Why the UK's €œSmarter Government€� Plan is Not So Clever

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There's no doubt that the area outside computing where the ideas underlying open source are being applied most rapidly and most successfully is that of open government. Alongside the US, which is has made great strides in this area, Australia, too, has caught the transparency bug. So what about Blighty?

There have been various murmurings from the UK government about openness without much substance – except for the recent announcement that Ordnance Survey data would finally be released. Now we have the “Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government” plan that includes further moves in this area as part of a larger government transformation.

As the Action Plan puts it:

This plan delivers better public services for lower cost. It outlines how the Government will improve public service outcomes while achieving the fiscal consolidation that is vital to helping the economy grow. The plan has three central actions: to drive up standards by strengthening the role of citizens and civic society; to free up public services by recasting the relationship between the centre and the frontline; and to streamline the centre of government, saving money through sharper delivery.

Improving IT is a key part of this, as well it should be. News that the elephantine NHS National Programme for IT, price tag a mere £12.7 billion, is likely to be scrapped is long overdue: it was doomed from the start, and represents all that is worst in public IT procurement. But there's a huge amount of flab that could be cut elsewhere from government spending. The current plan notes:

The public sector spends about £18 billion a year on back office operations - including HR, finance and estates management - all of which are important enablers of high-quality frontline services. There are, however, significant variations in the amount of money that different organisations spend on similar tasks, and considerable savings could be achieved simply by moving everyone up to the standard of the best.

Disappointingly, the words “open source” aren't mentioned in this section at all, so it looks as if this represents yet more mouthing of platitudes about savings without really undertaking anything truly radical, which is what is desperately needed.

Against that background, perhaps the most innovative part of the document concerns opening up government data. Here are the “government data principles”:

'Public data' are 'government-held non-personal data that are collected or generated in the course of public service delivery'.

Our public data principles state that:

Public data will be published in reusable, machine-readable form

Public data will be available and easy to find through a single easy to use online access point (http://www.data.gov.uk/)

Public data will be published using open standards and following the recommendations of the World Wide Web Consortium

Any 'raw' dataset will be represented in linked data form

More public data will be released under an open licence which enables free reuse, including commercial reuse

Data underlying the Government's own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use

Personal, classified, commercially sensitive and third-party data will continue to be protected.

To enable this innovation, government must unlock much more data. These data have to be usable: the Power of Information Taskforce Report concluded that even where government data are currently available it can be hard to find, published in non-reusable formats or subject to licences which prevent access and reuse.

The plan then goes on to list concrete actions in this area:

Releasing health data such as the NHS Choices data

Consulting on making Ordnance Survey mapping and postcode datasets available for free reuse from April 2010

Increasing access to and reuse of public transport data29 including the National Public Transport Access Node database, with information available to the development community by April 2010, providing live incident warnings and traffic camera images to GoogleMaps and increasing the number of GPS-enabled buses to cover 80% of journeys by 2015

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