Towards Gov 2.0

By Nick Holmes on July 14, 2008
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Filed under Articles, Government

Democracy – as Abraham Lincoln famously defined it – is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Hitherto, we’ve been able to exercise our democratic rights only at the ballot box, by lobbying our MP and perhaps in public demonstrations. Can Gov 2.0 – the application of Web 2.0 to government, engaging citizens and businesses – deliver greater democracy?

Recent government and independent reports suggest that government should be:

  • providing services designed around the citizen or business, not the provider
  • opening up its (our) information for re-use by citizens and businesses
  • working in partnership with the best of citizen and business efforts.

Transformational government

The report Transformational Government: Enabled by Technology, published by the Cabinet Office in November 2005, set out an ambitious vision for the delivery of public services in the 21st century using the power of new technologies to change the way government works. We are fortunate now to have as the new encumbent minister in charge a man of vision who really gets it, Westminster über-blogger Tom Watson. His immediate plans are ambitious:

  • pushing through the closure of hundreds of unnecessary government websites
  • improving online content, including minimum standards for the content of remaining websites
  • ensuring that all content is fully accessible to the major search engines
  • embedding data mash-up into thinking across all of government, not just the early adopters
  • capturing skills, talent and energy needed for change from within government and from outside
  • using new media to engage more directly and more effectively with individuals and communities.

And his vision for the future goes far beyond this, launching the Power of Information Task Force, which will drive forward the Government’s agenda. A key goal is to increase innovation and improve the way government shares information so ordinary people can develop online services that benefit their community.

Open information

A prerequisite to the effective delivery of Gov 2.0 is the openness of public sector information (PSI). There is a vast amount of PSI available for free access and much more that may be requested under the terms of the FOIA. But the supply of PSI does not automatically give the recipient of the information the right to re-use it: most PSI is subject to Crown copyright, administered by HMSO (now part of OPSI).

Brief extracts of most materials may be reproduced under the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (sections 29 and 30) for the purposes of research for non-commercial purposes, private study, criticism, review and news reporting.

Further, many Crown copyright materials, including press notices, legislation and explanatory notes, ministerial speeches, consultation documents and other documents on official websites, may be reproduced freely under the “Crown copyright waiver”.

For other materials, OPSI implement a “click-use licensing” scheme. There is no charge for the basic PSI Licence, nor for the Parliamentary Licence, but there may be (and often is) a charge for the Value-Added Licence, depending on the type and amount of information being re-used.

The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005 implemented the like-named EU Directive. Their aim is to stimulate the development of value-added products and services by removing obstacles standing in the way. They do not impose any obligation on PSI holders (PSIHs) to license re-use but regulate the conditions under which they do so.

Most government information is currently published in a way that suits the government, not the citizen or business, and much raw data gathered at taxpayers’ expense is not freely available for re-use, being locked up in trading funds (Ordnance Survey, Met Office, Companies House, Land Registry et al) which must earn a return for the Treasury. The Office of Fair Trading, in its market study on Commercial use of public information published in December 2006, found that raw information is not as easily available as it should be, licensing arrangements are restrictive, prices are not always linked to costs and PSIHs may be giving competing businesses less attractive terms than their own value-added operations.

The OFT concluded that PSIHs should make as much PSI available as possible for commercial re-use; ensure that businesses have access to PSI at the earliest point that it is useful; and provide access to information where the PSIH is the only supplier on an equal basis to all businesses and the PSIH itself.

In response, the DTI (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) commissioned a private study by Cambridge University into the pricing of PSI by the trading funds, which was published on the side with the 2008 Budget Report. Entitled Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds (PDF), the study examines the benefits for society, and the effects on government revenue, of different charging policies.

The paper finds that socially optimal policy would involve leaving the charging regime for most “refined” products unchanged, but moving to marginal (in the digital era, zero) cost charging for “unrefined” data. The trading funds would then be in commercial competition with outside organisations who would now have access to “unrefined” data on the same terms as the trading fund itself.

The conclusion that our data should be free will be difficult for the Government to ignore. Many in government are fully supportive; but the decision lies with the Treasury who has thus far simply announced its intention to “look at these issues” during the current spending review cycle.

The power of information

With government information open and free, citizens and businesses will have much greater opportunity and incentive to develop value-added online services that benefit their communities and markets.

The Power of Information, an independent report commissioned by the Cabinet Office to ensure government acts as a leader in understanding changes in communication and information technology, argued that government should now grasp the opportunities that are emerging in terms of the creation, consumption and re-use of information. Current policy and action is not yet adequate.

It identified the rise of two new groups of citizens exploiting developments on the internet: people who create public service information, such as Netmums, an online community for parents or expectant parents, and TheStudentRoom, mainly about homework and university applications; and those who take information from various sources and mix it together to make new tools and services – more colloquially and widely known as “data mashers”.

The latter group includes businesses, non-profits and the general public. Already particularly active in this area is mySociety with services such as TheyWorkForYou, based on Hansard, and FixMyStreet.

The report recommended a strategy in which government:

  • welcomes and engages with users and operators of user-generated sites in pursuit of common social and economic objectives;
  • supplies innovators that are re-using government-held information with the information they need, when they need it, in a way that maximises the long-term benefits for all citizens; and
  • protects the public interest by preparing citizens for a world of plentiful (and sometimes unreliable) information, and helps excluded groups take advantage.

At the time, the Cabinet Office responded positively, saying that the Government would engage in partnership with user-led online communities, not attempt to replicate them. Tom Watson’s recent speeches and the establishment of the Power of Information Task Force demonstrate a desire to drive this forward quickly.

Could Gov 2.0 be just around the corner?

Follow the Power of Information agenda. For a lively debate on data issues, see the Free Our Data campaign blog.