One of the recurrent themes on this blog has been the UK government's use – or failure to use – open source and open data. To be fair, on the open data side, things are going pretty well. Open source was previously conspicuous by its absence, and that is finally changing, albeit rather slower than many of us would wish.
If you're interested in finding out more about how things have progressed, and how things could be improved in the future, I can recommend a new report from the Policy Exchange think tank called "Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger" (online or downloadable as a pdf/ebook).
Before it plunges into the serious stuff, it has a foreword by Rohan Silva, Senior Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2010 until this year. It contains the following fascinating, if somewhat partisan, historical perspective about the introduction of open source and open standards:
In 2007, we set out for the first time our policy framework for getting to grips with this mess [the one that the Labour government left behind in the IT sphere, where £25 billion was being spent a year on public sector IT according to Silva], in a speech I wrote entitled (somewhat pretentiously, I'll admit) "Recasting the political settlement for the digital age". Significantly, this speech by George Osborne committed us to opening up government data, creating a level playing field for open source software and introducing open standards for government IT. Taken together, these policies promised to make government more transparent, enable new companies to be built using public sector data, and end the era of massive public sector IT projects and the cosy relationship between the Labour Government and the oligopoly of multinational IT companies that had ripped off taxpayers for well over a decade.
He adds the even more interesting tidbit:
As you might expect, taking on these vested interests led to an immediate backlash. One global IT company even took to calling Tory MPs and threatening to close down R&D centres in their constituencies, unless we backed down on our commitment to open standards and open source software. To his eternal credit, George Osborne refused to budge an inch.
Well done, George. But I wonder who that global IT company was....
The second chapter, entitled "Digital by Default" has probably the best summary of how the UK government has inched its way towards openness, starting from systems that weren't just closed, they were barely digital. Chapter three, "The End of the Beginning", sees two key trends for the future. The first is "the acceleration toward ubiquitous availability of general purpose digital technologies," which is hardly a surprise, or indeed much of an observation. But the other is significant, not least for readers of this column:
The second major trend is the shift toward open as the default, not just in the pure technology arena but across our economy and society.
As well as being a classic general purpose technology, the internet's remarkable impact is rooted in its open foundations. A range of open standards protocols – TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP, HTML, XML, PNG and others – underpins the almost universal accessibility of the World Wide Web and the rich variety of information and services we now enjoy.
The internet has also provided a platform for collaboration on complex projects at scales that were previously unimaginable (and with many contributors doing so without any formal remuneration). The most famous example of an open source software project is the Linux kernel – the source code for which may be used, modified and distributed, commercially or non-commercially, under the terms of the GNU General Public License.
It's great to see Linux not just mentioned in a document about the shape of open government, but even explained further in a small text-box. If nothing else, this shows how far open source has come in just a few years.
As for open data, the chapter goes on to note:
In principle, any organisation can provide open data and content, and the internet makes it possible to publish this to a global audience, often at negligible marginal cost for the data owner. For the UK public sector, the Open Government Licence encourages people to use and re-use information covered by the licence freely and flexibly, with only a few conditions. In the United States, President Obama has signed an Executive Order making open and machine-readable data the default for government information. Open data is already driving a revolution in access to actionable insights, from better maps and more useful transport advice to more accurate weather forecasts and increased transparency around public spending.
The core principles that support open standards, open source and open data and content are applicable far beyond the technology arena. As the internet equalises access to information and opens up new ways for people to interact, demand for more transparent, effective and accountable government is rising both here and around the world. In 2011 the UK was one of eight founding members of the Open Government Partnership, all of whom endorsed an Open Government declaration with commitments on information, participation and accountability.
This trend toward openness is inexorable. Some organisations and governments will resist, but at best all they can hope to achieve is to maintain the status quo for a little longer. A more open world presents huge opportunities for public sector reform. A genuinely open government that responds to the growing demand from citizens for accountability and participation will deliver better policies and foster stronger communities. And in an open, networked world, we will discover that many of the things that were once the sole preserve of governments are, in fact, sometimes better done by someone else entirely.
The rest of the report makes more concrete proposals for achieving as many of the benefits of the open digital approach as possible. For example, the following recommendations:
1. Eliminate paper for all interactions within and between government departments.
2. Switch exclusively to digital for public services that do not need a face-to-face interaction with the public.
In the other recommendations, openness – particularly open standards – plays a key role:
3. Make electronic purchasing based on open standards the default for government departments. Government is a major purchaser but is not as nimble as it should be. A widely adopted electronic platform for government buying would lower prices and reduce bureaucracy. This would also provide the critical mass for widespread adoption of electronic invoicing, saving businesses billions of pounds a year.
4. Require government to issue and accept secure electronic proofs for addressing, tax and the like. This is a necessary condition for fully digitising government services. It would also make it much easier to share these proofs with third parties in a way that goes with the grain of our increasingly digital lives. An open standards approach should enable individuals securely to store these proofs alongside other information in a personal data store of their choosing.
5. Expose Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for all government services. The internet provides an opportunity to separate the different layers of public service delivery. Exposing read and write APIs would allow anyone to write apps capable of communicating with government systems, opening up a new wave of innovation as developers compete to meet user needs.
In chapter six, the report re-affirms the importance of opening up data, as is already happening:
government needs to finish what it has started on opening up government data. Although more data than ever before is now released in response to Freedom of Information requests or published on data.gov.uk, the picture remains incomplete. This is unacceptable; data generated by the public sector as by-product of serving the public must surely belong to the public. In previous decades the cost of making government data available was often prohibitive. This argument is shaky now and will not stand up as technology continues to advance.
So as government completes its journey to extensive digitisation, it should routinely open up all non-personal public sector data for anyone to use, reuse and redistribute as they see fit. Strong protections will need to remain in place for personal data, for data that relates to national security, and to protect a space for frank discussions between officials and ministers. Everything else should be open.
I've highlighted the aspects of the new report touching on openness in all its forms. But chapter seven may be of interest more widely, since it's about managing change in large organisations – in this case, the government machine. However, many of its points are also relevant for companies looking to embrace openness in various ways.
All-in-all, this is an excellent piece of work by the Policy Exchange thinktank. It offers both a succinct review of how the Internet and open technologies have started to change UK government in profound ways, as well as suggesting some fruitful avenues to explore further. And it possesses the huge virtue of being free, if not totally open (a Creative Commons licence would have been more in keeping with the tenor of its message....)