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Cabinet Office says open data government “needs to go viral” - but is Whitehall ready?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 14, 2015
Minister Matthew Hancock talks a big game on open data, but there will be cultural hurdles to overcome in Whitehall.

Open Data
The UK has one of the most open governments in the world and is a leader in the open data agenda. Since launching back in 2010, which now contains over 20,000 public sector datasets that are free for use by anyone, it has continued to strive to release as much information as it can into the public domain.

However, new Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock has said that there is “much more to do” and that “open government needs to go viral”. Speaking at an event this week in London, which was aimed at developing the UK's Open Government Partnership national action plan, Hancock made some interesting proposals for a new age of open government that relied on sharing information and crowd sourcing citizen advice to guide policy making.

Essentially the idea is the democratisation of forming policy, where control is taken away from the centre of Whitehall and put into the hands of the people.

My question for Mr Hancock is: will Whitehall be ready for what this means? I'm not so sure.

But let's first take a look at what Hancock had to say about the UK government's progress to date and some of the benefits of its open data agenda to date. He said that there is no other route to a successful government, except to be open.

[Any] digital network depends for its success on openness and participation. Think of an iPhone that could only download Apple’s own proprietary apps. A global app market worth $25 billion would have been dead in the water.

The internet itself began life as a closed system, because the US military needed a decentralised communications network that could withstand nuclear attack. Its full potential was only realised when the protocols were handed over to industry and academia.

So openness is what makes modernity work, there is no alternative route to a better future. People are already travelling this path. Our job is to pave it. And our Open Government Partnership national action plan is the roadmap.

The use case

matthew hancock
Matthew Hancock

Hancock gave a list of examples of how open data in the UK has been used across the private and public sector to not only drive accountability, but to also create efficiencies in a number of areas. I think it's worth highlighting these, as open data is often spoken about as this abstract topic that feels important, but often the outcomes aren't always entirely obvious.

Some of the examples highlighted by Hancock were:

  • By Windsor and Maidenhead Council publishing real-time data on energy use in public buildings, it has helped them to cut their energy bills by 16%.
  • Before 2010 two thirds of major projects ran over time and over budget – which is why the government now asks departments to publish data all major projects, which accounts for £489 billion worth of spending. Hancock said that this “might make for uncomfortable headlines” but it also means “problems can be flagged early”.
  • London Fire Brigade has developed a tool using public data allowing it to view emergency response times and fire incidents per ward. This means, according to Hancock, that they are better placed to know where to focus resources.
  • Trafford council has mapped ambulance request data against openly available demographic and health indicators, which is helping to figure out the best places to put defibrillators.
  • Since the Society of Cardiothoracic Surgery started publishing the outcomes of heart operations by surgeon, deaths on the operating table fell by a fifth.
  • Consultancy firm GeoLytix is using location-based data from public bodies like TfL and Land Registry to help retailers forecast where to open new outlets.
  • A small analytics company has identified £200 million of NHS savings by analysing prescription data, pinpointing where doctors were prescribing branded statins instead of cheaper generic alternatives.

However, there is still more to do. Hancock said:

There’s still much more to do. Much high-value data has yet to be released, and what’s out there already needs to be made more usable.

A cultural shift

And whilst these examples of data use for efficiency and accountability are useful reminders of how


important this agenda is and the potential it holds, it was Hancock's final remarks about an open source government that were the most interesting.

Whilst the idea of opening up the government's borders to allow for citizens to partake in policy making has been touted before, it isn't something that has yet to be aggressively pursued. And it's an interesting notion.

Hancock said:

But open government isn’t just about government, it’s also about people. And this leads me onto open policy making.

We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of citizen involvement. Government is still largely something that is done to people, rather than with them. The open government agenda is a chance to recast that relationship.

We still have an Encyclopaedia Britannica approach to government. Too much policy making is still done by well-intentioned people in Whitehall sitting in a room, thinking very hard about how to solve a problem. It’s expensive, cumbersome, dates quickly and the citizen is a bystander.

We need to move to a Wikipedia world. That means more collaboration on policy design, recognising that knowledge and evidence is widely dispersed throughout society not locked away in Whitehall.

Hancock gave two examples of how the idea of open government and co-operative policy making has already been successful. The Red Tape Challenge, for one, crowd sourced ideas from employers on which regulations could be scrapped or improved and to date has saved nearly £1 billion.

Whilst the the government's neighbourhood planning department has given communities the power to have a say where new homes should be built, what buildings should look like and what new infrastructure needs to be provided – once a plan has been agreed in a local referendum, the policies it sets out are used to determine planning applications.

You can see the idea, decentralising decision making from Whitehall and taking advantage of a community of ideas, rather than what a few government people think are best.

It is likely that this will also play into the Government Digital Service's much touted idea of government-as-a-platform, which if successful, could potentially allow for a much more agile approach to policy making and to A/B test ideas with interaction from citizens.

However, there is likely to be one massive barrier to all of this: culture.

Whilst the government points to all of the above case studies as success stories, what it isn't very good at is admitting where it is going wrong and it has failed to successfully adopt a culture of failure (I've got a separate piece on this coming up soon).

By making policy creation a community driven process, rather than one that is driven centrally from government, those in Whitehall are going to have to better adopt an agile approach to decision making and sometimes admit when their decisions weren't the right ones.

This is going to be particularly difficult, given that we currently operate on a model whereby policy creation is so much driven by individual personalities. Take Universal Credit, for example. There have been problems with the welfare policy since its inception – and yet the government and Iain Duncan Smith have largely refused to admit that perhaps they didn't go about it the best way.

Not only this, but in an era when we so often hear about “tough decisions” having to be made, will the government be ready to listen to the public even if it means taking a route that it wouldn't normally pursue? Or will this just apply to fringe activities that don't have a broader impact?

I'm not convinced that the government is ready for such a cultural shift.

My take

We need to flesh this out more. We need to understand how this will work, what it applies to, what controls are in place and when it is going to be adopted. I'm sure much of that will come as part of Hancock's National Plan – but I'm just not convinced that this is something that most people in government want on a wider scale.

I don't deny Hancock's intentions, or his commitment, but I think he's got an uphill struggle in getting this embedded in the workings of Whitehall.

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