It’s a great privilege to speak here in Paris about open data and transparency.
And it’s a particular pleasure to be the first to welcome Minister Lebranchu’s announcement that France is joining the Open Government Partnership (OPG). This is a major step forward for the OGP and one that we see as important to the long term viability of this growing but still fragile organisation.
We now have all but 1 of the group of 7 nations as members or committed on the path to membership. It’s no secret that I very much hope that that we can soon welcome an announcement of an intention to join OGP from the remaining great global economy, whose voice has so far been absent around the table.
Last year I was here in Paris and met with Minister Lebranchu to discuss a different area of our common responsibilities – civil service reform. Her insights, and those of her officials, were a powerful influence on the development of our programme of Whitehall reform. I also had a stimulating discussion with the team at Etelab and then met with the then Minister for SMEs, Innovation and Digital Economy, the impressive Madame Fleur Pellerin. And in October we welcomed the French team to London at our OGP summit.
I look forward to building on our legacy of cooperation and co-working. As close allies and close neighbours who share so much, there’s a great deal we can achieve together. France I suspect will come to play a central role in the global movement for transparency and I hope it’s not too long before we will be welcomed back in this amazing city for an OGP summit meeting.
To paraphrase a great Parisian, Victor Hugo, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And transparency is an idea whose time has definitively come. In the past 2 and a half years, OGP has developed in a way that is little short of overwhelming. Starting with just 8 members in 2011, there are now 64 of us – embracing a third of the world’s population.
We’re all at different places along the path to greater openness, but we come together so we can support and learn from one another. I’m delighted France is now part of this. I know there is much we can learn from your experience.
From Australia to Ukraine, Bulgaria to Sierra Leone, Chile to Tunisia, OGP is spreading the message that transparency is a friend of the reformer.
And it’s vitally important that this message is heard by those countries that have gone through the biggest changes – and so the world can see that openness is a path to democracy and stability and prosperity. It’s also crucial that openness is baked in to the very fabric of government.
Attitudes to openness
In the UK we have a Frenchman to thank for our first ever exploration of the power of data collection.
After the Norman invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror – as he’s known on our side of La Manche – sent his emissaries to every corner of England to assess the value of property and livestock held by each landowner.
William’s Domesday Book was about consolidating information – and by extension power and wealth – in the hands of the privileged elite. And that set the pattern for most of what followed.
Governments have tended to hoard information. It was kept under lock and key, away from sight: never open; never shared; never scrutinised.
But in the 21st century, those in power can no longer take such an approach.
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.
Even the Domesday Book is now freely available online as open data.
At the same time, governments around the world are wrestling with how to respond to long term demographic and economic challenges, and rising public expectations.
In the UK – and throughout Europe – austerity in public finances will be a fact of life for some years to come. I recently met with an energetic selection of my counterparts in Madrid, including Minister Lebranchu, to discuss these very challenges. There will continue to be pressure on governments – of all political colours – to deliver more for less. Two paths are possible: 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. And that calls for a complete transformation of how we design and deliver public services and how we interact with citizens. And transparency needs to be central to that transformation.
5 principles for public sector reform
Our thinking in the UK led me to propose 5 principles for public service reform to help us meet these challenges. To be frank, we didn’t start out with these ideas. I come from the JFDI school of government – Just Do It. And just doing it has worked in the UK. For the first time ever we have secured real folding-money efficiency savings – an unprecedented £10 billion from central government in 2012 to 2013, the last year for which we have audited figures.
Out of this action we’ve started to distill some theory. And that’s these 5 ideas:
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. This accounts for the lion’s share of the efficiency savings we made in the UK last year.
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. These are alternatives to red-blooded privatisation and empower the very people who know best how to drive up standards.
Third, we need a properly innovative culture, so public servants have permission to try sensible new ideas, moving away from the risk aversion that has tended to hold back progress. I’ve seen for myself how Californian ideas such as ‘move fast and break things’ or the Israeli start up culture of failing – but failing fast and learning from it – underpin a truly creative environment.
An innovative culture 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.
Too often, transparency is a fair weather friend. In opposition all politicians think transparency is a great idea. When they come to power they continue to think it’s a great idea for the first 12 months while all they’re doing is exposing what their predecessors did. And then they tend to get less keen.
But transparency shouldn’t be an optional extra, an add-on, or something that’s ‘nice to have’: it’s a fundamental part of good governance.
People should be able to see the inner workings of their government – after all, it’s supposed to work in their interests and act in their name.
Equally, taxpayers have a right to see where and how their money is spent.
And ultimately, public data belongs to the citizen, not the state.
It’s why in the UK we now publish all central governmental spending over £25,000. We also publish Quarterly Data Summaries to give a snapshot of how each of our departments spends their budget and they use their workforce.
And we publish all government contracts over £10,000 on our Contracts Finder website.
Of course, transparency can be very uncomfortable for governments where it exposes waste or highlights failure. But you can’t just cherry-pick the bits you want to be transparent about. It has to be all or nothing, otherwise it doesn’t work.
Because if you’re open about problems as they arise and you tell people when things go wrong, then they’re far more inclined to believe you when things are working and you want to talk about your achievements. Over time, being open builds trust.
This is the experience we had in the UK when we decided to publish assessments of the progress of our major projects, everything from new railways to transforming welfare.
When we first suggested including ‘traffic light’ ratings – red, amber, green status updates – some inside government were horrified. To be honest; some still are.
And, for sure, there were a number of bad headlines to begin with – but, when the dust settled, actually we got quite a few plaudits. People could see we meant what we said when we talked about being transparent and ultimately we got the credit for being open.
But transparency isn’t just a noble concept. It’s a practical tool for improving public services – delivering measureable results for citizens and for taxpayers.
Better performance information can help you to see where to save. Mastodon C is an example of a big data start-up company, incubated at our Open Data Institute and working with Open Health Care UK. By using prescription data from across England, variations in spending on different classes of drugs can be identified. It is then possible to calculate the potential savings to be achieved by moving from prescribing branded drugs to generic drugs. From statins alone, we could save around £200 million per year. When extended to all classes of drugs, the total potential savings could amount to £1.4 billion per year.
Similarly, transparency leaves no hiding place for failure. The release of NHS heart surgery performance data, for instance, has helped bring about dramatic improvements in survival rates.
But there is something more fundamental at work. Because giving people more information is another way of giving them more control. Transparency is about putting people in charge of the services they use and giving them a greater role and a louder voice in deciding what’s best for them.
Publishing exam results lets parents see whether their local school is improving so they can make the right choice for their children.
And publishing local crime statistics helps homebuyers to decide which neighborhood to move to – and empowers communities to demand more from their local police forces.
It’s a chance to create truly 21st century services, responsive to people’s individual needs and delivered in a way that’s convenient to them.
Over the last 4 years, the UK government has committed to release more and more public data to give our citizens real choice over their public services.
Our web portal, Data.gov.uk, is to transparency what the Louvre is to art. There are over 14,000 data sets there already, it’s the largest resource of its kind in the world, and more information is being added all the time.
On this scale, open data can be a raw material for economic growth – just like iron and coal were to the industrial revolution. It supports the creation of new markets and jobs – businesses of the future, which can help deliver lasting growth.
Every day more and more data is being generated, while new types of computing power give the ability to reap its true value. McKinsey has said that across Europe data could be worth £250 billion – the EU says £140 billion. Either way it’s an eye-watering amount. And to think – all this time governments had data sitting unused, when it could have been stimulating economic growth and innovation, or scientific research.
So we launched our Open Data Institute, to incubate new start-up companies that could use this data as a raw material.
The Open Data Institute, started in London by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, is now operating here in Paris too. It’s a great example of how much we can do together. By operating across different countries, it can unlock the best supplies of data, generate demand and enhance our knowledge of its potential to address common issues.
We also set out our commitment to a ‘right to data’.
Our default presumption is that everything should be published as a matter of course – there must be a compelling reason to withhold it.
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.
I know that France too is setting an example to other nations when it comes to making public sector data available.
The French government’s new open data platform, launched in December, represents a radical – and to date unique – direction for government data portals. It has been designed to publish submissions and contributions from anyone, not just from central government but from corporations, citizens and non-profit organisations too. This is a real rallying cry in terms of citizen engagement and encouraging others to enhance their efforts. It’s innovative, it’s exciting and I look forward to following its progress.
Last year, the governments of the then G8 came together under the UK Presidency to agree a landmark Open Data Charter – once again, the role of France in the development of this was crucial and your eagerness to stretch the ambition of this work enabled us to set strong principles for the release and re-use of data and for its accessibility. These principles on openness are a critical element in encouraging growth and ensuring consistency, helping governments and businesses to operate more closely together. I hope to see this adopted across the world and know many of you here share that ambition.
So, in conclusion, openness is not a soft option. It takes governments out of their normal comfort zone and requires tough decisions.
Countries like the UK and France have made a meaningful commitment to transparency through the Open Government Partnership.
It doesn’t mean following a set of absolute standards. Transparency means different things to different countries and each must find its own path.
It’s a trajectory – it’s about demonstrable progress toward greater openness, and, ultimately, better government and greater prosperity. And once you start on that path, it becomes an unstoppable and irreversible journey.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: transparency is an idea whose time has come.