May 26, 2010 | Professor Andrew Adams

Open Government and open data

Professor Andrew Adams, of Meiji University, Tokyo, looks at open government, in our series on the challenges facing the new government.

The previous administrating(s) of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seemed to have their views on openness and closure completely reversed. It’s almost as though they felt themselves the people’s masters and not their servants. The new coalition government should remember that they are the people’s servants as is the rest of the civil service.

In a classic example of the Broken Window Fallacy successive governments have regarded the data they, or government-supported monopolies such as the Post Office, collected as the government’s property to be monetised to the hilt. They have also kept many details of their own working practices secret. In this article I will deal with the case for as much openness as is possible in both these areas: government produced data and data about government.

So, first on government produced data. The previous government had some good track record on the principles here, passing the Freedom of Information Act and setting up data.gov.uk. The principles were right here, but they failed to go the distance and truly change the attitudes embedded in government that data by default should be kept secret and only opened up when necessary. the incoming government need to work hard to change this attitude and free the data. Unless it is PII (see Lilian’s article on the challenges for the new government on privacy) government data should be free (as in speech). Very narrow lines requiring significant work to justify closure should be put in place otherwise.

The imagination and innovation that happens when people have access to maps, statistics, organisational arrangements and all the other data collected and compiled by government is amazing. Free the data and let people use it as they will, even making a profit from it if they can find a way to monetise it. If the intermediary provides true added value, people will be willing to pay for it. So long as the underlying data is still free then the market will provide a mechanism for preventing abuse and lock-in, just so long as you also fight tooth and nail against software idea patents and other anti-free-market lock-in legal mechanisms.

The Conservative free-market approach (a truly free market abhors a monopoly as much as nature abhors a vacuum) and the Liberal Democrat grass-roots approach should easily be able to come together on driving forward the opening up of data. This does not need a big single database, wasting yet more money on EDS/Logica/BT etc. Put the data out there in the raw, as live as you can, and let people do what they will with it.

The expense comes in when you try to hedge and lock down certain parts. Secondly, the question of openness about government activity. The expenses issues dominated the UK headlines for much of 2009 and seriously damaged the reputation of politicians. Just as with the individual expenses of MPs, the expenditures of all government departments should be among the data made freely available.

There’s a fine line here regarding PII and individual expenses but the actual costs of all public spending and what it’s spent on should be made available to all. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and in tight economic times, the best way to bring the people with you in cutting expenditure is to show them where the money goes in the first place. True economies achieved by spending more now to save money later are only believable where you can demonstrate the options, and how prior spending has ballooned due to false economies at the start. If the money needs spending, you need to justify it. If you can’t justify it, then it should be cut. Again, if you open up the data then you’ll have to justify it. If you can’t justify it in public, then maybe it’s a candidate for cutting.