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)

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Response to Matthew Taylor’s ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’

11 07 2010

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA since 2006, has written an essay entitled ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, which presents the thinking behind the RSA’s new strapline. It invites us to ‘return to core principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism, restoring dimensions which have been lost and seeing new ways to fulfil these ideals.’

The essay contains a (great) number of well-presented mini-summaries of current thinking. We get Matt Ridley, Tsvetan Todorov, Jonathan Israel, David Halpern, David Willetts, Mark Lilla, Antonio Damasio, Anthony Giddens, Robert Kegan, Manuel Eisner, Paul Collier, Evgeny Morozov, Marc Hauser, Scott Atran and Mary Douglas. Essayist staples Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault unsurprisingly also get cameos.

The Strengths

Taylor’s section on ‘self-aware autonomy’ is the strongest in the article, nicely reflecting Kant’s 1784 view of the goal of the enlightenment: ‘Know thyself!’ . He cites recent research which suggests how the eighteenth-century model of human autonomy we have inherited is deficient, or at times simply wrong. He recognises that most of our behaviour is the result of our brain responding to the world around us, and it is easier to change things by changing contexts, rather than by trying wilfully override our brain’s activities. Taylor’s ‘championing of a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy” makes a convincing case.

Furthermore, the three areas Taylor outlines which need development in order to close the ‘social aspiration gap’ (between where ‘we are going’ and ‘where we want to go’) make interesting reading. This encompasses engagement – recognising your own role in changing things; self-sufficiency and resourcefulness – managing your own life and taking the initiative to change things; and being pro-social – building social capital. Some readers may see a close parallel with some of the ideas the coalition government has developed as part of its Big Society agenda.

The Weaknesses

Taylor refers to ‘the Enlightenment project’ throughout the essay, although he himself recognises that there was not really a ‘project’ in any meaningful sense. He also displays the same desire to pull diverse, even divergent, themes and issues into a single narrative: ‘there is a general consensus on the key challenges facing national and global society’. Really? We all agree poverty and disease are bad, but other than that there does not appear to be anything approaching a genuine ‘general consensus’. Perhaps Taylor means ‘among the fellows of the RSA’; but even there I suspect he might struggle.

This leads us to the main problem with the essay, and indeed, the RSA’s new strapline. ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is a lovely piece of branding; it is not a good piece of thinking. In another blogpost on the topic, Taylor calls for ‘a return to core enlightenment values’, even though (and if he has read Israel he must know this) no such ‘core values’ ever existed.

The phrase ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is symptomatic of Taylor’s desire to simplify and narrate a version of history to suit his ends, which undermines  the more astute pieces of analysis in the essay. For example, we have a rose-tinted version of the pre-industrial period as enjoying ‘shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds’; ‘many Enlightenment thinkers’ believing that religion would decline in the face of scientific rationalism – this was not the case; and a confusing model of ’empathy stock’ which seems to argue at one point that ‘the stock of human empathy’ is ‘just as important’ as worldwide  education.

Taylor also distrusts ‘competition’ as a means of galvanising meaningful social change, and relies too heaving on top-down initiatives like ‘institutions of global governance’ to effect change in a post-bureaucratic world. The notion of being critical of established norms, and constantly revisiting the questions ‘where are we going, and why’ is exactly the kind of activity the RSA should be engaging in; creating grand, but flimsy, historical narratives to tie in with neat straplines is not.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )





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 )