posted 25 Aug 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 10
The politics of information
Approaches to managing public information continue to divide the
After New Labour’s war on civil liberties, the new coalition government is seeking a different approach to public sector information. From the excessive centralisation by the Blair and Brown governments, there is a new movement to realise the financial value of public sector data.
The question for the public sector is whether the improvements in information rights achieved during the past ten years can be protected when entrepreneurial forces are unleashed on public data sets.
New Labour and information rights
The politics of information has matured during the digital age and is still developing following the recent general election. This maturation stage began with the attempt by New Labour to modernise public services during the Blair administration. A series of new statutes unveiled by the Labour government set new requirements for access to information and gave bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, the powers to enforce compliance. The introduction of the Freedom Of Information Act in 2000 marked a new era of open government with the ‘right to know’ extended to the
The public was slow to react to these new rights. The initial cakewalk for public bodies, which fielded such requests as ‘how many male bachelors are there within Nottinghamshire Police Force’, was followed by a rapid increase in sophistication of information requests using freedom of information legislation, with lobbyists, private contractors and the media using the act for sweeping reviews of the public sector. The fallout of the freedom of information requests relating to UK MPs expenses is still being felt, with a third of the UK House of Commons not returning to duties following the General Election.
New public sector information regulations relating to the re-use and licensing of public information were also implemented by the Labour government. However the approach to re-use was implemented in an ad hoc fashion across the public sector with many information professionals baffled by the requirements of such regulations.1 The lack of integration of information statutes meant that new rights were not properly understood or even recognised by public bodies. Commercial companies were also unaware of the right to request licences to re-use public information.
Whilst realising the concept of information rights in legislation, the Labour administration appeared to be waging a war on civil liberties with the introduction of numerous ill-conceived pieces of legislation, from national identity cards to anti-terrorism measures that were viewed as deeply unnecessary even by the most hardened law enforcement officials in the
This led to a state of cognitive dissonance within the former government, which was trying to reconcile mutually exclusive philosophies in relation to public sector information. Granting rights of access to the public while the state accumulated ever greater items of information about its individuals seemed a contradictory approach to public information. This created a predictable tension as the Labour administration sought to increase public access to information, only for a range of groups to accuse them of not going far enough. This situation was never fully resolved even on the departure of the part from government in May 2010.
One of the last major moves by the Labour Government came in October 2009, with the help of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, when they set up www.data.gov.uk, which put around 3,000 data sets relating to a wide range of government services online. This could be accessed free of charge by the public. It seemed to be a death-bed conversion to the idea that public sector information had a value beyond monitoring and review to meet the requirements of law enforcement.
And then came the recession and general election, just to complicate the situation.
‘Free Our Data’
During the 2000s the private sector often viewed public records as a source of commercial value, with a number of groups lobbying for the release of vast data sets for exploitation, including information owned by Ordnance Survey and British Geological Survey. Various attempts were made to lobby for the release of vast tranches of public sector data, including a campaign co-ordinated by the Guardian newspaper and freelance writer Michael Cross to ‘Free our Data’.2
The supporters of the Free Our Data campaign believe that the approach by the Labour administration restricted opportunities for innovation, including through services that could build on the vale of government data to create entrepreneurial activities.
This campaign began in March 2006, when the Guardian’s technology supplement published an article called ‘Give us back our crown jewels’. This campaign’s main aims were summarised on the Free Our Data website as: “The argument is simple: government-funded and approved agencies such as the Ordnance Survey and UK Hydrographic Office and Highways Agency are government-owned agencies; they collect data on our behalf. So why can’t we get at that data as easily as we can Google Maps or the Xtides program?”
At present the public sector data sets include substantial copyright restrictions that prevent the re-use of the data for commercial purposes. This limits the potential to innovate and maximise revenues available from public sector information.
What did the opposition parties make of the Labour government’s approach to public sector information during the past ten years? At a speech during the Google Zeitgeist Conference in October 2007, David Cameron, leading the Tory opposition ahead of the general election, stated that: “Political leaders will have to let go... of the idea that “we know best” – that people can’t be trusted to run their own lives and their own communities... because if we get things right we can now move confidently into a new, post bureaucratic era... where true freedom of information makes possible a new world of responsibility, citizenship, choice and local control.”
Opposition to ID cards and other large-scale projects was one of the few unifying strands of the Conservative’s programme ahead of the general election of 2010. A conflict was about to take place about the future of public sector information.
The philosophy of information
At the heart of this debate about the use of public information is a crucial philosophical divide between those wishing to protect the security of public sector information and those wishing to take positive risks to realise the full value of data sets and knowledge assets.
Protectionists within the Labour administration of the past 13 years have promoted iterations in access to ensure that the public sector can cope with the burgeoning public and commercial interest in a whole range of information and data. This is exemplified by the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation, which contained miscellaneous exemptions that sought to provide central government with shelter from the storm of public requests. This approach has its roots in the social democratic notions of freedom of the press and the limits of governmental privacy. The Act appeared to re-orientate the relationship between citizen and state by seemingly giving the public the ‘right to know’.
This evolutionary approach to public sector information is gradualist and based on a clear outline of the role of the state in managing both personal and business information. The administration deserves credit for approaching government information with individual rights placed at the centre of the strategy to open the state for public scrutiny after years of government sleaze and a decline in the trust in public officials. By reforming the relationship of citizens with the state, the government sought to recast relations and improve accountability. These are laudable aims and have been achieved to some extent.
However, Liam Maxwell raises valid criticisms when he notes that this approach is based on, “Control over our personal data is at the heart of the Labour Government’s plans for improving delivery of public services. Information on how we live our lives is to be centralised so that the State can decide when and where to provide public services. It is a ‘we know best’ approach, a panopticon, with government insight into every aspect of our lives. It relies on a structurally unsound monopoly, with poor security, little consent, enormous cost and a naïve belief that government knows best.”3 It is hard to disagree with this diagnosis – particularly following a torrent of data breaches in the
In stark contrast entrepreneurs, supported by conservative politicians and media commentators, have long craved access to vast tranches of data that could provide them with free intellectual capital – for example, information from data processed by leading officers at British Geological Survey. This new approach seeks to commodify public sector information assets to release resources during these difficult economic times. This is part of a philosophy in line with neo-liberal thinking that now dominates the coalition government’s policy in relation to the entire public sector. This disputes statism and looks to redress the ills of the New Labour era by promoting localism, as opposed to an all-powerful, centralising approach. It also represents a break with the evolutionary and statist approach of the former Labour administration.
Basing access and liberalisation of information within the public sector on more radical philosophical grounds, the coalition government is seeking a settlement that is less obsessed with a command-and-control approach to government bureaucracy. Instead, a desire for loose data sets and the provision of incentives for the re-use of government data represents a classically conservative view of the role of government, in promoting economic ends as a justification for liberalisation of rules. This outlined the intent of the Conservatives to challenge Labour orthodoxies regarding public sector information. A Conservative administration would roll back the frontiers of the previous government and seek to realise a new approach to information.
This approach presents a different set of risks and opportunities to
Rebirth of open government?
The Conservative Technology Manifesto, published in time for the recent General Election, stated: “Our plans to open up government data and spending information will not only help us to cut wasteful spending, but according to new research... it will also create an estimated £6bn in additional value for the UK. This boost to British jobs will come from the synergies and positive spill over benefits that result from businesses and social entrepreneurs building new applications and services using previously locked-up government data.”5 Rarely were these ideas promoted during the Labour years. The notion of opening government and releasing the forces of entrepreneurial spirit are a far cry from the need for ever greater central information systems such as the now defunct ContactPoint and the National ID database.
The new coalition government has already responded to demands for better access by launching the Combined Online Information System, or ‘COINS’, which is the most detailed record of public spending imaginable. Over 24 million individual spending items in a CSV file of 120GB, presents a unique picture of how the government conducts its business.6
However the realities of managing public sector information are already affecting the coalition government. A recent report found that the new government is unlikely to meet its £35bn spending reduction deadline in 2011, with departments lacking the proper data to measure the cuts, according to the National Audit Office.7 The £35bn target was set by the former Labour government in 2007, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The news follows an NAO report, which found the Ministry of Defence was struggling to cut the costs of its vast estate because it lacked centralised data.
We have entered a new era for public sector information. Economic imperatives are now going to trump the social requirements that previously drove government policy. The key to success for the
A number of influential thinkers believe that open government is also as much about government being open to external ideas and innovation as it is to making its own information and processes open. In fact, it should become a two-way exchange.
It is possible to understand the coming challenges by reflecting on the past. In the same way that the internet was designed to be open by default, government too needs to redesign itself to meet the aspirations of communities and entrepreneurs. With the national deficit continuing to require cuts and the threat of a double dip recession, the stakes could not be higher.
This article is adapted from an extract of Robin’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Privacy, which will be published in 2011.
Additional research by Charlotte Walker and Viet-Hai Phung.
3. ‘Its Ours’, Centre for Policy Studies, Liam Maxwell.