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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COI letter regarding the Government Transparency Agenda

22 10 2010

Dear Supplier

Government Transparency Agenda

In ‘The Coalition: our programme for Government’ the government set out the need for greater transparency across its operations so that the public could hold to account public bodies and politicians.

To help achieve greater transparency in how central government spends public funds and to help deliver better value for money, the Prime Minister has set out specific commitments in procurement and contracting:

  • All new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • All new central government contracts over £10,000 to be published in full from January 2011.

The commitment to publish contract documentation applies to the result of all competitive tenders from existing framework agreements which means that the majority of COI’s procurement activity is within the scope of this commitment. COI is awaiting further guidance as to whether the contracts will be published on COI’s website or on a single government website. Further information regarding which website will be used will be published on the COI website as soon as it is available.

Under the terms of this commitment, certain redactions may be required prior to publication in order to protect certain types of information which may be considered exempt from publication. Redactions of contractual text will be permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act.

For new framework agreements, COI will include two new clauses covering our right to publish and redactions. However, as COI frameworks operate on a four-year cycle, this exercise will not be complete until 2012. Therefore, the decision has been taken to introduce the following two clauses in all existing framework agreement terms and conditions, effective from the date of this letter:

RIGHT TO PUBLISH

1) The parties acknowledge that; except for any information which is declared by COI to fall within one or more of the exceptions in the Redactions Clause; the content of any Contract is not Confidential Information. Notwithstanding any other clause of this Agreement, the Contractor hereby gives his consent for COI to publish a Contract in its entirety, including from time to time agreed changes, to the general public.

2) The Contractor shall assist and cooperate with COI to publish any Contract content.

 

REDACTIONS

COI may, at its sole discretion, redact information from the Contract prior to publishing for one or more of the following reasons:

  • national security;
  • personal data;
  • information protected by intellectual property law;
  • information which is not in the public interest to disclose ( under a Freedom of Information Act analysis)
    • third party confidential information;
    • IT security; or
    • prevention of fraud

 

These clauses are not considered contentious and should be acceptable, however, if you wish to discuss them or the wider transparency agenda, please feel free to contact me.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Bob Ager

Head of Procurement





Government releases new department structure charts

20 10 2010

On the 15 October, in what the Cabinet Office terms a ‘huge stride forward for government openness’, the government published new details about civil servants working at the heart of government. Along with a fresh wave of information detailing civil servant salaries over £82,900, government departments have released detailed ‘organograms’ showing how departments are structured.

These charts set out details of the number and grade of staff working in different departments. They include the names, job titles and salaries for all senior civil servants at director level or above, as well as the job title of all senior civil servants at deputy director level, along with the number of staff in their team and the breakdown of their grades.

The professed aim is to build on the government’s drive for transparency and accountability. Where before the public could only access a breakdown of total civil servants by department (through the Office for National Statistics), now they can discover which areas they work in. In theory this provides unprecedented insight into the structure, focus and size of government departments and does throw up some interesting findings. For example, education has over twice as many people working in its press and marketing operations (427) as in the section dealing with academies (211), while it emerges from data on HMRC department that Corporation tax and VAT accounts for only 755 people, compared to 6,295 on benefits.

In reality the information is not yet complete and presented mainly in pdf format rather then csv, making third party use of the data more difficult. However, its publication is in line with the government’s transparency agenda setting the release of data, not its quality, as the main priority, and represents another welcome step towards public scrutiny and engagement in the processes of government departments which are accountable to them.

Sean Kirwan





Policing in the 21st Century: the role of transparency in Big Society

8 10 2010

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October, Theresa May placed great emphasis on the coalition’s vision for the future of policing in the UK. This vision has two core elements: to restore democratic accountability and to dramatically increase effectiveness through localism, innovation and a removal of bureaucratic constraints. For policing this represents among the most significant reforms since Robert Peel inaugurated the institution in 1829. In a wider context these elements lie at the very heart the Prime Minister’s ‘radical’ agenda for government (see statements on localism).  

What then does this mean in real terms for the police service? Theresa May has committed to the establishment of beat meetings, the publication of crime maps and the election of police and crime commissioners. At the heart of this, is a fundamental shift of power from the centre and the government to the peripheries and the people- the ‘radical heart’ of coalition policy that the Prime Minister speaks of.

However, if this is the coalition’s policy ambition, transparency and the opening up of data must be the vehicle by which it gets there.  Freely available data and information about policing, public safety and criminal justice are essential to enable local and civic engagement and ownership and to ensure democratic accountability of police forces and the wider criminal justice system.

The fulfillment of the Home Secretary’s pledge that ‘from next year, the police will have to publish detailed, street-level crime statistics’, while not ensuring success,  will be vital in defining the scope for success of failure of this reform. In a radical overhaul of traditional, target-centred, bureaucratically accountable public services, the release of data will allow a growing and increasingly diverse network of scrutinisers, both elected and unelected to investigate problems and issues from the point of view of people and contribute to their solutions, both locally and strategically-releasing the Prime Minister’s ‘big society’.

By opening up information and committing to its transparency agenda within a sector that has for decades been more insular and centre facing then open and local, the coalition government can maintain a powerful momentum for reform and build a strong base for it’s vision of a more active and engaged society.

Sean Kirwan





New Open Government License

6 10 2010

On 30 September the government launched the new Open Government License (OGL), opening up public information for reuse by all – businesses, individuals, charities or community groups – without the need to pay or get permission. This is a crucial step in the rolling out of the Prime Minister’s Transparency Agenda, providing a simple way in which everyone can benefit from the amount of government information currently being published.

Based on the world-leading Creative Commons family of licenses, it will replace the existing Click-use license on central government (‘Crown’) works and will cover an extensive range of information, including Crown Copyright, databases and source codes. Furthermore, this is heralded as only the start with the Local Data Panel recommending to Local Authorities that they use the OGL when publishing all their data, spearheading the drive to place the UK ‘at the forefront’ of the world’s open data revolution.

Two rationales drive this project. An emphasis on transparency and accountability as a crucial part of the government commitment in the coalitions ‘Big Society’, and on the enabling of innovative new uses of data as part of the parallel commitment for greatly extended civic involvement  within society.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude encapsulates this ambition: “Greater transparency is at the heart of this government’s program. We believe it is the best way for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account, encourage innovation and deliver better value for money in public spending”.

The OGL forms the vital enabling legislation to provide the environment in which this can happen and is encouraging evidence that this government has recognised that free and open data maximises both the social and economic value of information.

Sean Kirwan





100 days of the Coalition: Milestones so far

18 08 2010

As the Coalition passes its first 100 days, here are some of the key milestones reached in the agenda for transparency and open government.

31st May: kick-starting the drive for greater transparency, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude oversaw the publication of the salaries of the 172 highest-paid civil servants earning over £150,000.

4th June: under a week later, the government arguably took its boldest step yet and published the entire contents of the Combined Online Information System (COINS) of government expenditure for the previous two financial years. This has now been extended so the data from every financial year from 2005/06 to 2009/10 is available.

10th June: the government published a list of the names and salaries of all special advisers and civil servants earning over £58,000.

24th June: PM David Cameron held the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board and agreed a set of public data principles.

1st July: the government released details of everyone currently employed by a Non Departmental Public Bodies (or ‘Quango’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. On the same day, Deputy PM Nick Clegg launched the ‘Your Freedom’ website , calling for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’.

5th August: Making good on their previous commitment, the UK government’s energy use was made available to view in real time online, with half-hourly updates of the energy consumption of all 18 departments.

Charlotte Jee        (@charlottejee)





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)