The Cabinet Office Minister, Matt Hancock MP, spoke about data-driven government at the Open Data Institute (ODI) summit this week. It was in many ways an inspiring speech – it had an optimistic, positive tone and was full of ambition. It was, however, short on action and pledges. Against the background of government support for various groups linked to open data being withdrawn and concerns arising about the future of FoI, this glimpse of policy gives little hope of a much brighter future for open data.
On the plus side, I was pleased to see this: “We’re supporting a new Data Leaders Network in Whitehall. This group will continue to review the legislation on data-sharing, making sure it supports our goal of open, effective, data-driven government.” There is a need for serious and sustained work on enabling legislation, so lets hope this is a real and active group. I do not know who is on it, what it will do and how effective it will be. The speech was mostly about smarter government but I hope there will be gains in terms of more and better statistics too for those outside government.
It’s great, as the Minister says, to see the dashboard that sets out the government performance data but he then claims that it is “all part of a broader shift within government. Instead of telling people what to do, we see our job as unleashing human ingenuity, in the public sector and beyond. Because the truth is that civil servants want to be entrepreneurial, they want to create; they want to find better ways of doing things. And here’s the thing: data means they can.” That won’t ring true to the small army of non-civil servants who try to get government to do things or just release data.
The Minister’s assessment of recent progress was also a bit far fetched. “We began by putting serious power behind data.gov.uk as an inventory of datasets owned by government – published and unpublished. So far we’ve published over 20,000 datasets, covering almost £200 billion of public spending. This approach has won us plenty of plaudits.” Hardly anyone thinks this site works and much of the data is just stuff that has been republished. It was a good idea but has suffered from appalling implementation and most would condemn it.
“It’s not enough just to be open” said the Minister. (Of course many would say that government is not yet very open.) “Openness is a means to an end. The end is to make government work better for the people of this country. That means better decision-making within government: policy based on data and evidence not dogma and theory. It means public services that continually improve, not because someone in Whitehall says ‘something must be done’, but because we’re capturing constant marginal gains. It means supercharging the UK’s nascent data economy, putting high quality data in the same category as faster broadband or better roads.” That sounds more like data sharing in government than open data for all. It does not mention letting the public have data or access to the evidence so that they can check what the government is up to.
We know what the Minister means when he says data is like roads or broadband as data ought to be a key part of the nation’s infrastructure. That said, they were odd elements of infrastructure to pick given the UK is hardly at the cutting edge of either. Indeed, discussion of the broadband universal service obligation blew up again in recent days. On roads, parliamentary research pointed to increasing congestion and constrained motorway capacity.
The Minister was no doubt trying to be nice to his hosts when he said that the National Information Infrastructure which was “developed in collaboration with the ODI – gives us a good base on which to build, and I’m grateful for your help in developing that. Getting this right is critical to the future of digital government in the UK. The digital platforms we’re building, led by the brilliant GDS, will depend on strong data foundations.” The problem is that most people thought the Cabinet Office’s NII was awful. The Open Data User Group ( I was a member of ODUG and the Cabinet Office did not renew its remit after the election) came up with an alternative NII plan that was far more ambitious. It’s also not clear what the Government Digital Service is. It would be good to know how many people work in it and what it is doing.
“We need to move away from government’s reliance on bulk data sharing and create an economy of APIs. And as with every other aspect of government, we need data services built around the needs of users, not the internal logic of Whitehall.” APIs might work well for sharing between government departments but there are pros and cons, and a reliance on them will not widen access to people who want data in excel or csv formats. Access will be for programmers only. Both bulk dissemination and APIs are required.
The Minister ended his talk with a call for a “conversation”. “As a data-driven government, we want to engage with the UK’s data economy. So from today, I’ve asked the ODI to help us connect with the businesses, start-ups and innovators progressing this field. Those who are at the leading edge, not just in open data but across the whole data spectrum. Like data, knowledge and expertise on this subject is dispersed and decentralised. And like data, it will only realise its full potential when it’s networked and interlinked. This will be a wide-ranging, on-going conversation.” Lets see what the ODI does. It has many strengths but, with courses at around £500 per day and the conference at £300, it is an exclusive place with a limited reach. If the government is to put all its eggs in that basket its policy is a long way from the vision of the armchair auditor.
It doesn’t look as if much has changed a result of the speech. Not long after the Open Data White Paper was published in 2012, the Cabinet Secretary discussed the changes in government and said that “openness needs to become the default setting of the civil service”. The Civil Service Reform Plan of June 2012 was ambitious. Most observers would say that that summer was the high point in the government’s open data plan.
Lets hope that Hancock’s ambitious words win out. In response to questions at the event he is reported to have said: “There isn’t government data – it is citizen’s data that may be held by the government. My job is to make sure we get the most public value out of this data”. We can also hope that the “Steering Group of digital and data visionaries” really does drive the agenda and does not just become another rarely meeting, secretive committee created to give the Minister a good line in a key note speech.