An Invitation to Make Local Government Better

18 10 2010

Dear Friends,


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


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


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


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


Practical Details:


Date: Tuesday 9th November 2010

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

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


Spaces are limited so please RSVP to as soon as possible.



We sincerely hope you are able to join us.



Best Wishes


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


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


Government to cut red tape for the voluntary sector

31 08 2010

On 17 August the Government published measures to reduce bureaucratic burdens on the voluntary sector through a ‘red-tape taskforce’ which will free up resources and time for voluntary groups, charities and social enterprises. Cutting red-tape for the voluntary sector is a central component to mobilise the ‘Big Society’ – the Government’s flagship policy idea to help transfer power and responsibility from central government to local communities.  The taskforce will be led by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and run jointly between the Office for Civil Society and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, has said ‘this is a tough time for small civil society organisations and we want to make life easier for them. So I have asked for specific ideas on how we can thin the thicket of bureaucracy and regulation that too often gets in the way. I see it very simply. Every pound or hour we can save a small voluntary organisation is a pound or hour that could be better spent.’

Yet some have still raised concerns over the representation and consultation of small charities and trusts in this scheme, ‘I do hope that in order to gain absolute coverage of all trusts and charities, there will be representation or consultation with smaller organisations. They are affected in varying ways that are different to multi-million charities’, states one commentator in

The taskforce set to flush out burdens on the voluntary sector will have a remit to consider changes to legislation or processes that are needed and a wide range of other recommendations about how red-tape should be reduced, including in areas such as employment law and contractual arrangements when civil society organisations provide public services and responsibilities of trustees and directors.

In addition to making its own recommendations, the taskforce will also work with other initiatives including HM Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs review of bureaucracy associated with Gift Aid and Home Office work on the criminal records and vetting barring regime.

Sara Lofberg

Departmental energy consumption data now available online

16 08 2010

As of 5th August, the UK government’s energy use can now be viewed in real time online, with half-hourly updates of the energy consumption of all 18 departments available here.

This move comes just three months after the PM’s statement that central government would cut carbon emissions by 10% over the next year. Hailing this latest development, Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, said:

‘For too long Whitehall has been guilty of preaching and not acting on efficiency. Slashing energy waste in government needs to happen fast, as much for tackling the public finances as for climate change. Shining a spotlight on what’s being used in real time will help staff change their behaviour and the public hold us to account. We said we’d be the greenest government ever and we mean it.’

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude added:

‘The publication of the real time energy figures today is yet another demonstration of our commitment to transparency as a government. As with other transparency initiatives we urge the public to really hold our feet to the fire and make sure that we drive down our energy use as much as possible.’

In a further development, the Department for Communities and Local Government has become the first government department to publish details of its spending online. On 12th August, the department released every item of spending over £500 last year, a move intended to set an example in the light of Minister Eric Pickles’ call for all town hall spending on goods and services above £500 to be out online by January 2011. 28 local authorities have already heeded his words and published all spending over £500- the full data for these councils is available here.

Charlotte Jee           (@charlottejee)

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 )

Brown Moves into the Post-Bureaucratic Age

22 03 2010

Gordon Brown’s announcement this morning (essentially a response to the recent launch of the Conservative’s Tech Manifesto) will raise few eyebrows. All the usual stuff about “Britain to be the world leader in the digital economy” was interspersed with some new ideas, and a new tone about how Labour conceives of technology’s role in government and the public sector. I have set out below how the parties’ approaches compare.

Government Data

The Conservatives have committed to “create a powerful new ‘Right to Government Data’, enabling the public to request – and receive – government datasets.” They explicitly included “the monthly online publication of local crime data on a street-by-street basis, education and health performance data and detailed information about all of DFID’s projects and spending programmes including the results of impact evaluations.”

In a move surely prompted by Liam Maxwell’s successful efforts in Windsor and Maidenhead council, they also promised to “publish online the energy consumption of all buildings in Whitehall.”

Gordon Brown spoke of “opening up data and using the power of digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government”; “in the autumn the Government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.” This will be run by the National Archives, and presided over by a new Open Data Board.

Brown did not go as far as to call for a ‘Freedom of Data Act’, but he did say that “There will be an expectation that departments will release each of these data sets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.”

Brown also announced £30m for the creation of a new institute of ‘Web Science’, based out of the University of Southampton ( ), and headed up by Brown’s impressive open data team, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Britain’s Broadband Infrastructure

The Conservatives have pledged to “be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100 mbps broadband across most of the population.” Their solution is to “unleash private sector investment” by “opening up network infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition”. If this approach fails, they will “consider” using some of the BBC licence fee dedicated to digital switchover. The Conservatives presented this as part of a broader modernization of ‘networks’, including high-speed rail and electricity.

Labour gave a different pledge: “to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home.” Mr Brown tasked Martha Lane Fox (Digital Inclusion Champion) to establish a new “digital public services unit” in the cabinet office. The theme of Brown’s speech tied in with the theme of ‘digital inclusion’: “21% of UK adults have never accessed the internet. That’s over a fifth trapped in a second tier of citizenship.” These four million people are also among the heaviest users of public services, and PWC have estimated that the government can save £900m per year just by bringing these people online.

Brown (nearly) jumped on the bandwagon in calling internet access a human right, but settled for “a fundamental freedom in the modern world”, and “the electricity of the digital age”. It was on these grounds that he argued that we cannot support a broadband rollout model driven by “profitability alone”, as he argues the Tories will.

Brown also pushed the ‘digital divide’ agenda hard – a phrase which used to be associated with the difference between digitally-developed and undeveloped countries. His 50p phone line tax is, he claims, a very small price to pay for a universal network.

Transparency and Cost Savings

The Conservative pledge is concrete: “we will publish online, and in an open and standardised format, every item of central government and Quango expenditure over £25,000. In addition, from 1 January 2011, a Conservative government will publish government contracts for goods and services worth over £25,000 in full, including all performance indicators, break clauses and penalty measures.”

In a smart move to placate the Eurosceptic elements in the party, Jeremy Hunt also promised to “increase the accountability of EU spending by publishing online details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds.”

Labour claim they can find £20 billion of savings, and (in a line which echoes the Tories ‘public consultation phase’) intend “to harness new technology to deliver a major step forward in giving the public a greater influence over the Whitehall policy-making process.” In another Tory echo, Brown let slip that Darling will be announcing a 20% cut in the senior civil service paybill in Wednesday’s budget.

Brown also claimed that the new digital economy will create more than 250,000 skilled jobs by 2020.

Public Services

The Conservatives, to their detriment, have not yet tackled the impact of technology, the digital economy, or the post-bureaucratic age on public services as explicitly as Labour.

Labour presented a new service: Mygov – which aims to make “interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping”. In a power-shift which the Tories may see as a direct assault on their policy territory, Brown announced: “rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs.”

Brown also had some rhetoric which could have come from the Cameron PBA playbook: “an enormous shift from what many have in the past seen as a too paternalistic, closed Whitehall, to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalize, shape, and ultimately control their services.” Other than overkill from the number of buzzwords he can include in a single sentence, the public may questions whether public services are too ‘paternalistic’ and ‘closed’ now, rather than at some elusive point ‘in the past’.

Moving into ‘power shift’ areas which David Cameron has seen as his own is a risky strategy for Brown; it sits well with the public and presents a positive message in a campaign about cuts. However, at this point Brown is very much the follower.

What the Parties Left Out:

Neither party tackled the controversial Digital Economy Bill. It merited one small paragraph in the Tories’ Tech Manifesto, and enjoyed a similarly low profile in Brown’s speech. It is a thorny issue for the leaders, but one which they must address if they are to be taken seriously on these issues.

Tories might point out that Mr Brown included nothing on legislating to create a Right to Government Data; nothing on a level playing field for open source software; nothing on spending transparency; and nothing at all on ending the track record of Labour IT project failures and waste. One may also question Brown’s own commitment to transparency and handing away power.

A more generous critic might view Brown’s speech as a big step in embracing the opportunities of the post-bureaucratic age. The link between universal broadband and ‘not leaving anyone behind’ is a strong message (which perhaps the Tories should have promoted), and will tie in with Labour’s presentation of the Tories as the party of the ‘haves’. The ‘Domesday Book’ argument for opening government data is slightly misguided (William the Conqueror did it, in part, to tax the people as much as he could), but Labour’s late entry to the PBA party may have surprised many in its boldness and scope.

By Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)

Where does the PBA stand at present?

9 11 2009

The Guardian has a special report which helpfully collects many of the current features of a post-bureaucratic government (such as they are). The problem is not with what is there, but with what is missing.

Virtually all the links involve making a complaint, which you can do just as you would in the days before the internet. E-mail (where accepted) is just a bit more convenient.The details concern your rights and qualifications for various benefits and privileges. All good stuff, as far as it goes.

However, the mindset behind the relationship between the people and the state does not reflect the state of the world today. It stands upon a centralised, industrial-era model, which assumes the mass-production of public services, and the individual consumer’s right to complain. This is accountability of sorts, but represents an outdated era when it was impossible (in practical terms) for everyone to have a say in government, to feed their ideas for how money should be spent. There is potential for a dynamic consultation process, for constant feedback in both directions. Using the internet, and leveraging the power of the networks it sustains, the relationship between the individual and the state can be transformed.

Ernest Marples

6 11 2009

Interesting ongoing saga from Harry Metcalfe, who we saw speak at Government 2010 last month. It seems that Harry, and his friend Richard Pope, are facing legal action for ‘setting free’ the UK postcode database (maintained and owned as an asset by the Royal Mail).

Interestingly, and perhaps an indictment of the disintegration of the true meaning of public service, a relative of Ernest Marples himself (the Postmaster General who introduced the postcode), supports their endeavor. Tom Watson MP has tabled an early day motion asking the Royal Mail to create a new licence for not-for-profits to use postcode data for free (as Metcalfe and Pope wish to do for their and projects).

Best of luck to Harry and Richard in this. The Royal Mail owes a duty of service to the people of Britain: not-for-profits and mashup government services (both key features of the PBA) can make this much more effective at virtually no extra cost to the government.

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