Hancock outlines ‘data culture’ target

Government must take its cue from Wikipedia and do more to open up the policymaking process, Matt Hancock has said.

In 2011, the coalition government launched a ‘National Action Plan’ in line with principles set out by the Open Government Partnership, an international project set up to  encourage governments to make more information available to the public. 

But in a speech to the OGP this week, the minister for the Cabinet Office said the UK had “only just begun to scratch the surface of citizen involvement”.

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“We still have an Encyclopaedia Britannica approach to government,” he said.

“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.”

The latest version of National Action Plan – published under the coalition government – includes 21 commitments split across government departments, including a promise to issue local authorities with a data transparency code, and a vow to “enhance the scope, breadth and usability of published contractual data”. 

A self-assessment of the NAP transparency push published by the government in March found that 68% of the goals were either completed or on track, with 27% behind schedule and 5% closed. The OGP is set to issue its latest independent, biennial report on the UK’s progress in the summer.

In November last year, the UK joined other nations including Canada and Costa Rica in committing to a new Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS),  which aims to open up information on outsourced public sector services to greater scrutiny. 

Hancock hailed progress already made by departments in publishing performance data on £489bn-worth of major projects, saying that although this had made “for a few uncomfortable headlines”, it meant potential problems could be “flagged early and corrective action taken”.

And while the minister emphasised the need to “protect a safe space in which frank and candid advice can be given to ministers” – something which figures including former Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell have complained is inhibited by Freedom of Information legislation – he argued that the UK was now reaping some of the policymaking benefits of open government.

“In the last parliament we pulled up the blinds on government data, quite deliberately focusing on volume,” he said. 

“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.”

Colin Marrs

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