I attended a highly inspirational talk at the Ordnance Survey last night. The key speaker, Chief Technology Officer at the UK Government’s Cabinet Office, Liam Maxwell, spoke on “Government as a Platform” (GaaP) under the auspices of the Southern Policy Centre to a distinguished group including local and national politicians, academics, CEO’s and researchers. Maxwell is in charge of streamlining the online provision of government services and has overseen the move from the old direct.gov.uk service to gov.uk – promoting their key message that they are providing “[d]igital services so good people prefer to use them”. How successfully this is happening can be observed by exploring gov.uk’s performance data.
So what is GaaP and should we mind it?
The driving force behind GaaP is the Web and how it enables governments, local and national, to have a better understanding our needs, and enables us to oversee, interrogate, and participate in our government in new and potentially more effective ways. In addition to “building digital services that are simpler, clearer and faster to use”, at the heart of GaaP is shared information. Although managed by different Cabinet Office team, open data plays a significant part in lifting the lid on the workings of government. Data that was once squirreled away in Whitehall filing cabinets and town hall basements are now being made available on the Web in an unprecedented move towards greater transparency and openness in government.
In this new arrangement, government, as a source of data, becomes the ‘guide on the side’ – an enabler rather than the leader of civic participation – and as active, Web-connected citizens we now have the tools to find solutions to problems that affect us. As public.resource.org assert in their ‘8 government open data principles’: “[o]pen data promotes increased civil discourse, improved public welfare, and a more efficient use of public resources.” At a time of increasing constraints on public spending, the benefits of open data, open standards and open source tools (like the Government Data Service open source platform) have the potential to effective positive change in how we use government services.
There are some substantial barriers to overcome. Real concerns exist about the effective and secure management of data, as have surfaced in the debate on the government’s care.data project. Can we sure that those publishing data do so without inadvertently releasing our personal information? This requires very clear understanding of the dangers of re-identifying anonymised public data, and effective controls on how data are released for publication.
In addition, there is a lack of public awareness about, and the necessary skills and knowledge to use open data effectively. This will come, with the bedding-in of new Computer Science curriculum, and through interventions like those run by the Ordnance Survey, but there is still a great deal to do before we start to see tangible benefits in the delivery of government services.
Close to home, local government are starting to adopt more transparent practice, but progress is slow. My local authority, Southampton City Council, has released some financial data – some of which could be considered as ‘3 star’, and anyone with time and motivation to find their way around MS Excel (with the NodeXL template), or Tableau software will find something of interest. Cambridge City Council have published a considerable amount of data (some 4 star), and across the country there’s a patchy, but growing amount of local government data available for all of us to interrogate.
This is no small undertaking, council budgets are being squeezed at an unprecedented level, and doing something new and with uncertain outcomes is a difficult sell at the best of times. Creating exemplars of good practice is important, to this end the Cabinet Office recently recognised Hampshire County Council and others as ‘Local Digital Champions‘, and the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) has called for the establishment of a ‘local GDS’ to help local councils translate policy into action.
The gap between our current local government services, and how they could be better designed and managed in future, is important to us all. There are already inspiring developments – as well as the SOCITM initiative, the Local Government Association’s open data repository, the work of the Open Data Institute, and the Government Digital Service are supporting the move to more open government. The key message is that open data, open standards and open tools provide us with opportunities to develop modern, responsive public services, and to participate in improving our local economies.