Can the Director of Digital Engagement Open up UK Government?

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Recently, several posts on both of my blogs have been circling around issues of government transparency, especially in the light of the current MPs' expenses scandal. As I've suggested, it may well be that this is a singularly propitious moment to push for real openness in government: it would go a long way to allaying fears that the British public has about what exactly is happening in Parliament, while simultaneously providing a simple and fair self-policing mechanism for MPs and other officials.

So the Cabinet Office's appointment on Wednesday of Andrew Stott to the new role of Director of Digital Engagement, a position created to take forward the Power of Information report – whose approach I praised a few months back - is very fortunate timing:

The Director of Digital Engagement will be based in Government Communications at the Cabinet Office and will work across Government departments to encourage, support and challenge them in moving from communicating to citizens on the web to conversing and collaborating with them through digital technology.

Following a wider review of Cabinet Office organisation to reflect the Government's priorities and its share of efficiency savings the Director of Digital Engagement role will also include responsibility for:

implementation of the Power of Information Taskforce recommendations

chairing the Government's Knowledge Council and working with The National Archives to take forward the Information Matters strategy for Knowledge and Information Management

increasing the civil service's use of internal digital tools to improve cross Government coordination and collaboration as an aid to better policy development and service delivery

the civil service website

Andrew is currently Government Deputy Chief Information Officer. He has had director-level oversight within the Cabinet Office for the Power of Information work from its inception and was a member of the Minister for Digital Engagement's Power of Information Taskforce.

I'm sure we'll be hearing much more about all those responsibilities, but for the moment the focus is rightly on implementing the Power of Information Taskforce recommendations. This is sensible because it lays the foundations for practically everything else that is needed. Aptly enough, then, the first post on the Digital Engagement blog is about precisely that, but structured in an interesting way:

We have a progress update on Digital Engagement (see links below) and what we are doing against all the Power of Information Recommendations. We have split up the recommendations to make break them up by theme, but if you want to check them all they are in Annex A. While everyone should read the full report, the key themes are:

Open information - To have an effective voice, people need to be able to understand what is going on in their public services; government will publish information about public services in ways that are easy to find, use, and re-use.

Open feedback - The public should have a fair say about their services. We need more services like NHS Choices or www.publicexperience.com to provide direct feedback to the Innovation Council.

Open conversation - We will promote greater engagement through more interactive online consultation and collaboration. We will also empower professionals to be active on online peer-support networks in their area of work.

Open innovation - We will promote innovation in online public services to respond to changing expectations – bringing the concepts behind Show Us A Better Way into mainstream government practice.

Now, what strikes me is the constant hammering of the word “open” - indeed, the Power of Information Recommendations are re-ordered and placed under these four “open” headings. The introduction to the “Open information” section is particularly revealing:

Information is power, distributed information is empowering

The government is committed to being open with our information. This is to strengthen our democracy and to increase the social and economic welfare of the UK.

In recent years there has been a strong drive to measure public service outcomes and use those measurements to drive improvements in performance. Whilst this has introduced new levels of professionalism into public services, too often the performance data itself is either internal or published in static form. This makes it hard for this information to underpin the democratic processes that shape public services.

Alongside this, there are several studies showing that the maximum social and economic value comes from public information being published at marginal cost – the most recent being Models of Public Sector information by Cambridge University.

The government will be joining our international partners in placing non-personal information into the global digital commons (available for global re-use). Without this then we cannot truly achieve the vision set out elsewhere in this document.

Alongside the reference to “studies showing that the maximum social and economic value comes from public information being published at marginal cost” - in other words, this stuff should be free, or as near as dammit - I can't help noticing this phrase: “global digital commons”. Nor is that the only occurrence of the commons idea, since Recommendation 8 includes the following:

The system should create a 'Crown Commons' style approach, using a highly permissive licensing scheme that is transparent, easy to understand and easy to use

Got that? A new licence, modelled presumably on the Copyright Commons licences, but specifically to allow UK government materials to be re-used as widely as possible.

This is pretty heady stuff, given the lamentable record of the UK government so far. But there's another telling detail that suggests this new Digital Engagement office might know what openness really means, and might actually start to spread it.

At the end of that first blog post, you can download the Power of Information Report; here's what is written there:

Please read our report in the format that suits you. We have:
PDF (795.89 kb)

Open Office (513.55 kb)

Microsoft Word (676.50 kb)

XHTML (731.68 kb) - renders on Firefox and not IE. We're looking into it.

So not only are they trying to accommodate users' needs, they are already offering OpenOffice.org format and – irony of ironies – an XHTML version that works on Firefox but *not yet* on Internet Explorer.

I do think this new Director of Digital engagement and his team are going to be rather good for openness in this country....

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