Local Government Digital Service

November 18, 2012

In September 2012 I wrote about the Local Government Data Service but since then we’ve seen the publication of the central government Government Digital Strategy, and yet again questions have been asked about why local government hasn’t one or doesn’t get a mention. My riposte is that local government was doing this before the GDS, and it was largely set out in the Socitm publication Planing the Flag. Meanwhile Socitm has published a briefing entitled “The new Government Digital Strategy: what should local public services take from it?”

Whilst the Socitm briefing is largely a promotion for its website take-up and channel benchmarking services, all that is required by any local authority is to actively gather feedback from its service users about the different channels on offer and to use this to improve them. If this makes possible a shift to channels that are truly cheaper to deliver by web or telephone all well and good. I am, of course, ignoring the ‘digital by default’ diktat within the central strategy. In national terms this means the sharing of best practice amongst local authorities and a lot of cooperation by suppliers in helping to improve delivery, not just raking in short-term profits. This is where open source and open data come in – if the commercial applications use apps that can be cross-fertilised with others and the data can be similarly exposed (securely) across applications the benefits to both councils and citizens will soon become general.

Whilst the Cabinet Office report admits that “most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS”, instead of ignoring local government and starving it of resources, central government needs to cooperate properly and assist in making these changes real. So whilst I congratulate the GDS on producing its strategy I will observe whether it gets the rest of central government to cooperate, and whether it actually cooperates with those areas where “most public services are provided”. I’d also appreciate it if there were fewer questions about why local government isn’t do the GDS thing, and a greater appreciation of the fact that it was there first, just with much less of a marketing team…

Open but closed

September 15, 2012

All those who harp upon the benefits of open data to participatory government need look no further than a recent piece in Gulf News – “eGoverment and information sector will be focused on ‘open data’“. Since the Emirates are hardly a democracy with seven Emirs wielding absolute authority so for anyone to claim participatory benefits ‘open data’ is ludicrous. The Emirs just release that data which they wish to be visible and in this case it’s probably of interest in the tourism sector but it makes not the slightest difference to government nor opens up the slightest opportunity for in involvement by the populace.

The article does admit that whist the UAE is rated respectively sixth and seventh for government use of social media, and eServices, it is 28th worldwide for eParticipation which obviously infers a very ‘open’ definition of participation.

Open data is a means

August 25, 2012

My thanks to digiphile for Tweeting about this blog posting from Ovum entitled ‘The landscape around open data and Gov 2.0 starts to take shape’. Without digging into the actual Ovum report there are some good points made in the blog post, primarily that moving to government-as-a-platform is more about culture than technology, but unlike Ovum I am less optimistic about the ability for government to make this leap within a time frame where the technology is current – I expect we’ll be talking about Gov 5.0 or 6.0 by the time the culture has started to adapt. The report importantly states that “Open data is a means, not an end”, and hence the title of this post.

All is not rosy in the report, it does list some of the “major obstacles, flaws and characteristics” that are masked by the excitement around the topic. These include spin and propaganda, privacy breaches, the challenges inherent within unstructured data and digitizing from hard-copy records, along with the “build it and they will come” mentality that wasted so much money in e-government. Some lessons might be learned from the years spent by the Latter Day Saints and genealogists attempting to get family history data online – chunks of it are still flawed due to transcription errors, crass assumptions are frequently made by users that result in them jumping to entirely unscientific conclusions from the flimsiest links between datasets and there is a great reliance on validity checks being made by those who might have some connection with the data.

Whilst the report concludes that there is no obvious answer to whether a  market is available around Gov 2.0 and open data, it still manages to remain optimistic – which as industry consultants I expect Ovum to do – they still have to make a living. However, I envisage this will remain the long hard road that e-government has been, full of potholes, wrong turnings and dead ends and in the end I question the value that the average citizen get out of it?

Opening the data

August 5, 2012

In March 2012 I reported in a post entitled “Open by design” a paper by Harlan Yu and David Robinson entitled “The New Ambiguity of Open Government“. A discussion of the paper has now appeared on the World Bank blog by Anupama Dokeniya entitled “Opening Government Data. But Why?” [A thank you to Jacques Raybaut at en.europa-eu-audience for the heads-up]. This is also even more relevant given the UK Public Accounts Committee report back so recently which was linked to and commented upon in Transparent e-gov.

Dokeniya quotes a recent blog post by Nathaniel Heller who stated that “The longer we allow ‘open government’ to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothing ness of rhetoric”. A similar debate occurred on the W3C list, and it is long been the case between e-government and e-governance. Heller brings in three ‘dimensions’ – information transparency, public engagement and accountability – all three of which might be absent from some ‘implementations’ of open government. He also emphasises that ‘open government’ itself is technology neutral.

The final paragraph from Dokeniya is important: “Transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge.” Essentially open data done well is a potential catalyst for change, any less than that it is a smokescreen around politicians, policy and the bureaucracy.

Five star rating

July 1, 2012

The publication of the UK government ‘Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential‘ on the 29 June 2012 is intended to set out how they’re “putting data and transparency at the heart of government and public services”. The claim is also to be “making it easier to access public data; easier for data publishers to release data in standardised, open formats; and engraining a ‘presumption to publish’ unless specific reasons (such as privacy or national security) can be clearly articulated.”

One of the proposals in the paper is to employ the ‘five star’ rating system and since this was outlined on here back in December 2010 under the heading ‘Government data done well’ I thought it worth mentioning that post since it had a number of links supporting the ‘five star’ scheme and related issues around open data and linked open data that it might serve as a tutorial.

Other than that I was mainly concerned with the cursory attention paid to local government. Assumptions are made that local government will follow suit, but where is the financial stimulus to do this given the current climate. Local government does not, and never had, the massive budgets in central government, nor the staff.

Open the data, Maude

April 3, 2012

In an interview in Computer Weekly dated 20-26 March 2012, Francis Maude the Minister for the Cabinet Office takes hubris and hyperbole to new levels when he compares the generation of ‘open data’ with the use of raw materials during the industrial revolution. This is an extension to the regular comparison between the development of the Internet and movable type. The connection between either is far from direct – both (printing and the industrial revolution) had dependencies upon scientific development and both had effects upon the economic and social well-being of many people in the world.

Open data may have some benefits in awareness raising but it will be far from revolutionary!

Open warfare

March 4, 2012

Two different but interesting pieces in the Computer Weekly of 28 February 2012 on the topic of ‘open’. The first is an opinion piece by Tony Roberts entitled ‘The problem with open data’ and the second by Mark Ballard on open standards. Tony Roberts states that open data as currently practiced is likely to increase the digital divide and that what is wanted is actionable open data, along with training on how to use it. I don’t think anyone can argue that the exercise in openness to-date has probably had little impact on the average citizen.

Mark Ballard examines the cleft stick facing the government having proposed that software using open standards should be preferred when procuring systems. One would have thought this would be quite an easy path to follow but the government has even been threatened with expulsion from the International Standards Organisation who thought their version of ‘proprietary’ was in jeopardy. The government has at least one Member with a vested interest in trade protection, and thus not entirely into open standards. Whilst the Coalition has launched a consultation to define open standards, there exists a body that I’ve already blogged about OASIS that has probably already done that (for the web and cloud anyway)but doesn’t get a mention in the article.

If, as reported, 70% of all software licences bought by the UK government are for Oracle something certainly needs to be done. One can move to Office Libre rather than Open Office to get away from Oracle on the desktop, but what does one do in the database market. Even in the local government market Oracle rules the roost, when as well as charging a lot constrains the use of virtualization platforms other than its own by its extortionate licensing model. Oracle does claim an interest in open standards with MySQL and other open source products, but developers need to be weaned off the costly commercial stuff.