Submission to the Communities and Local Government Committee Review of the Recommendations 10th Report of Session 2001-02 (HC481)

 

I welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee review of the impact of the recommendations made in the House of Commons Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee published on the 22nd June 2002.

 

I have taken an interest as an Information Systems practitioner and as an academic in the issue of geographic information and public policy since 1986. During the period 2005 - 2006 I interviewed 60 people with interest in geographic information policy including: civil servants, executive agency staff, local authority staff and people from the private sector. This also included a majority of the GI Panel members and the views of other stakeholders about this Panel. I am currently an academic observer on the review of the Public Sector Information (PSI) Directive implemented to create a level playing field in the re-use of PSI. .

 

I have responded below to the review under the four topic headings proposed.

1. The distinction between Ordnance Survey's public interest and commercial operations:

 

The Government in its response to the select committee's recommendations stated its policy for Ordnance Survey: 'its primary focus is on the collection, maintenance, marketing and licensing of appropriate national geospatial datasets that underpin policy, planning and operations across the complete range of public and private sector activities .... [It would] introduce new geographical information and mapping-related products to meet essential national requirements or changing customer needs' (ODPM, 2002). .

 

There is no clear definition of the public versus private task and Ordnance Survey is responsible for determining which products, their specification and their terms of exchange. It must make a return to the Treasury. Set up to operate as a public sector commercial enterprise there has been confusion within and around government between what Ordnance Survey's role is as regards its public task and its role to provide a financial return to the Treasury. There needs to be clarification regarding this as the lack of clarity has a significant impact both on the development of information sharing for e-government and on the geographic information market in the UK.

 

It also may impact on the development of common policies within European Union with a possible consequence for the development of cross-border environmental datasets under the INSPIRE Directive and for the meeting of the Lisbon objectives to develop the European Union as a leading knowledge economy by developing a market in public sector information. Its requirement to make a financial return led Ordnance Survey to lobby for amendments to EU policies that enable its own survival as a Trading Fund. Whilst it is entitled to do so, and UK policy is to cost recover, the lobbying has been questioned by stakeholders within the public and private sectors.

 

There are alternative models. Some countries have legally separated the public task from the commercial task. Others do not commercially exploit public sector information.

 

E-government

Geographic information has long been recognised by members of the Association of Geographic Information (AGI) as essential to information sharing for both service planning and service delivery. In 2004, the e-government unit recognised its significance, and carried out a survey on geographic information use - promising an analysis and recommendations. However, the published survey report contained neither (Cabinet Office , 2005b). In response to an enquiry regarding the role of the Ordnance Survey in changing the content of the report, the Cabinet Office replied that Ordnance Survey is part of government advising colleagues where it has expertise. However, the changes to the report raise a question regarding the implications for e-government of Ordnance Survey's advisory role when it is also a trading organisation.

In 2005, the e-government unit published its e-government strategy aimed at making government 'transformational' by moving to a shared services culture. Identifying the need to resolve costly delivery failures it recognised the importance of information management and the 'crucial' role of geographic information within this. However, rather than address this, it promised a geographic information strategy developed by the GI Panel (Cabinet Office, 2005). The role and independence of the Panel is discussed in response 3).

In response to the e-government strategy consultation it is notable that the Ordnance Survey urged that intellectual property should be protected so as to realise the benefits of a shared services culture which 'requires the unimpeded flow of information between organisations' (Shiell, 2006). The AGI drew an opposite conclusion identifying intellectual property rights as one of the 'biggest constraints' to data sharing (AGI, 2006)). An example, of the constraints of IPR can be seen in the conflict over the licensing of use of Ordnance Survey data in the local government address dataset.

 

The address dataset

In the early 1990s local government began to develop a robust, low-cost spatial address dataset to a British Standard. Although involved with this project, Ordnance Survey entered the market to develop a product based on the postal address file (which itself originates from local authority data). It was able to enter this commercial market because the government placed no boundaries on Ordnance Survey's remit.

When Intelligent Addressing created the local government address product it utilised the Ordnance Survey dataset as a source. In doing this it became responsible for payment of a licence fee. However, in attempting to licence the local government address dataset Intelligent Addressing has complained of restrictive licensing practices by Ordnance Survey. A complaint upheld by OPSI (Office of Public Sector Information, 2006). A recent ruling by the appeal body APPSI, contrary to the agreement of both parties in the dispute that the address dataset is a pubic sector task, has determined that the Ordnance Survey address dataset has been developed outside of the public task and is therefore not subject to the PSI regulations.

The issues around the address dataset are particularly significant because this dataset did not derive from Ordnance Survey's original role in mapping. It was a new market and in electing to go into this market it went into competition with local government who had identified that for its own requirements (and those of government) a dataset based on PAF would be insufficiently robust. The decision therefore created a conflict between two public sector bodies that has had implications for e-government service delivery and for the private sector. Depending on the final outcome, there are potentially significant costs for users in re-designing databases (Drew Smith et al. 2004). However, government is not seeking to resolve the issue - leaving it for the market to resolve despite the potential cost to the public sector (GI panel website).

 

2. The National Interest Mapping Service Agreement (NIMSA):

The decision not to renew the NIMSA with Ordnance Survey is appropriate. It was conceptualised in the 1990s as a means for supporting Ordnance Survey in its public task where activities were considered uneconomic, but the implications of cross-subsidy for the development of a geographic information market can not be ignored. For example, NIMSA was used to fund rural addressing whilst Ordnance Survey's competitor in the production of a national spatial address dataset has not received funding. This is particularly ironic, if indeed, the Ordnance Survey dataset was developed outside of the pubic task. Specific national interest mapping services can be more appropriately obtained through a public procurement process.

 

 

3. The role of the Geographic Information (GI) Panel

The select committee recognised a contradiction in Ordnance Survey's role as both provider and GI adviser in its proposal for a GI Panel. Stage 2 of the quinquennial review reinforced this:

'It [Ordnance Survey] cannot reasonably be expected to offer impartial advice on issues affecting its own future role or commercial interests'. (National Economic Research Associates, 2002).

The consultants proposed a fully independent body to advise government on geographic information issues and identified that Ordnance Survey itself was developing commercially but in a national policy vacuum. A conclusion I had also reached (Pollard, 1997).

The government accepted the select committee's recommendation, but, the implementation of this has been disappointing. In particular, attention has been drawn to the failure to set the panel up as an independent public body whose membership selection is supervised by the Cabinet Office.

By not setting it up as public body, the ODPM was able to select the Chair rather than the Chair being selected by the Panel. A civil servant has indicated that the Director General had a strong view that as GI adviser to government she should be chair. However, as one government member of the Panel said:

 

'If I was chief executive of the Ordnance Survey I would expect to be chair ... But given the reality and the politics and the commercial pressures on Ordnance Survey there is a contradiction there and a suspicion which is going to get in the way.'

A non-government member of the Panel identified the conflict of interest that arises from the contradiction between the public and commercial task:

'I think one of the difficulties that all of these government departments that are also Trading Funds have, is that they have to wear 'two hats' all the time'

Another senior civil servant commenting on Ordnance Survey lobbying on European policies asked:

'How can the Ordnance Survey lead the geographic information issues when there is a conflict of interest between its public sector role and its commercial role?'

Attention has also been drawn to the composition of the Panel. Whilst it was promised the Panel would be a broad representation of key interests groups, 9 of the 13 members are public servants - mostly with responsibility as data providers rather than as data users. There is again a concern about the role the Ordnance Survey plays in panel selection; and one civil servant acknowledged that the minister would 'wish to consult with the Chair of the Panel on any question of membership'. A non-governmental Panel member identified the implications of this:

'It could be perceived to be an Ordnance Survey based committee. To be driven by Ordnance Survey... Therefore it may appear to an outsider to be constrained in its view of the economic benefits to the nation'.

Members of the Panel recognise the role of geographic information in sharing information for e-government service delivery and have focused on the development of a geographic information strategy. However, others doubt that such a top-down approach to strategy will be effective (AGI, 2006).

It is to be noted that Panel is not able to manage controversial issues. On the EU INSPIRE Directive the GI Panel minutes recorded only that they would be unlikely to reach agreement. When the collapse of the National Spatial Address Infrastructure occurred it was suggested the Panel could hold an enquiry but it chose not to do so - although it had not heard views from local government or the private sector (GI Panel minutes).

It is uncertain what the Panel can achieve. As one government panel member reflecting on the power invested in the Panel said:

'It is advisory. Unless a senior policy department takes on at a senior level responsibility for geographic information then it will remain as a technology "looking for air time'

Other stakeholders express similar concerns:

'People are expecting a lot of it but it has no clear remit. No resources. It only meets quarterly. Who are the members - are they individuals or representatives of particular sectors? What's its status in ODPM...What is required is leadership.'

The question of how to develop a national geographic information policy was addressed by the House of Lords Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Chorley in 1987(Chorley, 1987). This committee was concerned that the data suppliers might stifle innovation and it sought to ensure that the user view be bought into focus. It proposed a funded national centre responsible for developing national geographic information strategy independent of the Ordnance Survey. The government determined a national centre wasteful.

The public sector reforms that led to the creation of executive agencies, like the Ordnance Survey, are premised on an administrative concept of a purchaser-provider split in which the provider is held at arms-length from government and policy making is the responsibility of the purchaser. It would be more appropriate in a market model if this division were strictly enforced in the case of Ordnance Survey.

 

4, Ordnance Survey's competitive position in the geographical information marketplace:

 

The case for the Treasury's cost recovery model has not been established. In 2000, the EU member states agreed to build Europe as a knowledge economy and the European Commission promoted a Directive for charging for PSI at the cost of dissemination as beneficial for economic growth. Research, comparing the PSI market in the EU with the market in the USA, provided support for this view (Pira International , 2000).

 

Responding, the UK Treasury acknowledged that Trading Funds, like Ordnance Survey, hold a dominant market position. They could charge high prices to a low volume captive primary market thereby meet their costs without widening PSI use. The Treasury retained Trading Funds but identified the need for further research to consider the economic issues around charging for the economy as a whole.

This need for a review of the economics of information pricing was reiterated in 2006 by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in its market study on The Commercial Use of Public Sector Information. It drew attention to the need for joined up policies which considered the conflicting aims of e-government for wider use of PSI and the use of targets for income generation(Office of Fair Trading, 2005).

In the meanwhile, the Ordnance Survey continues to hold a dominant market position and there remains little market choice for its primary customers. Ordnance Survey contributes a substantial sum to the Treasury, but, a significant percentage of its revenue comes from its captive public sector customers. There are many hidden costs to public sector customers in the procurement process (particularly for local government where each local authority has to engage in the process) and drawbacks caused by limits to sharing through copyright issues. Customers complain of long procurement documents, costly changes to web services to meet royalty payments and copyright agreements, and restrictions on who may use data.

 

Given the lack of a market in many Ordnance Survey products these costs do not necessarily lead to the benefits to users claimed by government in terms of product pricing and quality. In addition, there are cost implications in lobbying, sales staff, legal services and in the development of regulatory regimes. Any review needs to consider these aspects.

 

Many private sector customers consider the costs of Ordnance Survey products too high. They point out that the products are developed for the public sector and are over specified for their needs. They would purchase the products but not at the prices at which they are made available. I have spoken to private sector customers who have found it cheaper to fund their own planes for aerial photographs rather than pay the full costs of Ordnance Survey products.

 

The OFT market study criticised all the Trading Funds for high pricing, restrictive licensing and inadequate quality but it was particularly critical of Ordnance Survey. It pointed to the nature and seriousness of many of the problems experienced by users and its resistance to regulation. It considered that an information market should operate on a fair, efficient and competitive basis and expressed concern about the lack of government guidance on how to achieve this. The government has failed to meet its statutory requirement to reply to the OFT market study within 90 days.

 

It is worth noting that the OFT market study was carried out after the PSI Directive came into force with an aim of creating a level playing field to enable the wider re-use of PSI. The EU is currently monitoring the impact of the Directive on the information market. It is, however, unlikely that a public sector information market will develop unless there is a change of culture in the member states with more understanding of the importance of the role of information in the knowledge economy. Within UK government it is also hard to envisage a significant change of policy unless the Treasury view is challenged at a political level or a review is carried out that identifies the economic benefits of a different pricing approach. .

 

Summary

In conclusion, there continues to be an urgent need for a review on public sector information policy that is comprehensive in its approach. Such a review needs to develop a 'joined up policy' that resolves conflicts between policies and ensures that the transformational government initiative is not hampered by lack of information sharing capacity. It should ensure that there is a review of the economics of information pricing as promised by the Treasury in 2000. If a market model is to be maintained then the government needs to ensure that there is sufficiently robust regulation and enforcement regime to ensure that there is a level playing field in the use of public sector information so that the private sector can develop information products.

 

 

 

 

Reference List

 

AGI (2006) Response to the cabinet office consultation on transformation government [online] Available from: http://www.agi.org.uk/site/upload/document/news/response_transformational_government.pdf Accessed on: 14th February 2006

Cabinet Office ( 2005) Transformational government: enabled by technology [online] Available from: http://www.cio.gov.uk/documents/pdf/transgov/transgov-strategy.pdf Accessed on: 12th December 2006

Cabinet Office (2005b) Geographic information:an analysis of interoperability and information sharing in the United Kingdom [online] Available from: http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/interoperability/egif_document.asp?docnum=971 Accessed on: 12th January 2006

Chorley, L. (1987) Handling geographic information: report to the secretary of state for the environment of the committee of enquiry into the handling of geographic information London: HMSO

Drew Smith, S., Faulkner, M., and Long, J. (2004) The case for a national address infrastructure [online] Provided by ODPM in response to freedom of information act request (reference P0001573) 12th April 2006 17th December

National Economic Research Associates (2002) Stage 2 of the 2001 / 2002 quinquennial review of ordnance survey [online] London : National Economic Research Associates May Available from: http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

ODPM (2002) The government's response to the transport, local government and regions select committee's tenth report on ordnance survey [online] Available from: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/pub/422/OrdnanceSurveyPDF128Kb_id1128422.pdf Accessed on: 12th January 2006

Office of Fair Trading (2005) Studies - commercial use of public information [online] Available from: http://www.oft.gov.uk/Business/Market+studies/commercial.htm Accessed on: 12th February 2006

Office of Public Sector Information (2006) Office of Public Sector Information report on its investigation of a complaint (SO 42/8/4): Intelligent Addressing and Ordnance Survey [online] Available from: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/advice/psi-regulations/complaints/SO-42-8-4.pdf. Accessed on: 12th February 2007

Pira International (2000) Commercial exploitation of europe's public sector information report by pira international [online] European Commission Available from: http://europa.eu.int/information_society/policy/psi/docs/pdfs/commercial_exploitation/2000_1558_en.pdf Accessed on: 5th January 2006

Pollard, P. (1997) Organisational transformation and the commodification of spatial data: a case study of the national mapping agency of great britain. In: Taylor, J.A., Snellen, I.Th.M. and Zuurmond, A., (Eds.) Beyond BPR in public administration: institutional transformation in an information age, pp.71-87

Shiell, D. (2006) Ordnance Survey response to 'transformational government - enabled by technology' [online] Southampton: Ordnance Survey: Accessed on 14th March 2006. Available from: http://www.cio.gov.uk/documents/consult_responses/Ordnance_Survey.pdf