Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo’s report on The Power Of Information was finally published this morning (press release, PDF) – and it’s proposing a major shift in the mindset of the typical Whitehall ministry, and the typical civil servant:
The report recommends a strategy in which government welcomes and engages with users and operators of user-generated sites in pursuit of common social and economic objectives; (and) supplies innovators that are re-using government-held information with the information they need, when they need it, in a way that maximises the long-term benefits for all citizens.
Although you always knew what it was likely to come up with, a few specific things jump out from its fifteen recommendations. Further rationalisation of government websites, based this time on what’s available in the private sector, not just the public sector. The formation of a ‘data mashing laboratory’. A ‘suggestion box’ for information people to request the information they actually want. Effectively allowing civil servants to participate in online forums in an official capacity. But potentially most radical of all:
‘an independent review of the costs and benefits of the current trading fund charging model for the re-use of public sector information, including the role of the five largest trading funds (Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office, HM Land Registry and Companies House), the balance of direct versus downstream economic revenue, and the impact on the quality of public sector information.’
Whilst I haven’t had time to digest it fully, the report seems more of a philosophical case for better information exchange, than a list of specific actions. It lists things that people need to think about, and proposes timetables and frameworks for doing that thinking. But there aren’t many direct statements that ‘government should do X’.
The key statements, in my first reading, are those right at the end, in paras 141-143. There is a need for government to be more open. There will typically be short-term costs, but there will often be long-term benefits. And we’ll need an arse-kicker-in-chief to make the change happen. I couldn’t agree more.
A couple of extra thoughts spring immediately to mind. There are several references early in the report to the power of postcodes, and I expected to see a conclusion endorsing them as a national information asset. The argument you always hear from geographers is that postcodes can’t be trusted 100%: in my view, they are now the de facto standard, so we’d better find a way to make them 100% trustworthy (and that may mean liberating them from Royal Mail ownership). There’s actually a wider point about geography to be made at some point, but not here.
The other is the impact of web services, which only get a single passing mention (presumably to stop it becoming too techy). I met Tom a week or two back, and we talked about the example of diplomatic staff not being permitted to engage on travel website discussion forums. Tom correctly raised the matter of Foreign Office travel advice notices, which the FCO refuses to let other sites carry (under explicit threat of prosecution). I was probably the person who made that decision, back in 1995 – a very different context. We couldn’t let other websites ‘copy and paste’ the text off our website, in case they missed an important update. There’s no reason now why the text couldn’t be pulled into travel agents’ sites via web service, on the fly, guaranteeing its up-to-date-ness.
Web services didn’t exist then, but they do now. And I increasingly believe that web services are the key to all this. I can almost imagine a policy which says ‘scrap government websites, just build web services.’