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 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?


Implementing transparency

April 29, 2012

Hot on the heels of the post by Andrea di Maio comes a UK National Audit Office (NAO) report entitled ‘Implementing Transparency’ (PDF, 44 pages 0.8 Mb). Given the recent OGP meeting in Brasilia mentioned by Andrea and attended by the UK government and the post “What is ‘open government’“, the report makes interesting reading, since the criticisms are largely replicated in the report.

Typically it picks out that only in 7% of cases is the UK data presented using open standards from World Wide Web consortium, to enable linking e.g. rdf, whilst the largest chunk uses CSV. Two important comments are:

“2.14 The Cabinet Office did not engage with the public to establish demand for the standard data releases outlined in the Prime Minister’s letters, but did consult with developers and industry to identify the additional releases announced in the Autumn Statement 20116 (see paragraph 4.1).

2.15 None of the departments reported significant spontaneous public demand for the standard dataset releases.”

But we then get onto cost-benefit analysis, where the report states that:

“2.21 Although the Government has wide-ranging objectives for transparency, few attempts have yet been made to monitor emerging benefits.”

Local government is not ignored either and a part of the report commencing on page 26 covers what the NAO have discovered from their research of council websites, and there appear to be a number of gaps, although work on LG Inform is expected to help fill some of them, although with 750 metrics to be filled in when it’s planned to go live in September 2012, I don’t imagine everyone who has to supply the data will be so delighted.

In conclusion, I think government needs to look seriously at the report and attempt to answer the questions posed. As occurred with e-government we don’t want excessive sums of money and a great deal of effort wasted chasing something that is not going to benefit the public. I know the claim was used for e-government that it provided traction but we apparently no longer have the cash for further indulgences.

What is ‘open government’?

April 25, 2012

A post from Andrea di Maio entitled ‘Open Government Partnership: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly’ (his capitals) as usual hits the nail right on the head. I’ve discussed ‘open data’ and ‘open government’ in a number of posts including most relevantly this one on ‘open by design’ and we still appear to be lacking clarity over what the outcomes are intended to be.

Andrea, whilst accepting that ‘open government’ is essentially a good thing, picks up a number of matters:

  • In the past, benchmarking has made some countries waste resources by e-enabling the wrong things
  • There is a risk that the debate focuses on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’
  • Top ten commitments focus upon increasing transparency – what about service delivery and sustainable efficiency

He then argues that the end goal should be a “grand challenge” supported by “transparency, accountability and engagement”, rather than the other way around. He concludes by suggesting that the session on building a business case examines “how to measure the real impact and success (or lack thereof) of open government”.

Then, Simon Sharwood in The Register  continues the topic in “Open Government Partnership talks tech-led transparency” pointing out that one government absent from the meeting is Australia and that Hilary Clinton had warned that ‘the existence of technology does not translate into openness. “Technology isn’t some kind of magic wand, ” she said. “Ultimately, it is political will that determines whether or not we hold ourselves accountable”‘ Which makes it all sound like e-government over again…, in the immortal words of Cicero “O tempora O mores”.

It works both ways!

September 6, 2011

With the central government pressure on  local government to be transparent and provide open data (thank you Mr Pickles), it’s about time someone considered it the whole way around. If local government is providing data for people to do wizzy things with, as in Fixmystreet or Fixmytransport, shouldn’t this be reciprocated, and those taking data provide the feedback or reciprocal data in a suitably open format rather than emails. Similarly, if we are providing all this open data at the government’s behest shouldn’t that be an end to form-filling? Rather than endless submissions to government departments every year, can’t they just suck in a CSV or XML file living on a website?

When I was writing my dissertation there was lots of ways of looking at e-government for example G2C or government to citizen, C2G being the reverse. There was also G2G, in which case if we push out data for central government and they suck it in, we can then take back their data feeds in electronic form. Such a solution would prevent a lot of double keying across the country, once the schemas are agreed and developers have developed a single or very few sets of interfaces.

Lets see an end to open data as a one-way street and build up to at least it being bi-directional, if not a motorway!


February 21, 2010

Larry Freed strikes again! Foresee have published his latest analysis, in this case a special piece of work entitled “The Inaugral ForeSee Results’ E-Government Transparency Index.”

The report, nearly a year in the making, studied more than 36, 000 US citizens in the fourth quarter of 2009. Freed proposes that it provides evidence that online transparency is a key driver for online satisfaction, which in turn drives trust in government and onto future participation and collaboration.

Freed had started out by stating that (p.2) “there aren’t any measures in place to assess citizens’ current perceptions of federal transparency, collaboration opportunities, and their trust in governmnet, much less any clear direction on how to improve those things.” He’s then extended the ACSI question set to handle this and as a result believes the study provides evidence that citizens perceiving a federal website to be highly transparent are also more likely to participate, return in future, recommend it, use it as a primary source and trust government in general!

Another area highlighted on page 5 is that different elements are key on the different web sites, which can only be discovered by research them individually. For some, it’s transparency, for others it’s the navigation, whilst search and other elements may have a part to play depending upon the site.

As usual, more grist to the e-government-thinking mill. Thank you Larry for your hard work.