Open Government!?

September 16, 2013 by gfoss   Comments (0)


 . . . Was actually the name that I coined for the 'open source in government' exhibition stand at the ill fated Guardian's Smartgov Live show in 2011. Now the phrase stands for something much bigger and the Open Government Partnership is conducting a survey to find out what you think about it.

The Open Government Partnership is comprised of government and civil society representatives from around the world. The funding for the group is around $2m per year and comes mainly from governmental sources, but also includes support from charitable foundations, O'Reilly Media, Hewlett Foundation and Google. The group aims to implement world-wide 'Open Government', which seeks to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The 'sudden' emergence of this agenda and international group over the last few years is is not small measure down to our own Francis Maude and his team in the Cabinet Office. I must confess to being broadly supportive of Open Government aims and methods, which align well with the ethos of open source software and open data projects.

Our economy is served by markets and governments. Markets comprise a broad range of constantly changing services ranging in their degree of competitiveness from commoditised to monopolised. Governments, on the other hand, are mainly comprised of monopoly services. The market for the most part tends to provide 'Good' services, as they have a self regulating mechanism for improvement and cost control. However, 'good' monopoly services, rather like flying pigs and hen's teeth, are a very rare blessing. This a shame, because if monopoly services were also self regulating and improving, then we would be saved all of that wasteful time consuming process of choosing. It is much more common to find 'bad' monopoly services which may have started out well formed and intentioned, but which have quickly fallen into a state of poor repute and/or permanent reform.

But the no country, including the UK, can continue operating without a whole gamut of compulsory government services, from tax collection, to environment planning, road building, rail networks, healthcare, refuse collection and recycling and education. So how do monopolistic services self regulate and improve, without competition?

Well there is of course the threat of 'privatisation' or 'outsourcing', which has been around now for nearly 35 years. But with the exception of perhaps telecoms, it has never really successfully addressed some of the perverse incentives generated by outsourcing that allow costs to escalate, transparency to diminish and performance to dissipate. So if outsourcing is falling from favour, what else can deliver self regulating and improving government services?

Maybe 'Open Government' is the answer. When people are compelled to use a service, then if the service is delivered according to Open Government principles, then there should be inbuilt natural checks and balances to ensure that the service provider is obliged to :

  • deliver acceptable performance

  • ensure affordability and accountability to its citizens

  • have a high degree of transparency to support performance improvement and cost reduction.

Open Government promises great social as well as economic benefits. It intends to make visible the unseen hand of incompetence, corruption and misguided ego which are often hidden from view in public service delivery. If there is a mistake, taxpayers shouldn't waste millions on peeling back layers of wooliness to get to the truth. And if there is measurable and unquestionable success, then staff should be appropriately rewarded for the benefit delivered. However, there also serious risks that could stem from the Open Government approach to open data, such as threats to privacy, threats to the commercial exploitation of public service IP, threats to productivity that arise from risk averse behaviour from companies and staff who deliver more transparent operations.

Why not complete the survey to ensure the group gets your views?