It’s wonderful to join friends and colleagues from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Europe to celebrate our shared commitment to transparency and greater openness.
Within Europe, and elsewhere in the world, we’re all at different stages on the path of greater openness. It’s a trajectory – one which ultimately leads to better government and stronger prosperity.
Ireland is of course one of the more recent countries to join the OGP. In October the Irish government unveiled a range of open data commitments at the London Conference. Six months later, not only has Ireland published its National Action Plan, but the OGP’s first dedicated European regional meeting is taking place on Irish soil, here in Dublin Castle.
So I congratulate Brendan Howlin [Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform] and his team for wholeheartedly grasping the opportunities and responsibilities that membership of the Open Government Partnership brings. That’s the thing about being a reformer – it’s addictive. There is an adrenaline that comes from doing things differently and once you start, it’s difficult to stop.
Now transparency has firmly taken root on both shores of the Irish Sea – and with last month’s state visit to the UK by President Higgins still fresh in our minds – I think this is another area where our 2 countries, Ireland and UK, can learn much from each other.
And that, in essence, is why we are all gathered here today. The role of the reformer can at times be a lonely one, and a tough one, to do things that are unpopular with the status quo.
It’s particularly important that we support those countries that have undergone the biggest changes in the last few years; we need to set a positive example that openness is part of what it means to be a democratic, prosperous and dynamic 21st century nation.
Europe can be proud of what we’re doing. Nearly 30 countries in the region are members of OGP. I was in Paris 2 weeks ago to welcome France into the fold. But it would be wrong to take the view that somehow Europe has all the answers and nothing to learn.
Within Europe, we need to work more closely together, both through the Open Government Partnership and also on a bilateral basis. Because we can’t really measure or improve our performance unless we know what ‘good’ looks like – and we will only know this by sharing our experiences.
Around the world there are some amazing examples of openness in action too. I was in Indonesia earlier this week and I saw how the government has launched a tool that allows the public to submit complaints and enquiries about national development programs through a website or through their mobiles. So there is much we can learn from our partners in all regions.
Indeed, the economic crash and subsequent recession has been a ‘stop and pause’ moment for governments across Europe. We face similar challenges of squeezed budgets, rising expectations and low growth. We’re all searching for answers to the same question: how can we deliver more for less?
In the UK, and throughout Europe, austerity in public finances will be a fact of life for some years to come. There are 2 possible paths to take: the low road of salami slicing departmental budgets to impose top-down savings; and the high road of redesigning public services from the bottom up. Governments owe it to the public to take the high road.
5 principles for public service reform
In the UK, we decided that only a complete transformation would suffice. Our thinking led me to propose 5 principles for public service reform to help us meet these challenges.
The first is tight control from the centre over common activities – such as property, IT and procurement – because this reduces costs and encourages collaborative working.
The second principle is looser control over operations: shifting power away from the centre and diversifying the range of public service providers. We strongly support staff-owned mutuals, joint ventures and social enterprises which raise productivity, improves services and cuts costs.
Third, we need a properly innovative culture, so public servants have permission to try sensible new ideas. This also means listening to different and non-traditional voices when making policy. One of the great things about the Open Government Partnership is it allows government and civil society to sit around the same table and learn from one another.
Fourth, digital by default. If a service can be delivered online, then it should only be delivered online because as well as being cheaper, online services can be faster, simpler and more convenient for the public to use.
And the fifth principle – the most directly relevant to OGP – is openness. Because being transparent and publishing open data makes government more accountable to citizens and strengthens our democracy; it informs choice over public services and it feeds economic and social growth.
Transparency in the UK
Historically, governments have tended to hoard information. It was kept under lock and key in castles just like this one.
But now the networked, decentralised spirit of the internet age has started to permeate how we work, how we socialise and how we think. Technology has revolutionised the relationship between citizens and the state; it should both compel and empower governments to work in new ways.
Almost 10 years ago the UK’s first Freedom of Information Act came into force. It gave the public a statutory right to access information held by public authorities.
There’s no doubt that this was a historic piece of legislation and it’s done much to empower the public. But in some ways, it’s completely the wrong way of doing things. It’s the wrong way of doing things because governments should be pushing out this information willingly and proactively, without people having to ask.
Getting information out of government shouldn’t be like pulling teeth. Public data belongs to the citizen, not the state. People should be able to see the inner workings of their government; taxpayers have a right to see where and how their money is spent.
When the coalition came to power in the UK in 2010, we pledged to be the most transparent government ever. We want to move from a culture where data was hoarded to being open by default. Everything must be presumed open and accessible unless there is a strong reason for it not to be.
So we flicked the openness switch from ‘pull’ to ‘push’.
In August 2013 the 10,000th dataset was released on data.gov.uk, the UK’s open data portal. It’s already the largest of its kind in the world and it’s growing all the time.
But data.gov.uk isn’t a monument to big data or big government. It’s a working resource for civil society and for businesses. We’ve designed it to be useful because we know that, as well as making government more accountable, publishing non-personalised government data can improve public services and fuel economic growth.
So the UK’s Open Data Institute is incubating new start-up companies that use this data as a raw material – and there is a thriving tech community just waiting for the opportunity.
Of course, it’s easy to be open about things that don’t really matter. But what really counts is being open about the things that do matter and releasing the information that people and organisations want to have so it can cultivate new enterprises and new jobs. Through the Open Data User Group, individuals and businesses can request data to be released as open data. And many government departments now have dedicated transparency sector boards of their own, which challenge them to publish more data.
The recent severe flooding in UK demonstrates the power of open data to improve services and drive growth.
We brought together more than 200 software developers and computer programmers to find ways of using open data to help those affected. Known as a ‘hackathon’ or a ‘hackday’, it was about using open data as a fuel for original thinking and to power inventive new solutions.
The UK government released data which up until then had only been available at cost to a small number of commercial companies. This included readings, updated every 15 minutes, from every flood sensor in the UK – effectively giving hackers live data on the situation across the country. Teams of volunteers discussed, developed, refined, wrote, and tested applications and services to use this data.
The developers participating in our flood hack came up with some impressive ideas – including a service that connects people with their energy supplier in the event of a power cut, and an app that alerts Twitter users to volunteering opportunities in their local area.
When I started out in politics a hack was someone who caused problems for politicians; now its something that brings solutions. And that’s the power of open data – it’s a high octane fuel, whether powering innovation in government or propelling new ideas from the computer screen into the marketplace.
WH Auden once wrote that history marches to the beat of a clear idea… and nothing’s clearer than transparency. More accountable government, better public services and stronger economic growth: the benefits are immense.
The Open Government Partnership, which I’m so proud to be a part of, is changing how countries are viewing and ‘doing’ openness. We’ve all made a meaningful commitment – backed by a tough and practical series of actions. And transparency is increasingly seen a tangible, measureable force with a direct impact on people’s lives.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: transparency is an idea whose time has come.