By George, Have They Finally Got It? (Er, No...)
Published 12:20, 17 May 11
A recurrent theme in this blog is the UK government's slow slouch towards the Bethlehem of openness.
On the open source front, the journey has been frankly shameful, with continued promises of more open source being used within government, and those promises continually broken. Open data, by contrast, seems to be faring better.
Here's the latest - and surprising - convert:
Our ambition is to become the world leader in open data, and accelerate the accountability revolution that the internet age has unleashed.
Because let’s be clear, the benefits are immense.
Not just in terms of spotting waste and driving down costs, although that consequence of spending transparency is already being felt across the public sector.
No, if anything, the social and economic benefits of open data are even greater.
I genuinely believe that in almost all areas of government, we do a better job when we open up policy making and open ourselves up to the ideas of the crowd.
A few years back, who would have expected a Conservative politician to suggest “open[ing] ourselves up to the ideas of the crowd”? And this is not just any Conservative politician, this is George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and keeper of the nation's piggy-bank. If anyone was going to resist the siren call of openness, it would be him, worried about the cost of all that opening up - and of revenues forgone.
So his speech at Google Zeitgeist yesterday really was all about, er, the Zeitgeist: openness as an idea whose time has come.
Now, this does not mean that I am naïve enough to take believe that the UK government is suddenly going to throw everything open, or even that it will make good on its many promises to open up. But the momentum is certainly undeniable and maybe even unstoppable. Take this further section in Osborne's speech:
Instead of simply relying on government hierarchies to decide which regulations should be reformed or abolished, we’ve opened up the process to the wisdom of the crowd.
We call it the Red Tape Challenge, and here’s how it works:
We’re publishing, sector by sector, almost every piece of regulation on the books so that business and the public can feed in comments.
What works, what doesn’t, what should be scrapped, how things could be simplified or done with less regulation.
Every single suggestion is looked at - and if any sensible proposals are rejected, Ministers will have to explain why.
In other words, we’ve turned the default on its head.
Instead of government deciding whether or not to listen to the public, we’re forcing it to listen.
We want to remain at the cutting edge of open source policy making.
So I’m pleased to be able to tell you that we have just recruited Beth Noveck, who used to work at the White House running President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, to help us take this agenda forward.
It has become pretty clear that one of the key reasons open data and open government is happening at all is because of the committed championing of the ideas by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Noveck may not be quite in the same class (few people are), but she's definitely a heavyweight, and bringing her in will make it much harder to resist calls to open things up further.
Finally, Osborne referred to another interesting move:
And we’re creating a single government website - you can find the prototype at www.alpha.gov.uk - that will enable us to redesign government services from the bottom up and put the user in charge.
That prototype has a strikingly sparse look to it, quite a contrast to traditional governmental info overload. If anything, I think perhaps it has gone slightly too far in that direction, and the content looks a little lonely on the pages. Needless to say, the site's designers are hungry for all and every kind of feedback (through the “tell us what you think” link in the top right-hand corner of each page), so do take a look and let them know your views.
The Alpha.gov.uk team blog has the following interesting background to the project:
Alpha.gov.uk is a prototype, built in response to some of the challenges laid down in Martha’s report. It has two overarching objectives:
To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
To design & build a UK Government website using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by an obsession with meeting user needs.
The prototype, or ‘alpha’, in geek-speak, is far from complete. Indeed, it isn’t necessarily accurate or up to date - it is not intended to be an instant replacement for existing gov.uk sites. Nor does it improve the quality of government’s online transactions - others are working hard to make these easier to use.
What Alpha.gov.uk does do is trial a selection of new, simple, reusable tools aimed at meeting some of the most prevalent needs people have from government online. The aim is to gather feedback on these new approaches from real people early in the process of building a new single website for central government.
The really good news is that:
The prototype will also test a new information architecture (IA) and a new open source-powered technology platform.
All-in-all, then, this whole project is distinctly encouraging. Let's hope that this time the UK government lives up to all its promises about openness, both for open data and open source. If it doesn't, then by George there will be some mightily cheesed-off geeks...
Update Well, that didn't take long for my hopes to be crushed. Here's a very pessimistic view about what is likely to happen to the UK government's definition of open standards - whose precise phrasing is a key factor in determining open source uptake:
As we said the PPN [procurement policy note] required open standards only "wherever possible". Not only does that include "never" but even if it were possible to use an open standard there was no indication what would happen if a government body chose not to.
Now, on "Friday the 13th" (there's a joke there somewhere) only four months later, we learnt that, really, the PPN was nothing at all: a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the open standards policy was "not set in stone".
The reason for this U-turn seems to be Cabinet Office pusillanimity in the face of a few braying dinosaurs (can dinosaurs bray?) in the shape of outdated and sclerotic European standards bodies. Time to junk them completely, methinks...