The Minister for Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, launched the development of the UK’s new Open Government Partnership National Action Plan:
Thank you for that introduction Simon [Burall, Involve]. You’ve been a leading voice for democratic reform and I know you’ve worked in some tough environments across the world.
Your job would have been particularly tough if you’d been around 300 years ago.
Until the late 18th century it was illegal to report on Parliamentary proceedings. The lobby correspondents of the day – such as a young Samuel Johnson – had to hide in a corner, furtively jotting down notes, then style their accounts as reports from the senate of a fictional country.
Speeches were often misremembered, or heavily embellished. If you were too accurate you could go to prison. So the public only had a vague and shadowy sense of what was being said in their name.
Parliament’s decision in 1771 to stop prosecuting political publishers was an early exercise in open government. The date is no accident. The big idea of the Enlightenment was that no idea was above scrutiny. In politics and science truth was no longer an appeal to authority, but to evidence.
We have inherited that commitment to ever more open and accountable government. And we live in a world transformed by science and technology, above all by the digital revolution.
Both are mutually reinforcing. By cutting the cost of information, digital means we can be more open than ever before.
But it’s not just that we can be, it’s also that we must. All around us, power is being distributed outwards along fibre optic cables.
Got a laptop and a great idea? You can start a business from your kitchen table, crowdsource the finance and sell your product direct to the public.
Visited a restaurant where the wine and the soup were the same temperature? Get onto TripAdvisor and make your feelings known.
It’s not just about letting off steam, accountability improves incentives: businesses have to up their game.
And any digital network depends for its success on openness and participation. Think of an iPhone that could only download Apple’s own proprietary apps. A global app market worth $25 billion would have been dead in the water.
The internet itself began life as a closed system, because the US military needed a decentralised communications network that could withstand nuclear attack. Its full potential was only realised when the protocols were handed over to industry and academia.
So openness is what makes modernity work, there is no alternative route to a better future. People are already travelling this path. Our job is to pave it. And our Open Government Partnership (OGP) national action plan is the roadmap.
We’ve already made impressive progress: on open data, anti-corruption, fiscal transparency and open policy making. And here I want to thank Paul [Maltby] and the transparency team at the Cabinet Office for everything you’ve done to make these principles a reality.
I also want to thank the [UK Open Government] Civil Society Network: both for supporting us and for challenging us to go further.
Today we can credibly claim to be one of the most transparent governments in the world. But that was probably true in 1771, it didn’t mean there wasn’t much more to do.
The OGP process should be a race to the top and I want the UK to continue to break new ground.
That starts with today’s event. Our next national action plan must itself be an exercise in open government: collaborative in design, transparent in process.
So today I want to set my vision for open government, which I hope you will work with me to deliver. It has 3 parts: open data, the open source nature of this agenda, and open policy making.
Let me take data first.
There is no doubt it’s sharpened accountability. If the taxpayer can see where their money is going there’s a much stronger incentive to spend it wisely.
When Whitehall departments started to publish travel data, we found that senior officials became more inclined to book themselves into economy class.
Windsor and Maidenhead Council publish real-time data on energy use in public buildings. It’s helped them cut their energy bills by 16%.
And the bigger the spend, the greater the need for transparency. Without it governments bury their heads in the sand. Before 2010 two thirds of major projects ran over time and over budget. It’s why we now require government departments to publish data on all their major projects: £489 billion worth of spending.
It might make for a few uncomfortable headlines, but it also means problems can be flagged early and corrective action taken.
Of course, we must protect a safe space in which frank and candid advice can be given to ministers, while making sure we publish more about our performance.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that the need to account for spending is only mechanism driving change. Openness is more dynamic than that.
Better management information
It also leads to better management information.
In the last Parliament we pulled up the blinds on government data, quite deliberately focusing on volume. There are now over 20,000 datasets and counting on data.gov.uk.
And if I’m honest there was some resistance to digital Glasnost.
The government machine is programmed to ask “what’s the evidence base, what’s the justification for doing this?” But because we hadn’t done this before there wasn’t an evidence base.
Yet what we’ve found is that by putting the information out there – and crucially by making it usable – we ourselves have become more sophisticated consumers of data.
So not only are we more accountable, we’re also better informed. Rather than pulling a lever in Whitehall and hoping for the best, open data is allowing us to take truly evidence-based decisions. It’s what I’ve described as a fundamental shift from a target culture to data culture.
To see what I mean, take the example of London Fire Brigade. We’ve worked with them to develop a tool, allowing them view emergency response times and fire incidents per ward. It means they’re now much better placed to know where to focus resources.
Or take Trafford Council, who wanted to know where they should put defibrillators. By mapping ambulance request data against openly available demographic and health indicators, they’ve been able to pick the best possible locations.
A more informed public
But this effect reaches beyond government, it’s like a ripple in a pond. It’s not just that we’re better informed, the public is too, and this is driving up standards in public services.
When the Society of Cardiothoracic Surgery started publishing the outcomes of heart operations by surgeon, deaths on the operating table fell by a fifth. We’re now rolling out this approach across the NHS.
And as an MP, I’ve sat in meetings at schools where the governors have pulled up the performance data for local schools, said how proud they are to be in the top half but told me they must get better. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that open government needs to drive.
The data economy
But the ripple reaches further still, it’s also helping grow the UK’s data economy. Thousands of start-ups are finding new and innovative uses for government data.
Take GeoLytix, a consultancy that uses location-based data from public bodies like TfL and Land Registry to help retailers forecast where to open new outlets.
Others are converting open data into useful insights that can be fed back into government.
In 2012 for example, a small analytics company identified £200 million of NHS savings by analysing prescription data, pinpointing where GPs were prescribing branded statins instead of cheaper generic alternatives.
We should remember that it’s not free; the taxpayer still has to bear the cost of collecting it. But the special property of data is that it’s infinitely replicable at tiny cost, so the benefits can be magnified many times over.
There’s still much more to do. Much high-value data has yet to be released, and what’s out there already needs to be made more usable.
But open government is more than just open data. And this brings me onto open source aspect of our work. This is an international agenda and we need to make it as easy as possible to share best practice and replicate success.
Open government needs to go viral.
In particular, we need more international co-operation on transparency. We’ve already taken a global leadership position on fighting corruption. And you’ll hear more about this later from Sir Eric Pickles, in his first speech as our Anti-Corruption Champion.
We’re publishing information on official development assistance, we’re championing a global standard on financial transparency within the extractive industries, and we’ve committed to establishing a central register of company beneficial ownership: this will be a comprehensive source of information about who ultimately owns and controls UK companies. Crucially, it will be publicly searchable.
But the nature of a network is that is that its value increases as more people join. An internet connection isn’t much use if it’s 1985 and no-one else is online.
Equally, measures like a register of beneficial ownership will only work if other countries follow our lead. By connecting us with like-minded governments, the OGP provides the international architecture to do this effectively.
Already, G20 governments are talking about how open data can help fight corruption.
Members of the OGP Open Data Working Group are now collaborating on an international charter which I want to see more governments adopt, so that data can be compared across borders.
Over the next few months we must strengthen these ties. That’s why I am asking my team to pursue joint commitments with other OGP members. By passing the baton from one country to the next, we will all reach the finish line quicker.
And as well as driving this agenda beyond our borders, we also need to embed it here at home.
We are about to devolve unprecedented powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and cities in England. From Scotland’s work on collaborative government, to Manchester LEP’s use of open data, these settlements are an historic opportunity to learn from each other and spread the principles of open government across the UK.
Wiki policy making
But open government isn’t just about government, it’s also about people. And this leads me onto open policy making.
We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of citizen involvement. Government is still largely something that is done to people, rather than with them. The open government agenda is a chance to recast that relationship.
We still have an Encyclopaedia Britannica approach to government. Too much policy making is still done by well-intentioned people in Whitehall sitting in a room, thinking very hard about how to solve a problem. It’s expensive, cumbersome, dates quickly and the citizen is a bystander.
We need to move to a Wikipedia world. That means more collaboration on policy design, recognising that knowledge and evidence is widely dispersed throughout society not locked away in Whitehall.
Sometimes it’s about mobilising the expertise which exists outside government. Take our Red Tape Challenge, which crowd sources ideas from employers on which regulations could be scrapped or improved. To date it’s saved businesses nearly a £1 billion.
But there’s huge potential to involve the wider public in more policy decisions. This is already starting to happen.
DCLG’s neighbourhood planning gives communities the power to shape the development of their local area. It gives them a say on where new homes will be built, what the buildings should look like, and what new infrastructure needs to be provided. Once a plan has been agreed in a local referendum, the policies it sets out are used to determine planning applications.
Over 1500 communities across England have embarked on using these new powers, 300 of them have published draft plans and 75 referendums have been held – all successful. And today I’m pleased to announce that we’ve nominated neighbourhood planning for the OGP Open Government Awards.
Transparency is most effective when it drives participation. Not just looking in, but taking part.
In the late 18th century, legal parliamentary reporting didn’t end the clamour for reform. Once the public could read what MPs were actually saying they wanted to the join the debate.
Today they can lead it – if we’re open on the data, collaborative in design and responsive to citizen feedback. Open government means accepting that we don’t have all the answers, but you can put data and power in the hands of people who might.
So let me end with the vitality of this event. The government is proud of its record of transparency and committed to the open process of constructing our open government national action plan.
I hope we can work together to deliver it. Because this is a chance to change the way we do government. To build a Britain where the citizen is an editor as well as a reader, where we use data not dogma to make decisions, and where a free society, free markets and the free flow of information all combine to drive our success in the 21st century.