Cameron calls for data standards

Of all the topics I might have expected David Cameron to speak in favour of, standardised data formats was not top of the list. So I’m grateful to Nick Booth for pointing to Cameron’s speech last Friday to the Conservative Councillors’ Association.

At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. It’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account. That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account.

We will turn that approach on its head. We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups.

A very timely call, especially in the light of discussions last week about Harry’s consultations site (some of which, I’m told, he’s updating manually?!). I particularly like the way Cameron ties this into the tangible benefits for councillors themselves, removing the need for so many performance measurement exercises.

I’ve had some dealings in this field, particularly during my time with National Statistics. And I’m afraid it’s going to be much, much more difficult than Cameron makes it sound. Too many legacy systems, a chaotic approach to statistical geography, and (frankly) too much opposition from statisticians. Very few statisticians appreciate why they do what they do; they just do it. The work takes on an almost monastic purity. They don’t trust mere mortals – media included – to represent it properly. I was one of a management team hired to drive a culture change in that regard. Our success was limited.

Cameron’s speech focuses on TheyWorkForYou as a role model for data reprocessing; but I’m not sure the comparison holds up too well. A database of numbers would be much more difficult and more sensitive than the absolutes of Hansard: who said what (subject to correction, of course), and who voted how. Realistically we need to get to greater standardisation of process first: starting with defining consistent geographic reasons allowing sensible comparisons over time.

And besides, we haven’t done a great job of producing standardised data in RSS format, one of the most simple and straightforward data standards out there.

Consultations supersite mkII

Thanks to Jeremy for pointing out Harry Metcalfe‘s new ‘Tell Them What You Think‘, the latest mass screen-scraping exercise from the MySociety stable: this time, it’s government departments’ consultation exercises. I actually met Harry last week, but didn’t realise the project was actually ‘out there’. It bears all the classic MySociety hallmarks – which Harry should take as a great compliment.

Describing the story so far on the site’s own blog, he writes:

A few months ago, I responded to a couple of government consultations and, in the process, discovered there was no way to search all live consultations, or to be alerted when a new one was published. This struck me as more than a little mad.

consultations.gov.ukExcept that, as web.archive.org demonstrates there was a central site listing live consultation exercises, at www.consultations.gov.uk from 2004 to early 2006. Did the site succeed in encouraging a new wave of civic engagement? Let’s put it this way: if it had, why would I be writing this? The site was then taken down, with the address redirecting into the Cabinet Office site.

Today, it redirects to the BERR page on last year’s Consultation Policy Review. And – oh! the irony – if you look at their published response, you’ll find the following paragraphs:

3.21 Several responses called for a new approach to publicising consultation exercises, including suggestions for a single website for all central Government consultations with a facility to register for alerts.

3.23 The Better Regulation Executive will look into the feasibility of one website indexing all central Government consultation exercises and providing an automated alert system.

Visibility of current consultations is part of the problem, but I’d argue it’s a small – and maybe even negligible – part. I’m not even sure we know what they are trying to achieve: is it simply transparency of process? is it just ‘what we’re meant to do’? are we looking for huge volumes of responses?

And more pertinently, does the government really care what The Masses think? Harry almost acknowledges this himself to an extent, citing an example of a recent consultation which saw 85% outright opposition, and 91% disagreement with the phrasing of the question. What happened? The measure passed anyway.

We need to decide what we’re trying to achieve with consultation, then decide the best way to go about it. We’re a long, long, l-o-n-g way from there.

But there’s one important lesson from the exercise, as Jeremy notes. There are things you can do with your website to help the eage, public-spirited geeks take your information, and do something better with it. Ask them. And next time you spec up a website, make sure there’s a section on XML, RSS and/or API.

Thoughts from Barcamp: just do it

The mere fact that Saturday’s BarcampUKGovWeb happened at all would have been enough in itself; but the assembled group of influential, inspirational and interesting people made for a fantastic day. At one point in the afternoon, I remember looking at the schedule and getting depressed at the countless interesting sessions I’d missed. It’s been a long time since I thought that of a (more conventional) conference. But I left with a slightly empty feeling: lots of questions, some of them very deep indeed, but no simple answers, and very few ‘action points’.

The best lesson I can draw from the day’s proceedings is this: Just Do It. The day itself was proof. We all arrived with a common purpose, but no specific agenda. The framework was set in advance, and proceeded to fill itself. We all got stuck in, and it just worked.

You’ve got Steve Dale’s example of just getting a Drupal installation into place, within a fortnight, to shock the client into a response. Or the MySociety approach of accepting ‘The System’ can’t or won’t deliver, and just getting on with it. Or my own WordPress-based crusade, I suppose. How to decide if Twitter or Seesmic has a role in government? – start using it, and let’s see.

Since Saturday, I’ve heard of one person who’s started a blog, and one person who’s decided to get to grips with Facebook. Dave’s (relatively simple) Pageflakes example has drawn some interest. I wonder how many had ever edited a wiki before signing up for the event? These are all baby steps, but they are the only way people will get the big picture. (Welcome aboard, guys.)

I firmly believe ‘the shift’ has happened, and government risks being left (even further) behind unless it exposes itself to the new world out there. COI’s Transformation / Rationalisation isn’t a bad thing in itself: the worst excesses needed to be reined in. But if we can agree what not to do, can we start agreeing what we can or should do?

Let’s start small: a Directgov/COI blog, please. Then maybe a WordPress (MU?)-based blogging platform for Civil Service uses (like Microsoft did). A tie-up with Basecamp or London-based Huddle, to encourage lightweight project management methods. But the best idea of the day came (I think) from Graham from DIUS: a parallel version of Directgov in wiki form, allowing external experts to suggest improvements which might improve the ‘real’ version. Sheer genius. Let’s just do it.