Lies, damned lies

October 10, 2012

In a blog that is loosely attributed to a former American president it’s about time I quoted one of his most famous attributions – “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time” – Abraham Lincoln, (attributed) 16th president of US (1809 – 1865). Any attempt to fool people by those with any responsibility for their governance should be treated promptly and publicly. In the UK we have seen the incidence of lies and untruths about the recent past that are currently being revealed increasing, whilst those in authority cringing at the delayed revelations, can only bring themselves to say that matters have changed since then.

Open data may have some of the answers but this requires a basic lack of trust on the citizen side for them to know and suspect which data they need to analyse. This may be compared to  Heather Brooke carrying out Freedom of Information requests to reveal the UK Members of Parliament expenses scandal. This is unlikely to have been revealed, even with open data, without a smell of corrupt practice. Her Majesty’s Members of Parliament and other elected or appointed officials need to treat Her Majesty’s subjects with less disdain and should be treated harshly for breaches of their trust.

Which would come cheapest and easiest – the provision of open data or principled behaviour by those we are expected to trust? This would be transparent and open government on the cheap, but government that we should be able to expect.

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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?


Transparent e-gov

August 3, 2012

The UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met earlier this year and its report on “Implementing the Transparency Agenda” has just been published. The report has the usual somewhat confused outputs that one expects from a PAC report i.e. that little is likely to be changed as a result! Part of this is due to the blurring across strands of government such as ‘Departments’ and local authorities.

The responsible ‘Department’ for Communities & Local Government (CLG) demanded certain information from local government some time ago and although all but one council supplied this, despite the vagueness of the request, more is desirable. However, without some clarity as to format, fields and level i.e. standards, this will remain only of value to a the more advanced ‘armchair auditor’. The report appears to realise the difficulty without being able to make any difference.

The conclusions ask for “price and performance information for adult care”, but with outsourcing of so many arms of service I’m not even sure this could be made available. Similarly for “spending per pupil in individual academy schools” which is surely locked away in the ‘academy’ accounts? As the report states, and has probably been stated before by them, auditors and others that “the government does not understand the costs and benefits of its transparency agenda” – so what will this report change? There is a resounding cry for evidence-based policy but since when do politicians do that?

The report states that “The Cabinet Office recognises problems with the functionality and usability of its data.gov.uk portal”, so what will be done? It then goes on to state that “four out of five” visitors to the site leave immediately! Should we be surprised?

Finally, the report acknowledges that with eight million people without Internet access, they won’t gain any benefits from the data – well actually they might, with ‘armchair auditors’ and journalists doing it for them, especially since those eight million are unlikely to have the analytical skills to play with the data in the first place, and we are relying on the media to report it. We need the data in open, standard formats so that true comparisons can be done as to what happens when policy is led by political agenda rather than any hard evidence. In summary – Is there any open data about open data?


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.


Is data.gov.uk transparent?

June 26, 2012

A recent posting on the W3C egovernment discussion group was on the topic of IT procurement for eGov/transparency case studies and one of the members revealed that a project she was working on at the moment, involved mapping, with documentation (as documentary evidence), for each eGovernment initiative, how the IT resources were obtained. However when she “consulted the UK government last year, including issuing FOI requests, about the procurement, of CKAN for example, particularly wanted to learn what was the original spec /requirements for CKAN, and what kind of funding was granted, based on what agreement/tender. however, [she] was unable to access any document available, including no contract between the UK government and OKFn for the development of CKAN, although there is some evidence of moneys having been exchanged between the UK Government and OKFn for the purpose of funding CKAN development. ”

She then asked “Does anyone have any info?”

I suggested that “One would hope PDM could extract the information from the CKAN’s mouth itself – http://data.gov.uk/dataset/public-sector-procurement-spend” and suggested Paola look there…

However, Paola’s response was “I was not capable to answer the questions using the website http://data.gov.uk/. It looks to me that the website is designed especially to avoid making transparent  the information they are looking for (for example show me the contract between a and b, or how was decision x achieved?) This is what I mean that a service should be designed/driven with usage in mind, and not just stick the word usage as a popular trendy label ‘ (for example, to answer specific questions such as ‘what contractual agreement drives the development of an open data platform such as CKAN?) But if you can drill further with a better understanding of the data.gov platform, please assist! its possible that I am missing something”.

So if the technically proficient are having problems extracting procurement information from the UK government, why are there still claims to be open, transparent etc?

The ongoing conversation is on the W3C site. Can anybody help Paola? Is this transparency or not?


Open data or what?

August 14, 2011

Another recent paper on #opendata, this time from the Public Policy & Governance Review, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2011, by Justin Longo entitled “#OpenData: Digital-Era Governance Thoroughbred or New Public Management Trojan Horse”. This paper (following my previous post –Open, and better, data) also presents an alternative view of ‘open data’, identifying a further downside. Since I think it’s important that we don’t keep seeing ‘open data’, social media or whatever as the latest silver (blank) bullet to follow e-government, it’s another paper I’d like to bring to wider attention.

The paper identifies three main benefits to open data, in that it can permit third-party developed services, that it opens the evidence base to public view and improves transparency and accountability of both politicians and public servants. However, the paper takes pains to warn us that ‘open data’ for some advocates may be a way of bringing back elements of New Public Management (NPM), which is now more widely  accepted as a mistake, although there are still plenty of supporters amongst those managers who were brought up to believe in its values. In contrast, NPM is accepted by many to have made government increasingly complex, less efficient and stifled innovation within the public sector, whilst the use of ‘open data’ can be employed to increase competition, along with citizen involvement, and to demonstrate performance issues, some of the ideals of NPM supporters.

I suggested in a post in 2009 that NPM might return in another guise – “Au revoir NPM“, and this more recent paper indicates that this may be happening, but may result in a conflict with the more current model of Digital-Era Governance.