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

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First report – and first test – of the PBA

8 09 2010

We shall soon see who is more powerful in this country, the elected government or the civil service.

The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age today publishes its first detailed report on one way we can get better-for-less. This has been put together by some of the UK’s best thinkers on the subject, led by Liam Maxwell, IT specialist and Councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. It presents examples of where their approach has succeeded and a clear plan – a playbook – for implementation. But will government actually be able to put this into action, or will it be blocked?

The report – ‘Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings’  (iBook here)- investigates the quagmire of government IT.

The British government currently spends somewhere between £16 billion and £23 billion on IT every year. The astonishing lack of clarity over expenditure is symptomatic of appalling failures in IT strategy, procurement, and process. This cannot be allowed to continue, especially during a time of spending cuts in frontline services. The annual cost dwarfs some government departments. It is three times the amount we spend on the army, more than the Department for Transport. Worse, it has been designed badly and, unfortunately this time, the process has been built to last. The problems come from ineffective procurement – much of which is waste.

Each year about the same amount of money is spent on the procurement process (the jumping through hoops to secure contracts) as is used to run the Foreign Office. Savings just in the procurement process – without even counting the savings from better IT –  could finance the entire Sure Start programme, they could fund 50% more school building. And even when the form-filling is done only 30% of projects work. Indeed government productivity has actually declined since IT was introduced. At a time when dynamic change is required –  to reduce cost and deliver better services – one of the principle barriers to that change has become government IT.

Liam and his co-authors are dedicated to bringing government into the information age, and have looked in detail about what should be done to deliver government IT more effectively, and at a much lower cost to taxpayers. The paper spells out exactly how government can deliver a better service for less money – a very different proposition to proposing mere ‘cuts’, where less money means poorer service.

The full report is available at http://pbage.org, directly here and as an ibook here.

We would really appreciate any comments from anybody who reads the paper: one of the central tenets of the post-bureaucratic age is that knowledge and skills exist within informal networks, not just companies and departments. We recognise this and encourage anyone to comment below, regardless of their political affiliations.

Stephan Shakespeare

Note: Stephan Shakespeare chairs an informal network of people who are interested in the development of policy towards a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and has written about what this means  here and here





The Labour Manifesto: Reaction

12 04 2010

Today Labour launched their Manifesto for the 2010 General Election.

Labour provided us with a late (and, frankly, slightly unexpected) lurch towards the post-bureaucratic agenda in recent months. Data.gov.uk, digital inclusion, and Brown’s ‘digital economy’ speech have largely outweighed the Digital Economy Bill saga, and positioned Labour as a nascent post-bureaucratic party.

Their manifesto also contains a few hints in right direction. First, as William Heath noted a small step in the direction of Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) over at MyDex:

“We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control their own personal data in their interaction with service providers.”

There were a number of other very positive soundbites for the PBA agenda, even if they were light on detail. A post-bureaucratic agenda should be adaptive, flexible and localised, so a lack of detail isn’t of itself ‘wrong’. How far you believe any government will act in pursuit of laudable aims is subject to personal interpretation.

Bits we liked:

“We will now publish a Domesday Book of all non-personal datasets held by gov’t…with a default assumption that these will be made public” This is very similar to the the Tory position, but does not go so far as our call for a Freedom of Data Act.

“Citizens should be able to compare local services, demand improvements, choose between providers, and hold government to account.” This is absolutely fundamental to moving government into the post-bureaucratic age. It is interesting that Labour have chosen to frame the policy in terms of competition and accountability, when they might just have easily pointed at the PBA’s potential to empower people to combine local services and develop the role of the third sector – rather than just extracting the maximum value from suppliers.

“We will open up government, embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services.” This is perhaps the most encouraging language we have seen from Labour that they have come to terms with what the PBA really means (or could really mean) for government. The phrase “embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services” is an elegant explanation of the first step of post-bureaucratic government.

Bit we didn’t like:

“We will update the intellectual property framework that is crucial to the creative industries and take further action to tackle online piracy.” You can almost hear the record industry’s lobbyists’ whispers in this line. The Digital Economy Bill fiasco was bad enough, but to validate and then threaten to build upon it suggests that Labour may only support an agenda as far as a union or vested interest will let them. Unsavoury.

“Digital government also demands digital inclusion. Sowe will build on our network of UK Online centres and public libraries to spread free internet access points within the community, and develop new incentives for users to switch to online services.” The single occurrence of ‘digitial inclusion’ within the 76-page manifesto; no commitment to spending; no suggestion about the kind of ‘incentives’ that might be used. This simply does not stack up for a party that also wants to “save money for taxpayers as we switch services over to digital-only delivery”. The ‘digitial divide’ is very, very real, and Labour have moved digital inclusion into the ‘nice-to-have’ category. Internet access is now a fundamental utility, without which a child growing up the UK will suffer. As usual, the poorest and least-educated (who need and could benefit from it most) are in danger of being left behind.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)





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





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.





Government Procurement Plans

11 01 2010

Today, Liam Byrne,Secretary to the Treasury,  has announced an action plan setting out how the Government will harness the £220 billion spent by the public on third party goods and services to support growth and economic recovery.

The (catchy) Policy Through Procurement Action Plan

Published by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the 2009 Plan (announced at the Pre-Budget Review) emphasises three principles:

  • Supporting small and medium-sized enterprises;
  • Encouraging apprenticeships, training and youth employment;
  • Reducing carbon emissions.

95% of contracts are won by UK businesses.

The Rub

This seems a sensible move to ensure that UK government spend supports those hardest hit by the recession: small business and people without skills or qualifications. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In order to supply the government, a company must be registered on an approved supplier list. These vary from sector to sector. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a long, laborious process, which contains arbitrary limits to determine which contracts a supplier can bid for.

The Plan expects to help deliver its objectives by encouraging suppliers to sign up to its voluntary Supplier Charter, but doesn’t make it any easier to become a supplier! A couple of smart PR moves to meet the objectives – a few apprentices and a Toyota Prius – and government procurement will continue much as before.

There is an Access to All programme, which contains the wonderfully encouraging line:

“The Government’s policy on SMEs is to encourage and support these organisations to compete for public sector contracts where this is consistent with value for money policy the UK regulations, EU Treaty principles and EU procurement directives.”

So, small business is welcome on the rare occasions that it treads on literally no one else’s feet?

There is an even more patronising document covered in high-resolution pictures of fish, presumably as some small-fish-big-pond metaphor, which contains some innovative advice for public procurement departments:

“Use your website (see page 10). It is an ideal way of making information available at low cost and
consider including a ‘Selling to…’ guide giving potential suppliers the information they need to
bid effectively.”

With this kind of cutting-edge advice, how can government fail to light the fire of innovation?





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)