By Tim Montgomerie
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Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov Cambridge, Government Transparency Advisor Tim Kelsey and Cameron's chief advisor, Steve Hilton at Magdalen College, Cambridge earlier today. Please note the trainers that he took off before speaking!
Steve Hilton hasn't spoken on a public platform since he became the Prime Minister’s chief advisor but be broke cover this afternoon at the launch event for YouGov Cambridge, a new university-based centre for global opinion polling. He didn't say anything very exciting or revelatory but he offered a comprehensive explanation of the government's transparency agenda to an audience of technologists, academics, diplomats, opinion pollsters and a handful of journalists. He should do this kind of thing more often. I always value my occasional conversations with him but Andy Coulson wasn't keen on him speaking to journalists. He should get out and into these gatherings of opinion-formers more often as part of a bigger effort to increase understanding of what the government is trying to do.
Hilton appeared on a panel with other leading members of what I’d call the Government’s Innovation Wing. There was Rohan Silva, Hilton’s right hand man and the PM’s senior policy advisor; Liam Maxwell, until recently the councilor behind much of Windsor and Maidenhead’s landmark innovations and now a new government advisor on IT projects; and also Tim Kelsey, the former journalist and founder CEO of Dr Foster who now runs the government’s efforts to use transparency to improve public services.
Hilton and the other panelists set out a vision for Britain to become the most open and transparent government in the world. Using Eric Pickles’ phrase, Hilton said he wanted to turn a Britain of “post code lotteries into a world of post code choices”. Citizens, he said, should be given the information to compare the performance of schools and hospitals and then the mechanisms to choose the best ones. Crime data, for example, will drive campaigns to have better policing for neglected or hotspot areas during the new direct elections of police chiefs. They described a world of open data in which negligent doctors be exposed if their performance varied wildly from the norm and a world in which we could compare individual GPs’ prescribing habits and individual judge’s sentencing. Poor contract management would also be exposed. Taxpayers and commercial rivals would be able to see if IT or any other contractors went over budget on projects. A searchlight would be shone on every wasteful government initiative and government wouldn’t be able to hide that initiative by burying the failure under extra cash.
Openness and privacy would go hand-in-hand, they promised, so that we were never able to identify an individual from the publication of their medical or other records. The Innovation Wingers stopped short of embracing the idea that Government should be able to mash together a person’s welfare, health and crime details so that, for example, benefit cheating could be more easily identified and exposed. They didn’t completely rule it out, however.
If the Innovationists ever thought the transparency revolution was going to happen overnight, however, they know differently now. Releasing the data was proving to be the easy part. Finding ways of packaging it in consumer-friendly formats was proving much harder. Some open data had been an immediate success. Millions of people for example had accessed the online crime maps published by policing minister Nick Herbert but even this had not been without difficulty. Some communities have complained that data for their areas has been inaccurate, proving that some police officers have been sloppy in accurately recording crimes. Transparency should, however, gradually improve accuracy of data collection. More significantly, they agreed, was the slow transformation of government data into usable forms. It wasn’t for government to do this. It needed to be done by private actors and Rohan Silva talked about using competitions and learning from the new international alliance of transparent governments to encourage more imaginative packaging of data. He highlighted Cambridge University’s ‘Where does my money go?’ and schooloscope.com as early examples of very good use of government data. Consumer-friendly processing of government data would happen, they agreed, but perhaps not as quickly as they had once hoped. But it would be worth it. Once complete patients, parents and taxpayers would have tools to hold politicians and civil servants to account that they would never want to surrender. Liam Maxwell insisted that transparency was also a big cost saver. Nearly all of the data was already collected but it was currently hidden. Citing examples from Windsor and Maidenhead – including a 25% drop in energy costs after local council offices had energy meters installed and usage published – he said openness was a big driver of lower costs.
I’ll conclude with the words with which Steve Hilton began. He described the Post Bureaucratic Age as the third great modern age. First was the pre-bureaucratic age when decisions were unavoidably decentralised because there was no possibility of local to central communications. In the twentieth century’s bureaucratic age there is mass communications and fast transportation and the centre starts to exercise control over localities. In the post bureaucratic age, in this information revolution power and decision-making can be diversified and decentralised again. The PBA contended was the philosophical glue that holds the Coalition parties together. He summarised it as a shared scepticism about big governmental solutions that are imposed top down from the centre.