Government response to comments on the Coalition Programme

2 08 2010

On Friday 30th July, the government published responses, by department, to the public opinions expressed on ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’ website. In the past three weeks, the website published over 9,500 comments from the public on the Coalition programme on subjects as wide-ranging as defence, civil liberties and banking. In a video posted to the Number 10 website, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, hailed the latest developments thus:

‘The response has been fantastic and I’m pleased to see people have really engaged with this process. I hope people will see that this is different, it’s a permanent change to the way we run government, and that it is worthwhile engaging in this kind of process in the future. It’s important for us in government to remember we don’t have all the answers.’

His comments were echoed by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office:

‘At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas. Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open.’

In a statement on the Cabinet Office website, the government thanked those who chose to comment on the programme for government and reiterated its commitment to the use of open standards and transparency. Furthermore, the government hailed the opportunity for open source software to drive down procurement prices and avoid dependence on inefficient vendors. The government also announced that ‘Guidance for Procurers’ will be published in September 2010. The aim of this guidance is to ensure that new IT procurements for government offer the best value for money possible.

Charlotte Jee       (@charlottejee)





Race Online 2012 launched today: future challenges and ideas

12 07 2010

Today Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion, launched the ‘Race Online 2012’ manifesto, the aim of which is to get millions online by the end of 2012. 10 million UK citizens (the combined population of our five largest cities) have never used the internet, and with this in mind, the manifesto aims to get everyone of working age online by the end of this parliament, to ensure that all may enjoy the benefits of the web upon retirement.

This recent development raises some pertinent questions- for example, should internet access be a human right? According to a BBC World Service poll of more than 27,000 adults in over 26 countries, almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. Access has already been ruled as a human right in Estonia and Finland, and according to the aforementioned BBC research, 75% of Britons would like to see internet access as a fundamental right, perhaps indicating that steps to enshrine access as a right in law would be welcomed by the majority. This would furthermore send a strong signal from the top that internet access is no longer viewed as a luxury but as a necessity for citizens to fully participate in modern UK society.

In addition, these developments raise further possibilities for the Coalition government’s drive to cut costs and improve efficiency- there is a plethora of evidence that by, where possible, moving government functions online, a huge amount of money could be saved. The manifesto launched today, the full version of which is here, estimates that ‘if all currently offline adults began using the internet and made just one online contact each month with government instead of a telephone or face-to-face contact it would save an estimated £900m per annum’.

Questions have been raised over whether these pledges can be supported by the current broadband infrastructure, and although roughly 90% of homes can readily get a broadband connection at 2Mbps or higher and UK prices are now among the lowest in the world, questions remain about how much the government can do, beyond supporting commitments to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps as the very minimum that should be available. While it is true that it is impossible (and indeed, undesirable) to force people to go online, the focus of Race Online 2012 is far more on positively encouraging this group to explore the huge benefits that the internet can bring- for example, ‘older women who have family overseas’ or ‘men over 45 who like football’. One of the key challenges, as raised by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, is how these pledges can be fulfilled without government money.

Charlotte Jee                (@charlottejee)





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)





Recent developments in the transparency revolution

21 06 2010

First estimates, released by the government on Friday 18th June, have revealed that 640,000 people are employed by central government, and an additional 20,000 are contractual or temporary staff. Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) commissioned the exercise to estimate employee numbers, but emphasised that the figures are not yet official statistics.

In a press release on the same day, Francis Maude stressed his ‘absolute commitment to pushing forward with the Government’s transparency agenda’. He pointed out that while the figures released so far are ‘raw and incomplete’, the government will eventually professionalise and better organise the release of data. He also reiterated that the government has ‘promised to keep pushing forward with this agenda and use every opportunity to let the public know what’s really happening in government, even when the information is not perfect’.

A further development in the past week is the appointment of Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) as UK Digital Champion. Her role will be to ‘encourage as many people as possible to go online’, and improve the convenience and efficiency of the public sector by promoting online services. Ms Lane Fox stated that it was her ‘mission’ to reach out to the 10 million adults who have not yet used the internet.

David Cameron stated: ‘I am delighted that Martha Lane Fox will be our Digital Champion, encouraging more people to go online and access the information and services they need. Getting online can help people save money, find a job, access services in a way that works for them, and make connections with each other and with their community. It will also help us all to drive down the cost of delivering public services.’

In a further development, the transparency revolution has reached Holyrood, which has started to set a precedent for other UK administrations by publishing every piece of monthly expenditure in excess of £25,000. On Friday 18th June, the Scottish government released all spending over that limit for April. The finance spokesman, Derek Brownlee, commended the changes in the following statement:  ‘This is a transparency revolution. It will transform the relationship between government, public bodies and the taxpayer who foots the bill.’

Charlotte Jee             (@charlottejee)





Weekly round-up on Government Transparency

14 06 2010

On Thursday 10th June the government released new details about special advisers and civil servants and the exact salaries of those earning above £58,200. The details released included the pay of Andy Coulson (Downing Street Director of Communications), who topped the bill with a salary of £140,000.

On the same day, and in a further extension of the spirit of transparency that is sweeping the upper echelons of government, Chris Huhne hailed the decision of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Home Office to ‘displaying their energy use in real-time, on-line, for the first time’. The recent move to display real-time online energy use in the departments is part of the Government’s commitment to cut carbon emissions from central government by 10% in the next year. This recent development follows on from PM David Cameron’s announcement of the policy on 14th May. Watch this space as we expect further departments to follow suit.

In an interview on Monday 14th, Jeremy Hunt (Culture Secretary) stated that while he cannot dictate wages within the BBC, there should be ‘full transparency’. In the past Mr. Hunt has complained about the 382 managers earning more than £100,000, a view he confirmed in his Guardian interview, saying ‘we want better value for money from the BBC’.

Charlotte Jee   (@charlottejee)





The latest on the drive for government transparency and open data

7 06 2010

On 4th June, the government opened its books and released the entire contents of the Combined Online Information System (COINS) for the previous two financial years:

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell delivered a speech at the Royal Society with Oxfam and Policy Exchange on 3rd June announcing the creation of a new independent watchdog to regulate spending. Mitchell stated that ‘British taxpayers will see exactly how and where overseas aid money is being spent’, as set out in the new ‘UKaid transparency guarantee’.

On 4th June the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles urged Councils to follow central government’s lead and publish all spending over £500 as part of a government-wide transparency and open data drive. This decision will not be enforced by law but the government has warned that ‘measures will be taken’ against uncooperative councils. Local government spending should be freely available in the public domain by January 2011.

Eric Pickles announced the policy on 5th June in an article in the Telegraph.

The BBC used this topic for a lively Have Your Say open discussion where people were invited to put forward their views on whether transparency will restore in government.

Charlotte Jee ( @charlottejee )





Government Transparency: Some Key Coalition Events

2 06 2010

PM David Cameron wrote a letter on Monday 31st May to government departments launching a ‘week  of open data’ and setting out ‘new standards for transparency’ in government, outlining the government’s initial plans to publish online central government contracts, new items of government spending over £25,000, civil servants’ wages,  crime data, amongst other items. The letter also announces the establishment of a ‘Public Sector Transparency Board’, to be chaired by Francis Maude MP, which will support these plans and have a responsibility for ‘setting open data standards across the public sector’. The full text of the letter is here.

On the same day (31st May), Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) oversaw the publication of the salaries of the 172 highest-paid civil servants earning over £150,000. This was welcomed by Matthew Elliott, the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance:

In response to the publication of the wages of the highest-paid in the civil service, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, called for greater public sector pay discipline:

Cameron’s first podcast as PM, recorded on Saturday 29th May, largely focussed on the issue of government transparency, hailing it as an initiative that will help restore public faith in politicians, allow the public to hold government to account and aid the government in its attempts to increase efficiency and save money. The transcript is here. The BBC covered the story here.

Francis Maude announced the start of a new era of transparency in government in this article in the Telegraph on Sunday 30th May.

Charlotte Jee ( @charlottejee )





Will a minority government be less bureaucratic than a majority?

10 05 2010

Every new government, even one which aims to make widespread cuts in the public sector, will expand some parts of the central bureaucracy. The apparatus of state is too well-oiled to avoid this. In a majority government, unchecked by constitutional practice or public opinion, this can occur at breakneck speed – as they UK saw after Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.  Each minister, each department, and each senior civil servant, looks to expand in influence and power. Who begins a new chapter in government without a desire to do this? The motivations may not be sinister, but the lack of any meaningful opposition or check, means that the outcome is usually inefficient, centralising, and bureaucratic government.

The minority government cynic:

Minority governments require consensus. The parties do not hold the same priorities, so the only way that any party can achieve anything is to give another party something that it wants. Government business is conducted essentially as a stitch-up; you back our bill, and we will back yours. Threats to withdraw support from both sides are frequent and loud. The central bureaucracy creeps outwards, as both parties must give more to each other in order to get more in return;  a cycle of buy-offs ensues.

The minority government optimist:

The parties do not hold the same priorities. Each party acts as a check on the other’s expansion, so extensions of the central bureaucracy are vigorously resisted, and only those which are very popular or extremely important can gain traction. Political capital is defended by preventing the other party from furthering its aims, and from protecting the most significant of one’s own positions.

Will a minority government be a more post-bureaucratic government?

A minority government will have neither the constitutional ability nor moral standing to take unilateral decisions; a process of primary consultation will have to be embedded into the ongoing workings of the state bureaucracy. This invites a shift in power back to localism, to self-regulation, and to emerging post-bureaucratic governmental structures, for all but the most fundamental national issues –defence, taxation and spending, Europe. It will be substantially more difficult for a minority government to interfere from the centre, especially in issues which are not governed exclusively on a national level.

What should be done?

It is possible that the transparency agenda will be sidelined discreetly, as neither party will be keen to advertise their backroom deals. On the other hand, keep an eye out for overt displays of collaboration between the parties, especially if the issue in question is especially important to one of them. When it seems too good to be true – it probably is.





Briefing note for Conference 1

23 02 2010

Why move beyond the bureaucratic age?

The past few decades may come to be seen as the testing to destruction of the centralised state. As the likes of Simon Jenkins have chronicled, power began to gather at the centre under the Thatcher government, and continued to do so under Labour. Much of this was well-intentioned: ministers were trying to push through economic reform against the bitterest resistance, or ensure that massive new public spending would lead to better services. But the Leviathan’s limitations are increasingly obvious:

  • The public services that citizens rely on (and pay for) are often unresponsive to their needs.
  • At the same time, the choice, openness and speed-of-access available in other areas has changed popular norms and expectations. People are less inclined to be grateful for whatever they’re given.
  • The fiscal crisis means there is no more money for public services. Improvements must come through reform, not added investment.
  • The anti-politics Zeitgeist, which was already discernable before last year’s expenses scandal, has diminished trust in the state. People are less willing than ever to defer to the judgement of politicians.
  • Individual responsibility and social capital have been crowded out by the expansion of the state.

The emergence of post-bureaucracy

Part of the answer to these problems lies in devolving power from central to local government, something all the major political parties are notionally keen to do. Britain, after all, is perhaps the most centralised polity in the democratic world. But a more profound change may be achieved by relinquishing various kinds of power – such as access to data or control over public money – from government at any level to individuals and communities. Such ideas have come to be known as post-bureaucratic.

In the pre-bureaucratic age, before the emergence of mass communications, power was held locally. The central state simply lacked the means to reach into distant communities. The invention of the telegraph helped to bring about the bureaucratic age, when power shifted to the centre. Government no longer merely fought wars and set strategic directions, but began to command and control broad aspects of daily life. The genesis of the post-bureaucratic age lies in another technological leap forward: the internet. Society has moved from no mass communications to centralised mass communications to decentralised mass communications. Citizens can access information once limited to a centralised political class, and enjoy a power to publish that was once confined to an equally centralised media.

However, the success of the PBA ultimately depends on the use of technology, not on technology itself. That is why the NPBA includes thinkers, entrepreneurs (of the social as well as commercial variety), journalists, campaigners and public-sector workers, as well as people with a technological expertise.

What PBA can do: More for less

Reviving social capital that has been crowded out by the state is perhaps the loftiest aim of post-bureaucracy. The bonds of trust and contact between people may grow if they collaborate to shape government, rather than just passively receive its services. For example, residents could get together to vote on exactly how public money is spent in their neighbourhood.

But the political reality of the moment is that any big idea must be judged ultimately by how it helps to ease the fiscal crisis. In the coming years, public services will only be improved through reform, not through extra investment. It is here that the PBA comes into its own.

Transparency by itself can eliminate waste. Last summer, Windsor and Maidenhead council began publishing real-time information on the internet about the energy consumption rates of some of their buildings. Local people could see how much energy was being used in the town hall or their nearest leisure centre. Energy bills in those buildings have since fallen by 15%.  The mere knowledge that they were being monitored was enough to get council workers to switch off unnecessary lighting and unused computers.

Transparency can also save money in less direct ways. Take procurement. At the moment, the government contracts with a handful of large companies to provide certain services. Small businesses, which may be more efficient, are locked out by the opacity of the tendering process. If, however, the full details of all government contracts were published online, entrepreneurs could examine them item-by-item to see whether they could undercut the established contractors. The potential for savings is enormous. If the government shaved just 5% from the cost of its procurement contracts, £7 billion would be saved every year. And few doubt that the savings are there to be made. Steria, a French company that contracts with government, says the operating margin it makes on its contracts with the British government is almost double that on its French contracts.

What PBA needs: Data, data, data

Post-bureaucratic success stories all comprise three chapters. First, data that was once withheld by the government is made available to all. Then, members of the public (including individuals, businesses and media organisations) seize upon it, sometimes adapting it to their own needs and using it to get actively involved in that particular area of government. Finally, the service in question is improved, either through innovative solutions provided by the newly informed citizens, or through better behaviour by the newly scrutinised public-sector workers. In short, information leads to participation, which leads to change.

The Parliamentary expenses scandal was, in a sense, a ‘beta’ version of this model. Data that had been assiduously guarded by the Commons authorities was finally released (albeit through a leak rather than a voluntary decision). Newspapers went through the thousands of pages of receipts and showcased the most egregious offences in presentable form. And the behaviour of MPs has, it is probably safe to assume, changed forever as a result, regardless of what new rules are adopted by the Commons. The mere fact of a watchful and angry public has ensured that much.

The foundation of all post-bureaucratic policies is, therefore, open data. Without it, the process cannot even get started. With it, not much more is required of the state. The NPBA is ultimately a campaign for see-through government.

The difference between data and information is critical. Data in its raw form can be ‘mashed’, ‘crunched’ and generally played around with by entrepreneurial citizens to produce useful online applications for other citizens. The release of official data by Kevin Rudd’s Australian government has led to lots of open-sourced applications, including crime maps and a website showing up-to-date information about faults in roads and other public infrastructure called “It’s Buggered, Mate”. In San Francisco – a locality hardly bereft of programming talent, admittedly – the release of official data sets has spawned applications offering directions based on real-time traffic information and a map that allows residents to check for drug offences that take place near schools. Closer to home, the likes of mysociety.org have turned data into applications such as fixmystreet and faxyourmp.

The lesson of all this creativity is that the government may not have to do much to foster post-bureaucracy beyond taking the strategic decision to release data. The resourcefulness of the public (or at least, motivated sections of the public) will take over. As some politicians and civil servants concede, it is often the state’s own interests to be open with its data. The government’s attempts to package and present information arouse suspicion, as the collapse of public trust in official statistics has shown. It also costs money and time. Above all, solutions to stubborn policy problems that are confounding politicians and civil servants can be ‘crowd-sourced’ from outside. ExpertLabs, an American non-profit, builds tools that allow government to tap into communities with specialist knowledge.

Indeed, these self-interested reasons may be why the campaign for open data enjoys a political tailwind, particularly strong in the English-speaking world. Barack Obama has signed an open-government directive. The governments of Australia and New Zealand have released lots of machine-readable official date. In Britain, the Labour government began publishing reams of data last year (and launched data.gov.uk last month) and the Conservatives have pledged to go further, promising to release all government contracts worth over £25,000.

Still, the NPBA should work towards a more radical ‘right to know’ than currently exists at national level in any country.  Britain’s Freedom of Information Act has given ordinary people greater access to official information, but it remains a half-hearted and essentially bureaucratic stab at openness. Citizens must apply to see specific bits of information (not, it should be noted, the raw data from which it has been derived) and wait patiently for a response. There are few consequences future for public-sector bodies that prove uncooperative.

A truly post-bureaucratic alternative may be to publish online all raw data produced with taxpayers’ money, apart from that which impinges on national security, personal privacy and other sensitive areas. This could be enshrined in a Freedom of Data Act. Citizens would no longer have to make a request; they would own all that they have paid for, and could access it online. Withholding data would be an act of theft.

The purpose of the NPBA conference

The weakness of PBA is its newness. As yet, practical examples of post-bureaucratic policies are few, minor, and spread throughout the world. We know what stronger local government would look like. We cannot say the same of post-bureaucratic government. The purpose of this conference is, in part, to give greater definition to the fuzziness of PBA – to furnish what is currently a compelling philosophy with practical policies. Questions for the sessions to answer include:

What should be the relationship of citizens, government, and business?

What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to improve public services?

How will PBA save money?

What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to encourage civic and political engagement?

How can people be helped to use the new power they will be given? Is it a matter of ‘training’ citizens, or should government simply let go?

Exactly how will government data be made open to the public? What kind of new legislation, if any, will be needed?

Where should transparency not be introduced? For example, should the advice given to ministers by civil servants be made public?

Please see the programme below for the organisation of sessions, which are intended to move from broader themes to implementation.

What is this Network?

In the ideal stage of the Post-Bureaucratic Age there is no ‘inside government’ and ‘outside government’ – everyone helps to govern. In his opening presentation to the conference, Bill Eggers says that building and managing these networks should become a core competency of government. This may be the future of government: creating structures that make use of the talent, experience and effort in the population. But can government actually do this? Or does it happen some other way – from the bottom up?

We think we should be pushing for the most radical versions of the ideas (while also understanding the practical first-step applications). So rather than call for more publishing of government-owned data-sets, we say citizens already own all data produced by government and that keeping it inaccessible is a form of theft. Where some say the government should reach out to the people, we say the people should just walk in. We want windows opened and doors removed. See-through government, walk-in government.

Among us attending this first conference of the NPBA are many related networks – of citizens, government, academia, business, media, and politics. The NPBA will be a network of these networks, to support, critique, oppose, and cajole those who occupy the formal seats of government.

Take part by emailing network@PBAge.org. And if you can, help us build the website PBAge.org into a major resource and platform for sharing ideas.

Our next event is a lunch meeting on the 26th March with Clay Shirky, author of ‘Here Comes Everybody’, and our next conference is scheduled for June 14th.

By Janan Ganesh and Stephan Shakespeare