case studies and inspirational ideas to take on those who look to shut down innovation and entrench existing practice. There will also be opportunities for discussion and networking.

 

No speaker presentations will be longer than 15 minutes, and speakers include William Heath of MyDex CIC (on personal identity); Emer Coleman of London Data Store (on freeing data); Cllr Liam Maxwell  (on radical transparency); Michael Wagstaff of YouGov and Roger Hampson CEO London Borough of Redbridge (on online participatory budgeting); Mark Taylor CEO Sirius IT(on open-source software in government).

 

The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, an informal group of activists, civil servants, writers, policy experts and technologists which I chair, is co-hosting this event with the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead.

 

Practical Details:

 

Date: Tuesday 9th November 2010

Time: 2pm – 6pm (though you are welcome to join us for drinks afterwards)

Venue: Maidenhead Town Hall (easily accessible via train from London Paddington.)

 

Spaces are limited so please RSVP to network@pbage.org as soon as possible.

 

 

We sincerely hope you are able to join us.

 

 

Best Wishes

 

Stephan Shakespeare (Chair, Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age; CEO YouGov plc)

 

Cllr. Liam Maxwell (Lead Member for Policy and Performance, Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead)








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