Recent news on transparency

5 07 2010

On 1st July the Cabinet Office released details of everyone currently working for Non Departmental Public Bodies (known as ‘Quangos’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. This data will be added to the list published last month setting out the highest earning civil servants and special advisers. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and chair of the newly created Public Sector Transparency Board, hailed the recent developments:

‘Yet again we have shown we are absolutely committed to acting quickly on pledges in our Coalition Agreement to release information that will allow everyone to hold their politicians and public bodies to account. Today’s release, along with previous publications listing high earning civil servants and salaries of special advisers, shows that transparency is fast becoming an integral part of everything we do.  I believe this will not only increase accountability, but will lead to more efficient public service organisations.’

On the same day Deputy PM Nick Clegg called for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’. This is part of a consultative process where the government will try to ascertain which laws the public wish to see repealed, and try to ‘redress the balance between the citizen and the state’. The three key questions for consideration, as set out by Mr Clegg in his speech at the launch of the Your Freedom website, are as follows:

  • Restoring civil liberties: which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?
  • Cutting business and charity regulations: which regulations do you think should be removed or changed to make running your business or organisation as simple as possible?
  • Repealing unnecessary laws: which offences do you think we should remove or change and why?

In his speech Mr Clegg praised the initiative thus: ‘What I find especially exciting about this project is that, now we have got the ball rolling, the debate is totally out of government’s control. Real democracy is unspun -it is the raucous, unscripted debates that always throw up the best ideas. So be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom, and this is your chance to have your say.’

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)





Government transparency update

28 06 2010

On 24th June the PM David Cameron held the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board, established with a view to push the government’s transparency agenda. Members include Sir Tim-Berners Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), Professor Nigel Shadbolt, an expert on open data from Southampton University, Tom Steinberg (founder of mysociety) and Dr Rufus Pollock, a Cambridge University economist who co-founded the Open Knowledge Foundation.

At the first meeting the board set up some new Public Data Transparency principles, which were, briefly:

  • Public data policy and practice will be clearly driven by the public and businesses who want and use the data, including what data is released when and in what form;
  • Public data will be published in reusable, machine-readable form;
  • Public data will be released under the same open licence which enables free reuse, including commercial reuse;
  • Public data will be available and easy to find through a single easy to use online access point (http://www.data.gov.uk)
  • Public data will be published using open standards and following the recommendations of the World Wide Web Consortium;
  • Public data underlying the Government’s own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use;
  • Public data will be timely and fine grained;
  • Release data quickly, and then republish it in linked data form;
  • Public data will be freely available to use in any lawful way;
  • Public bodies should actively encourage the re-use of their public data; and
  • Public bodies should maintain and publish inventories of their data holdings.

The full list of draft principles is available here.

On the same day, the PM and Deputy PM Nick Clegg wrote a letter to public sector workers asking for their ideas on how the government can do more for less, in conjunction with the Spending Review announced in the budget. The proposal is being dubbed the ‘Spending Challenge’ and it aims to engage the public in considering how public services can be provided as effectively as possible.

In the letter, the full version of which is here, Cameron and Clegg said “We want you to help us find those savings, so we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible. You work on the frontline of public services. You know where things are working well, where the waste is, and where we can re-think things so that we get better services for less money.”

In a statement on 25th June Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced that the public would be welcomed to comment on the recent developments in the government drive for transparency and open data and put forward their own ideas on how to make government more cost-effective.

He commented on the recent developments: “In just a few weeks this Government has published a whole range of data sets that have never been available to the public before.  But we don’t want this to be about a few releases, we want transparency to become an absolutely core part of every bit of government business.   That is why we have asked some of the country’s and the world’s greatest experts in this field to help us take this work forward quickly here in central government and across the whole of the public sector.

“And in the spirit of transparency we are asking everyone to comment on our ideas and help us to define these important principles.  Anyone who wants to will be able to put forward their suggestions for what the principles should be by logging on to data.gov.uk.”

Charlotte Jee                   (@charlottejee)





Left and Right Unite?

25 01 2010

Virtually all commentators religiously caveat any discussion of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in modern politics. The terms, however, persist. This is because ‘left’ and ‘right’ are useful labels, and their malleability is a strength, rather than a limitation. They mean different things in different contexts, but mark an ill-defined likeness between apparently disparate political outlooks. What will they mean in the post-bureaucratic age?

Mass communication sits easily within either camp. Soviet Russia made extensive use of mass communication networks (albeit whilst attempting to block out everything west of the Iron Curtain), whilst America saw a communications boom during Reagan’s administration. Left and right wing governments have used their bureaucratic monopolies to shore up their authority and exercise their power with similar zeal.

As we advance in the post-bureaucratic age, left and right will find areas of agreement. Open government data; the importance of technology; better-value public services : these things are not ‘naturally’ right or left wing agendas.

However, the idea (beloved of the left – though often phrased rather differently) that there exists an intellectual vanguard (whether as the state, the party, the media) who can help those less able to help themselves, will be harder to sustain. It is much harder to make a case in support of the notion of false consciousness (however defined), when everyone has access to the same materials and experiences online. Equally, the right will find it difficult to argue in favour of the primacy of individuality over social community, as people come to form social groups (however defined) with people all over the virtual world.

It seems, then, that left and right may find it more difficult to define their differences down traditional fault lines. They agree that the post-bureaucratic age will provide new opportunities and dangers, but their means of addressing these may not be as dissimilar as they have been in the past.





Can the Tories still claim the PBA as their own?

21 01 2010

The launch of data.gov.uk this morning – an initiative of which this blog wholly approves – the question of ‘political ownership’ of the post-bureaucratic age is especially pertinent.

Tim Berners-Lee and his team have done a wonderful job, but one has a creeping suspicion that the recent acceleration in Labour ‘Gov 2.0’ initiatives may have something to do with political positioning. In an election campaign that will be dominated by talk of recession, spending cuts, and tax rises, the ability to present a credible, more positive narrative is worth a great deal. Cameron, no doubt influenced by strategists like Steve Hilton, has long-recognised the value of embracing the PBA. Brown and co have been slower, but are making up for it with a series of well-timed and (generally) well-executed initiatives.

One would imagine that Gordon Brown is personally uncomfortable with ideas of transparent government; or he may consider it a passing political fad which can be hijacked in an attempt to knock the Tories off-message. Either way, there seems to be a recognition emerging that government must embrace the age – expect many more announcements in support of the PBA (from both sides) in the campaign ahead.





School of Everything teams up with BIS

11 01 2010

The excellent School of Everything have just announced that they are teaming up with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in what looks like a huge coup for the startup. The new arrangement, will provide financial support to allow the School of Everything to offer the following:

  • You’ll be able to find free or low-cost venues to run classes or meet up with other people to learn stuff
  • You’ll be able to upload and find more resources related to the subjects you’re interested in (videos, documents, images… all that kind of thing)
  • You’ll be able to find courses near you as well as individual lessons and teachers for particular subjects
  • You’ll also be able to embed School of Everything search widgets on other websites

Partners in Learning

The School of Everything submitted a proposal to BIS to become its partner to implement its ‘learning revolution’ initiative, published in a White Paper last year. The government’s reason for choosing the School for Everything as a partner is interesting:

“School of Everything has already proved itself as a platform so we don’t need to start from scratch. It already has hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month and this is now set to get much bigger. It uses web 2.0 social tools, has access to the open source development community and will bring a simple, easy to use solution for everyone which is what The Learning Revolution is all about. At Becta we talk about Next Generation Learning – this is an excellent example of what you can do with technology to make a really big impact for learners.”

The long arm of the Prince of Darkness?

These reasons are all perfectly valid, but such moves do provide a headache for David Cameron. It is no surprise that BIS is Mandy’s own department. Could Labour be trying to eclipse the Tories as the champions of the PBA? It would be an ingenious strategy in some respects – say Cameron offered nothing concrete versus Labour achievements (data.gov.uk will be launched soon as well). It would leave the Tories lacking a distinct, positive agenda, and might force Cameron to drop the PBA as a campaign priority.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)





Exciting times for Open Data: Boris Johnson unveils London Datastore

7 01 2010

The Open Data movement in Britain is gathering pace. Yesterday saw the announcement of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s London Datastore, and Tim Berners-Lee’s data.gov.uk is currently in private beta testing phase. Johnson’s initiative follows on the tailcoats of the successful DataSF and Chicago Data Store.

Interesting from a policy perspective was Johnson’s justification for the move:

“I firmly believe that access to information should not just be the preserve of institutions and a limited elite. Data belongs to the people particularly that held by the public sector and getting hold of it should not involve a complex routine of jumping through a series of ever decreasing hoops.”

The philosophical and democratic arguments for free data are being cited with more force by politicians, notwithstanding the cost and efficiency potentials. This is an important distinction: data is a right, not a privilege. The Freedom of Information Act has been weak in its assertion of this principle, only giving access to what already exist if it is specifically requested. The onus should be on the state to provide a record of its data in a way that suits the people, not the state.





The PBA in the Media

6 01 2010

The PBA has been picking up some interesting publicity in recent weeks. It is slipping into media usage, but it is still very much in the jargon phase – a google search for ‘post-bureaucratic age’ only brings back 197,000 hits. This is not total obscurity, but it is hardly shorthand for ‘now’.

How is the PBA coming across in the media?

It certainly helps to have eloquent, highly intelligent commentators like Michael Gove (on Radio 4) and Matthew D’Ancona (in GQ) presenting it. However, there are still the usual threats of miring a profound social and informational shift in techno-utopian language: the ‘google-nation problem’.

Gove cited broadcasting as an area of life where power has been decentralised (or, more accurately, disintermediated). In the past, the BBC controllers decided programme scheduling; in the early days of television there was only one choice of programme to watch at 8am on a Thursday. Today, thanks to competition from the private sector and technological change, almost anyone can watch whatever they want, whenever they want.

Hilton’s Briefings

The Financial Times political blog published leaked briefings sent out to senior Tories by Steve Hilton, PBA-enthusiast and Cameron’s chief strategy advisor. This was supposed to be of great embarrassment to the Tories,  demonstrating how a split is emerging between the ‘post-bureaucratic’ members of Cameron’s inner circle, and the rest of the senior Tories.

However, Hilton’s briefings are up-beat, thoughtful, and interesting. It is a shame he did not publish them publicly. The criticism that he was telling MPs ‘how to think’ is entirely misleading; a director of strategy’s job is to provide a strategic framework and direction for the party. Hilton did exactly this.