An Open Letter to Sir Tim about Open Government

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Without doubt, one of the most exciting recent developments in the world of openness has been the sudden fervour with which the British government is espousing transparency. Of course, it is only doing so after some enforced openness showed what goes on in the absence of scrutiny; but these things attain a momentum of their own, so whatever politicians might *really* think or want, they are probably now trapped in a one-way street of openness.

Indeed, the latest move probably guarantees that. Bringing in Sir Tim Berners-Lee probably looked like a clever PR stunt, but what Gordon Brown and his advisers don't realise is that Sir Tim really believes in open data, and is not likely to accept what the Italians charmingly call “strumentalizzazione” - being used. He will want real results, and is likely to drag the UK government – perhaps kicking and screaming – rather further down the path of openness than they expected.

Here's what the Digital Engagement blog says he will be focussing on:

The big news for us is that Tim Berners-Lee has agreed to help the UK government make our information more open and accessible on the web - part of a drive towards letting the data about public services be public and open.

This work will be building on the work of the Power of Information Taskforce and their report. The Digital Engagement team are delighted to be supporting Tim in his work.

A few of the things he and his panel of technical and delivery experts will doing are:

overseeing the creation of a single online point of access and work with departments to make this part of their routine operations.

helping to select and implement common standards for the release of public data

developing Crown Copyright and 'Crown Commons' licenses and extending these to the wider public sector
driving the use of the internet to improve consultation processes.

working with the Government to engage with the leading experts internationally working on public data and standards

This is strengthening the oversight, challenge and insight available as we drive the Digital Engagement agenda forward.

According to the BBC story above, one indicative comment that he's made in this context is that “he was interested in suggestions from bloggers about what they would like to see.” That's great, but also a little vague: I can't imagine he will actively scan hundreds of thousands of blogs on the off-chance that someone has a bright idea for him. Fortunately, thanks to the wonder of Twitter, I gather that those comments can be cross-posted directly to the Digital Engagement blog, specifically, this post.

Of course, re-imagining government in the age of openness is a pretty non-trivial task; fortunately, a collaborative approach means that we can all contribute our humble pebble to that mighty cairn, and that's what I aim to do here. What follows are two short meta-proposals for Sir Tim's consideration: not so much ideas for what should be opened, but how that should happen. I'll be cross-posting them in due course, and I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the Digital Engagement blog post too.

A Presumption of Openness

Hitherto the UK government has worked on the basis that things are secret unless there is a good reason for revealing them. Typically that has required submitting Freedom of Information requests – often a long and frustrating process. We need to reverse that presumption so that openness is the default. I would like to propose that the government is required to file “Imprisonment of Information” requests in which it must justify why particular data is not revealed. Framing things in this way would also help get the message across to those working in government that the onus is on them to argue for the absence of openness, not the other way around.

The Data Process Must be Open

Making data available on its own isn't enough; we also need to be able to see where that data came from, and who has worked on it – effectively, a change-log for open data. This is particularly important when it comes to legislation: for full transparency, we need to see who did what to bills and when.

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