6 A strategic approach to open data?|
Government plans for open data
120. Some of our witnesses were encouraged by progress
on Government open data. The ODI for instance said that "the
UK has a justifiable reputation as a world leader in open data."
ODUG noted with approval the number of datasets that are now available
on data.gov.uk, calling them "positive results."
121. But what of the future? In October 2013 the
Government published a National Action Plan on Open Government
which included actions intended to promote further progress on
open data. Among
the main open data elements of the Plan were:
· moves to improve data quality standards
in healthcare to, among other things, help comparisons between
healthcare providers, "to support engagement in the design
and quality of healthcare";
· publication of a revised Local Authorities
Data Transparency Code, requiring local authorities to publish
key information and data;
· the creation of "a comprehensive,
accessible and timely paper and digital record of UK government
available to the citizen."
122. At the same time the Government published the
first iteration of a National Information Infrastructure, setting
out "the datasets which are likely to have the broadest and
most significant economic and social impact if made available".
The ODI concluded that this represented "a reasonable first
attempt" at creating such a structure.
123. Several witnesses felt that recent documents
had failed to set out a convincing strategy for open data. While
recognising that the Cabinet Office Open Data White paper and
the subsequent Shakespeare Review made "cogent and compelling
cases for Open Data", ODUG concluded that "neither can
be regarded as a strategy."
In particular, the release of government data sets had not been
carried out "according to any discernible strategic framework."
The Group concluded that "In order for the country to gain
the maximum utility and economic advantage from Open Data a more
strategic response is needed."
124. There are many things to consider. The UK Data
Service, a resource for social science researchers, indicated
that a strategy was needed to "deal with some of the [...]
more complex requirements about providing access to data."
the UKDS believed that the strategy was required "to ensure
that the best use is made of the data which are provided",
calling for "reasonable and pragmatic solutions" so
that released data are "as fine-grained as possible and that
the rights of persons or businesses who may be included within
the data are guaranteed."
125. The ODI believed that the National Information
Infrastructure as published in October 2013 was "too broad
and too rooted in the status-quo, rather than based on an assessment
of what's now needed."
They saw a risk that the focus was "too diffuse", and
called for "a more thorough analysis" of what a National
Information Infrastructure needs to contain. The ODI describe
the UK's National Action Plan as "a collection of loosely
related initiatives and commitments," each individually "laudable",
especially the use of legislation to provide a guaranteed supply
of local government data.
However, ODI said that, as a set of commitments, the National
Action Plan "does not come together to give the UK the truly
coherent Open Data Strategy the country needs."
Taking tough decisions on open
126. The ODI attempted to trace some of the complexities
of the road ahead for open data. The country, it told us, "has
attained its leading position by doing several relatively easy
things for Government. The challenge is now to start to do some
of the harder things".
These included publishing currently closed data as open data,
increasing the quality of publication of important datasets and
investing in training civil servants "to support that publication
and to understand how to use open data for policy benefit".
127. One fundamental problem, a lack of clear strategic
focus, was summarised by Professor Helen Margetts, Director of
the Oxford Internet Institute, who said that
'Open data' is an interesting term and it gets
many terms bundled into it. In some ways, open data is a bit like
the little white bunny of government. It means something nice,
warm and good that will aid democracy. It is a confused term,
though, because it implies that it is just opening data up for
128. We heard a number of suggestions aimed at giving
greater focus and impetus to the Government's open data work.
The ODI for example set out the key elements it would look for
in a coherent open data strategy, which would:
· cover open data as part of a wider strategy
on sharing and using data
· ensure that government collects the data
that it and wider society needs
· develop business models that can support
the publication of open data
· commit the Government Digital Service
(GDS) to develop a world-class data publishing platform for the
public sector to use, as part of GOV.UK
· ensure that government itself benefits
from open data publication, by equipping civil servants with the
skills they need to make best use of available open data
· reach beyond the government's own publication
of data, including embedding open data into government's procurement
process, to encourage a growing capability around the use of open
data within the UK.
Who is responsible for making
the Government's open data plans work?
129. We sought throughout this inquiry to understand
who in Government was responsible for progress on open data. Mr
Hurd told us that "under the leadership of the Prime Minister
and with the rigour of the leadership shown by the Minister for
the Cabinet Office, what we are trying to establishand
I think we have succeededis an open-by-default culture".
130. Stephan Shakespeare welcomed what he called
the "good understanding [of open data] across Government"
and an "obvious palpable desire to do the right things."
He said "You do not come across any significant defensiveness
or obstruction to try to stop this agenda."
131. However, ODUG were among those who felt that
overall direction was lacking, telling us that the mechanisms
available to hold departments and other public sector bodies to
account for progress on open data were "weak, hampered by
a disparate legislative framework with responsibilities spread
across multiple bodies and the pace of delivery is relatively
Taylor of FlyingBinary believed that "the delivery of this
[open data] agenda is still dependent on Cabinet Office being
adequately supported by both the Department for Business Innovation
and Skills and HM Treasury."
132. On the same topic, Tom Steinberg suggested that
there was a lack of support within Government for the principle
of open data: "the enthusiasm that has been shown has come
from a pretty small part of the Governmentbasically one
or two Ministers" with "resistance from all the other
This had meant that there had been little or no "meaningful
legislative change" on the open data front.
133. Owen Boswarva said that there was "a disconnect
between the Cabinet Office's rhetoric on open data and practical
implementation by key delivery departments."
As an example, he cited the Ministry of Justice as having "successfully
fought off European proposals to strengthen the PSI [Public Sector
Mr Boswarva also told us that BIS had so far protected most of
the "crown jewels" of public data from open data release.
134. According to a number of our witnesses, the
influence of the Treasury could be seen behind some of the Whitehall
reluctance to embrace open data and its potential to disrupt established
markets and build new economic opportunities. Sir Nigel Shadbolt
told us that
the Treasury has, in the past, simply not been
convinced or persuaded or had enough instruction in the fact that
this is a new opportunity. I do not think they get much of the
opportunity of the digitally disruptive economic abundances that
can flow from data.
Dr Pollock agreed, referring to the Treasury as "a
135. As well as the Ministers and their officials,
there are a number of public bodies, some created recently to
help the Government to promote open data or act as consultative
forums. Asked which body is responsible for increasing access
to public sector information, Stephan Shakespeare told us:
There is no single body that does that. We did
have the Data Strategy Board that was sort of doing some of that
and looking at it from the accountability side but much more the
economic casethe business case. We have lots of people
across Government all committed to the agenda and adding to it
really well, but we do not have one author, one body, that is
driving this in a joined-up way.
136. Heather Savory listed the bodies which have
some responsibility for open data:
you have the Cabinet Office Public Sector Transparency
Board and you have BIS, with information economy, growth and the
Public Data Group, which is the four trading funds. Then you have
the MOJ and National Archives, which are doing all the legislative
side, and then you have the Information Commissioner's Office.
She asked rhetorically "Do they work together?
Yes. Do they work together well? Most of the time."
Stephan Shakespeare called for "a single authority"
to ensure that open data becomes a reality more quickly.
137. The Information Commissioner's Office drew
an interesting parallel between the performance of public services
in relation to the open data agenda and the experience of the
Office with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), suggesting
that interest in open data might soon fade:
The Commissioner has previously monitored FOIA
publication scheme compliance across the public sector. He recognises
the trend of early, enthusiastic work on publication which then
starts to slip back. This often happens when job responsibilities
are not passed on or re-assigned from an early champion of openness.
138. There is much to be gained
from open data, but the Government's direction of travel is not
clear. The ODI has set out some important elements of a more considered
and coherent approach, and it is a foundation for the Government
to use as the basis for further work towards a strategy. The National
Action Plan provides little incentive for the wider public to
get involved in open data.
139. There has been a lack of coordination
on open data at Ministerial and official level, though this is
improving. No clearer indication of the lack of strategy on open
data is required than the inconsistency of the decision to sell
the Postcode Address File with the Royal Mail. The Cabinet Office
leads on the policy, but its mechanisms to hold Departments to
account are weak. The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail demonstrates
that important Departments such as the Treasury and BIS do not
appreciate the value of open data. Despite the enthusiastic rhetoric
emanating from the Cabinet Office, our evidence indeed indicated
something more serious - a lack of understanding of open data
among most Ministers and apparently most officials.
140. The Information Commissioner
described how the public sector's commitment to the Freedom of
Information Act slackened over time. Under present arrangements,
it is all too possible to foresee a repeat of this experience
in the case of open data, with the issue slipping gradually down
the list of public sector priorities as apparently more pressing
matters come to the fore. The stakes on open data are arguably
higher than those on freedom of information, and the UK has great
opportunities if it gets it right - but Government needs to take
a determined lead or the opportunities will slip away.
141. There is an unwieldy plethora
of open data bodies which tends to slow both decision-making and
consultation. The structure of the government web sites also make
it very difficult to see what government policy is towards open
data, and to identify the progress being made
142. To overcome departmental apathy and resistance,
open data needs to be treated as a major government programme
in its own right, which will only bring substantial benefits if
it is subject to active leadership and management by Ministers
and officials. The Minister for the Cabinet Office should be given
explicit responsibility for all aspects of open data policy, including
the commercial aspects. We believe that Civil Service accountability
for progress needs to be much clearer, and that the Cabinet Secretary
should be given the overall responsibility for pushing open data
through Whitehall and beyond. A single Senior Responsible Owner
should be appointed at Deputy Secretary level in the Cabinet Office,
to be directly and personally responsible for delivering the benefits
of the open data strategy. The Public Sector Transparency Board is
too large to be effective in driving progress. A small group from
that Board should work as a Programme Implementation Board.
143. The Government should, by the end of June
2014, submit to the Committee a detailed report on progress on
the actions related to open data. This should include a list of
all plans and actions from recent relevant documents, reports
and committees on open data, including but not limited to the
Open Government Partnership Action Plan and the National Information
Infrastructure. The Cabinet Office should report to Parliament
at least every six months on progress made with a consolidated
list of actions.
144. Today there
are unparalleled opportunities to harvest unused knowledge that
otherwise goes to waste, which can be used to empower citizens,
to improve public services and to benefit the economy and society
as a whole.
166 Open Data Institute (OD 09) Back
Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 9.1 Back
Cabinet Office, Open Government Partnership UK National Action Plan 2013 to 2015, October
2013,pages 11-17 Back
As above Back
Cabinet Office, National Information Infrastructure, October 2013
p 3 Back
Open Data Institute (OD 25) para 3 Back
Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 2.9 Back
As above Back
As above para 2.10 Back
UK Data Service (OD 08) para 9 Back
As above para 10 Back
Open Data Institute (OD 25) para 4 Back
As above para 7 Back
As above Back
As above Back
As above para 9 Back
Open Data Institute (OD 09) para 7 Back
Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 9.1 Back
FlyingBinary Ltd (OD 18) para 3 Back
Owen Boswarva (OD 06) para 17 Back
As above Back
Information Commissioner's Office (OD 12) para 29 Back