I think we are acknowledged to be a world leader in open data.
This isn’t easy territory actually. The first point to make is that politicians always talk about transparency when they’re in opposition. It seems like a really great idea when you’re in opposition. Then there is a tendency for their first 12 months in government to be equally enthusiastic, because all you’re doing is exposing what your predecessors have done. Then you get to the moment when you are in real time exposing for scrutiny and accountability what you yourselves have done and it gets tough then. And we stuck at it.
We are the leader, but others are moving quickly in this territory as well. This is a real international movement.
My well-known mantra that gets trotted out by other enthusiasts for open data around the world is that nothing is so powerful than an idea whose time has come and transparency is an idea whose time has come. All of us who get it and are enthusiastic about it need to make sure it becomes irreversible.
It puts people in government out of their comfort zone, whether they are a politician or a civil servant. It’s uncomfortable and the default setting is the reverse. So changing the way we think about this and how we do it is difficult to do.
But actually we couldn’t have done it without some brilliant civil servants who have completely got it. Certainly my team in the Cabinet Office but much more widely around government where what we’ve done over these years is find the enthusiasts who get it and are willing to be difficult about it and wear down the opposition.
The other thing we did at the outset, and this is very much the advice that Nigel Shadbolt and others gave to me, was to set up a transparency board to bring into government people who really know what they’re talking about, because if you’re a jobbing politician when you are presented with a range of reasons why things can’t be done – into which goes enormous amounts of creativity – you need people with real expertise who can say “no that’s not a reason for not doing it” and who can break down and help you overcome the objections to doing things. And there is a very wide range of reasons which increases all the time.
And we really meant it, when we said we wanted to be the most transparent government ever, when the coalition government was formed.
We needed it as our friend actually, because we faced the biggest budget deficit in the developed world and we were coming out the deepest recession. And we needed to cut spending and transparency is your friend when you start doing difficult things with departmental budgets.
But at the same time as the need for us to do things differently, the possibilities have changed because of technology – the internet and mobile technology. Large parts of the private sector got this well ahead of government.
Now consumers instinctively check customer reviews before booking a hotel or price comparison websites before buying insurance. People should expect from public services the same level of visibility and the ability to make choices, because actually the public are paying for them whether they like it or not, and we need to have a transformative approach here.
So it makes us more accountable; it strengthens our democracy; it informs choice over public services and, hugely importantly, it feeds economic and social growth. You build both commercial success and jobs and wealth in the private sector from the use of open data as a raw material, but also the social entrepreneurs and the communities have been building social capital using the power of data.
Ten years ago the Freedom of Information Act came into force. Tony Blair called it his biggest mistake. But it was a historic piece of legislation, it wasn’t perfect. My aim if I’m honest with you is to make Freedom of Information redundant. My view is that we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate. You should make redundant the need for people to ask for access to information.
We should be doing it proactively because the state has to be the servant, not the master. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent. It shouldn’t be like getting blood from a stone to get information out of government.
So our presumption now is everything should be published as a matter of course, unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. Our regular transparency publications include government spending over £25,000, government contracts over £10,000, details of hospitality, salaries of senior civil servants, objectives of permanent secretaries… We also now publish progress assessments of our major projects , everything from Crossrail to nuclear submarines.
When we first proposed publishing on an annual basis the Major Project Authority’s ratings of these projects there was some fairly grave horror. But actually we’ve now done it twice and it will now become impossible for future governments not to do this.
What it does is to build trust. Because the not particularly surprising thing is, that if people see that a government is volunteering information about things that aren’t going well – without it being dragged out gradually – then it’s just possible people might believe you about things you say are going well. This is about the slow process of starting to rebuild trust.
There is of course a balance. I am a transparency zealot. But actually I think the Freedom of Information Act probably doesn’t protect some things that need to be protected vigorously enough. We do need to protect diplomatic correspondence. Governments need to be able to communicate very candidly with each other in a way that people aren’t always anxious whether it’s going to be disclosed.
…and secrets which genuinely endanger life and security, although national security is always high up on the list of why things can’t be published.
Also protecting that proper safe place that needs to exist where civil servants give very candid forthright advice to ministers about what it is they want to do and about the implications. That needs to be an uninhibited space for that advice and for discussions between ministers.
The data on which decisions are based and the evidence on which decisions are based absolutely should be published. And sometimes decisions will get made for which there is no evidence and that’s fine too. There are perfectly good reasons for doing that. Some of the things we’ve done, we didn’t have evidence to support it to begin with. The evidence grows as you do it. But we should be open about saying that’s the reason for doing it.
So it is crucial we should get that balance right. Be vigorously proactive about publishing data and evidence and then vigorously protective about things that need to be protected.
Better public services
It’s a crucial tool for improving public services.
It can cut costs. You start to get benchmarking comparisons between different parts of the state. You can see where savings are possible and you can drive up standards.
We’re beginning to see this in the health service where unprecedented degrees of transparency – started by Bruce Keogh when he was still the doyenne of heart surgery before he became medical director of the NHS. The openness and transparency of outcome data from cardiac surgery in the NHS has driven up performance and driven down mortality rates markedly.
It’s very empowering – it gives people greater choice over the services they use and allows them to make better informed decisions.
Publishing local crime statistics helps residents demand more, and in a more focused way, from local police forces and publishing exam results helps parents find a school that’s right for their children.
And again at every stage there have been objections raised: “What we do is different, it can’t possibly be compared”. There will often be justice in that, some assumption behind that, so publish – compare – explain.
It can also connect together disparate parts of the state to design proper holistic solutions.
During the flooding at the start of this year, we brought together 200 software developers and computer programmers. We gave them access to data that had previously only been available at cost to a small number of insurance companies, including 15 minute readings from every river level sensor in the UK. Within 2 days, they came up with a range of solutions to help – from a phone service that connects people with their energy supplier in a power cut, to an app that alerts Twitter users to local volunteering opportunities.
Since those floods, there has been a strong demand for flood risk assessment data to be released to help local communities better protect themselves. When it comes to something like flooding, this country’s national information infrastructure can be important as well as its physical infrastructure.
I’m pleased to announce today that the Environment Agency will be releasing this as open data. This release was originally planned for next April, but we’ve brought it forward with the support of funding from the Cabinet Office. It accompanies the release of other open data from the Environment Agency including real time river levels, flood warnings, and flood alerts. Together, this will enable businesses large and small to develop local flood warning systems or integrate the data into their systems.
Let’s be clear – this is data that is accumulated and maintained at taxpayer’s expense. It is right that this data be made available to the public.
But there’s a wider point. The way people now use technology and discover information is changing; more people interact with news and information through social media compared with more conventional sources. We need to find ways to integrate and adapt vitally important information to people in the most effective way. There’s huge potential for technology ‘mash-ups’ between flood data and for example, Google Maps, making it more accessible and easier to use. So this is just the beginning.
Data.gov.uk – our open data portal – now has 16,000 open datasets and information on a further 4,080 unpublished datasets, everything from live traffic information to statistics on childhood obesity. On this scale, open data can be a raw material for economic growth, just like iron and steel and coal were to the industrial revolution 300 years ago.
So we launched the Open Data Institute (ODI), under the leadership of Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners-Lee, to incubate new start-up companies that can use this data for new products and services.
One of them is a firm called Transport API. Founded in 2010 and nurtured by the ODI, it draws together otherwise disparate central government data from the likes of Network Rail, Transport for London and the Department for Transport to create a single source for all UK transport information.
No one had previously done that in a consistent way. They did it in a user-friendly, low-cost way and over 900 businesses and developers are now signed up to use their data. Some have used it to create new transport apps. So it’s brought faster, more convenient travel information to the public –fewer delayed journeys – and has created several new businesses.
It worked because some brilliant people outside government were able to spot an opportunity. So we’re going to carry on pumping this data into the public domain, fuelling more ideas and solutions and creating more businesses and jobs. But we won’t stop there.
Our National Information Infrastructure is focusing on improving the quality so that businesses can rely on the most critical data to be published on time, using common identifiers and in the most accessible ways. We want all of the data-user community to contribute via data.gov.uk.
We’ve also set out our commitment to a ‘right to data’ and helped establish the Open Data User Group. It’s easy to be open about the things that don’t matter. What really counts is releasing the information that people and organisations want to have. That’s what the Open Data User Group does. It funnels in the demand to enable us to make decisions about priorities in a better informed way.
Earlier this week the UK hosted the first summit of the new D5 group of the most advanced digital governments in the world. Each founding member, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea and ourselves, recognises that transparency and openness is a key plank of reform.
It’s clear that around the world open data is starting to be seen as a fundamental part of better government and stronger growth.
We’ve established ourselves as a world leader. This week we were again ranked first in the Global Open Data Index.
The ODI has today published their Open Data Roadmap. We welcome their recommendations and recognise that we need to continue progress. We are setting the standard on open data, but others are moving fast here and we need to continue. We are only at the beginning of this.
We came together with 7 other governments and, crucially, civil society organisations to launch the Open Government Partnership(OGP).
Through our year as lead co-chair we supported allies on their path to membership helping ensure that members deepened their commitment to transparency. The French government has been very generous in giving us credit for persuading and showing them what the benefits of the Open Government Partnership would be, so they’re now a member of the steering committee.
The point I always make about this really important partnership between civil society and governments is that I see the OGP and also the D5 as support networks for reformers in government. People outside often see governments as a kind of homogenous thing, but within every government – and this is true among politicians and among officials – there are reformers and there are resisters.
Digital and openness – these are the friends of the reformer. People who want to change things and want to drive out corruption and drive improvement and cost efficiency and all the things we’re going to need more and more of over the years and decades ahead. The civil society organisations continue to be very alert to who are the people within government who are driving openness and who are the resisters.
We’re also keen to ensure all local authorities reap the benefit of open data. Transparency matters at a local level.
The Transparency Code sets out the minimum data that local authorities should be publishing. That’s not easy to coordinate the release of data across a multitude of different, overlapping local services and jurisdictions, but there are some great examples and much is happening on that front.
We are supporting that from the Cabinet Office and we will continue to work with the Local Government Association and Open Data Institute to support that.
In conclusion, openness is not a soft option. It takes governments out of their normal comfort zone and requires tough decisions.
There are endless creative reasons why it shouldn’t be done – national security, legal reasons, commercial confidentiality…
…the last resort is “Minister, the quality of data isn’t very good” to which my response is “publish it, and it’ll pretty soon get better”.
But the potential rewards are enormous:
- more accountable government
- smarter, more responsive, more cost-effective public services
- new jobs and businesses
We’re only at the start of the journey. We’ve taken some good steps, but all of us collectively need to make sure this is an unstoppable and irreversible journey.