Good afternoon and thank you for joining me here today.
To paraphrase Victor Hugo, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and transparency is an idea whose time has come.
It’s therefore very exciting to be among a group of people who really do get the importance of this idea and the benefits it brings.
There is no greater testament to the hard work of everyone here than being able to say that the UK is now the world-leader in transparency according to three of the most prestigious organisations in this area: the World Wide Web Foundation, the Center for Data Innovation and Open Knowledge.
Particular thanks for this achievement should go to the Public Sector Transparency Board and Open Data User Group, for setting the bar so high, as well as the Open Data Institute for incubating a new generation of open-data businesses.
We’ve also recently seen major releases from the Environment Agency - now transitioning to become a fully open data organisation - the Met Office and Companies House; and I’m delighted to report that the alpha version of Ordnance Survey’s new OpenMap has gone live today.
Our progress together is a source of great pride for me, because it hasn’t been an easy journey. Politicians always talk about transparency when in opposition. It seems like a really great idea when you’re in opposition.
Then there is a tendency for the first 12 months in government to be equally enthusiastic, because all you’re doing is exposing what your predecessors have done. But then you get to the moment when you are in real time, exposing for scrutiny and accountability what you have done yourself and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like such a great idea.
If it’s tough for me, I know it’s also tough for you. But all of you are here today because you have pressed ahead regardless and because you understand the benefits of transparency.
- You know that it can improve services and cut costs
- You know that it increases accountability
- You know that the data it produces can be a raw material for economic growth
- But you also know that there are still challenges ahead
For government, one of the outstanding issues has been how to sharpen transparency in our outsourcing contracts.
That is why I am pleased to announce that we are today launching a set of principles that will make outsourced public services more transparent.
These principles, which all central government departments will follow, set out for the first time a presumption in favour of disclosure. This will encourage proper consideration of the types of information that would be usefully made available when government enters into a contract with a supplier. These should be no more unnecessary or unreasonable hiding behind the opacity of ‘commercially sensitive’ information as an excuse not to disclose. Only information that would genuinely affect a supplier’s commercial position should be withheld.
In future this will not only provide the public with an unprecedented view of how suppliers conduct their government contracts, but will also add weight to government’s commercial dealings with its biggest suppliers.
Let’s be clear, it is right for suppliers to make a healthy and competitive return.
But it is also right for government to expect a greater degree of transparency and openness in its dealings with its biggest suppliers. They will therefore now be asked to provide revenue and margin information on the contracts they hold with us over a value threshold. This will allow government to act as a more intelligent customer and help manage the performance of these suppliers on a ‘once for government’ basis.
In short, we know that ensuring public bodies are open about how services are contracted and performing will help deliver lower costs, greater innovation, better relationships, and strong and profitable markets.
Today the Institute for Government is proposing standardised transparency provisions for public contracts. These align with our principles on transparency published today, and support our development of a transparency clause which will ensure that public authorities can make the necessary information on outsourced public services available to the taxpayer. We will trial a similar version of these provisions later this spring as part of our commitments under the National Action Plan with a view to adopting them once we have consulted across Whitehall.
But the transparency revolution is not limited to central government. Since the very beginning we have been keen that local authorities reap the benefits of open data and some of the most innovative work is now taking place at the local level.
Here today we have 16 local and regional authorities that have been identified as open data champions, whose work is truly trailblazing.
They are setting the standards in open data and transparency by putting data back into the hands of citizens to create opportunities for innovation, economic growth, better public services and new levels of accountability. They are recognising the fundamental role that data and digital will play in the local authority of the future, and are putting it at the forefront of public service transformation.
Glasgow now has an Open Data Hub containing 400 datasets from more than 60 organisations giving city residents, entrepreneurs and academics free access to information about how the city operates.
Hampshire is now using open data to determine emergency service responses required to deal with weather events.
And right here in London, the Whereabouts project is using open data to help policy-makers visualise neighbourhoods based on how we live, not where we live.
These innovations are improving lives for citizens in communities up and down the country. To support this, we are today announcing the next iteration of the National Information Infrastructure NII
Thanks to the enthusiastic engagement of our exemplar organisations - Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Transport, Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Information Centre, this will move the NII from being a static inventory of government data, to a living, breathing hub. It will ensure that the most important data that we hold is constantly updated and that individuals and companies are able to access it in a usable format. From the summer, we’ll also start making more NII datasets available through APIs - so businesses and others can get updates automatically, and in real time.
This work will make it much easier for businesses and others to use public data; but we need to go further in championing access to data. That is why I am delighted to announce that Mike Bracken, who currently leads the Government Digital Service GDS, will become the first-ever Government Chief Data Officer, alongside his GDS role.
He will be responsible for developing a new Government Data Standard, championing open data, and driving the use of data in the decision-making process. He will lead the development of greater data analysis skills and capability across government.
Given his success in kick starting the digital transformation of government, I have no doubt that Mike is the ideal candidate to drive a similar transformation in our approach to data.
So we’ve had a lot of successes. But before I finish I want to re-iterate that openness is not an easy option.
It takes us all out of our comfort zones, and the prospect of greater scrutiny leads to endless creative reasons why it shouldn’t be done – national security, legal issues, commercial confidentiality.
The one I hear most is, “Minister, the quality of data isn’t very good” to which my response is “publish it, and pretty soon it’ll get better”.
Everyone here today will face these responses at some point if they haven’t already. I can only urge you to press ahead regardless, because the potential rewards are enormous.
It creates more accountable government, it encourages smarter, more responsive, more cost-effective public services and it supports new jobs and businesses.
We’ve taken significant steps in the last 5 years and some of the local authorities and government departments here today are truly trailblazers, but all of us collectively need to make sure this is an unstoppable and irreversible journey.