Monthly Archives: November 2012

Brief notes on the the OGP, open government and participation

[Summary: Notes from the UK Open Government Partnership (OGP) Open Policymaking process]

In today’s UK OGP working lunch the focus was on “Participation, policy making and service delivery”. Staff working on Open Policy Making and Community Organising at Cabinet Office joined the OGP team, and participants from civil society to explore possible areas of focus for the revised UK National Action Plan. This blog post contains my personal reflections on core areas that could form that focus.

When civil society met to discuss a shared vision for Open Government back in October, we said that “Open government is a two-way dialogue. It builds on transparency and responsiveness. With increased access to government information and open data, civil society organisations, media, informal networks and individual citizens all have new and expanded roles to play in holding government to account and being part of policy dialogues. This requires resources and capacity building, both in the UK and internationally”. Today’s meeting broke that down into four areas with potential for shared action:

(1) Participation and data: supporting use and feedback loops
Open data only supports transparency, accountability, innovation and growth when it is used. A national action plan needs to include commitments that take account of this. For example, building on:

  • Open data capacity building with civil society. Groups like LVSCare already exploring ways to build skills and capacity in the voluntary and community centre to both use government data, and to generate and share their own data. Government and civil society should work together to learn about building the skills for data-use, and to share good practices and effective models for capacity building.
  • The five stars of open data engagement. There are many small steps government can take when publishing data to increase the change that it can be used, and to help close the feedback loops – increasing the chance that data will enable effective participation. The five stars of open data engagement were developed through a civil society and government collaboration earlier this year, and provide a template for taking those steps.

(2) Participation beyond open data
Many of the things we talk about when we discuss open government and participation have absolutely nothing to do with open data. We must not loose site of these aspects of open government, and should not neglect both learning from past experience in the UK, and the interesting experiments and innovative projects currently going on. A revised action plan could make more of:

  • Open Policy Making: sharing the experiments and learning current going on with opening up the policy making process, and using OGP as a forum for civil society and government to act as a critical friends to one another in drawing out good practice for future open policy making.
  • Digital engagement: building on social media guidance to civil servants, and work going on in government in digital engagement to make concrete commitments to ways citizens will be able to engage with government in future. Small wins, like making every government consultation easy to respond to online, and bigger challenges, like improving the flow of information from local areas up to central government through digital tools, could all be on the agenda.
  • Culture and skills: participation is not just about process – it also involves government officials gaining new skills, and involves culture change in government. We should explore Action Plan commitments to build civil service participation skills.
  • Taking it local: recognising that many issues are dealt with at the local level, and participation needs local government to be open too. Discussions today highlighted the need not to forget councillors and community organisers when thinking about open government and participation.

(3) Civil society and citizen participation in the UK’s OGP process
The open policy making process that is taking place for the UK’s National Action Plan is a really positive step in meeting the OGP participation requirement that state parties “commit to developing their country action plans through a multi-stakeholder process, with the active engagement of citizens and civil society”. However, there are opportunities for government and civil society to commit to going further in outreach to community groups, citizens and other key stakeholders. This also presents great opportunities to experiment with new approaches to engagement and outreach, and to feed learning back into wider government commitments on digital engagement and open policy making.

(4) Celebrating participation practice at the 2013 plenary
When it comes to international knowledge sharing, it appears the central government focus is firmly on sharing the UK’s experience pioneering open data. However, at the 2013 summit that is due to take place in London participation should also be firmly on the agenda, to allow the UK and other countries equal space to discuss, share learning and explore both participation + open data, and participation beyond open data.

 

You can find out more about ways to get involved in the UK Civil Society Network on the Open Government Partnership on the OpenGovernment.org.uk website.

Opening the National Pupil Database?

[Summary: some preparatory notes for a response to the National Pupil Database consultation]

The Department for Education are currently consulting on changing the regulations that govern who can gain access to the National Pupil Database (NPD). The NPD holds detailed data on every student in England, going back over ten years, and covering topics from test and exam results, to information on gender, ethnicity, first language, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs, and detailed information on absences or school exclusion. At present, only a specified list of government bodies are able to access the data, with the exception that it can be shared with suitably approved “persons conducting research into the educational achievements of pupils”. The DFE consultation proposed opening up access to a far wider range of users, in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset.

The idea that government should maximise the value of the data it holds has been well articulated in the open data policies and white paper that suggests open data can be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”. However, the open data movement has always been pretty unequivocal on the claim that ‘personal data’ is not ‘open data’ – yet the DFE proposals seek to apply an open data logic to what is fundamentally a personal, private and sensitive dataset.

The DFE is not, in practice, proposing that the NPD is turned into an open dataset, but it is consulting on the idea that it should be available not only for a wider range of research purposes, but also to “stimulate the market for a broader range of services underpinned by the data, not necessarily related to educational achievement”. Users of the data would still go through an application process, with requests for the most sensitive data subject to additional review, and users agreeing to hold the data securely: but, the data, including easily de-anonymised individual level records, would still be given out to a far wider range of actors, with increased potential for data leakage and abuse.

Consultation and consent

I left school in 2001 and further education in 2003, so as far as I can tell, little of my data is captured by the NPD – but, if it was, it would have been captured based not on my consent to it being handled, but simple on the basis that it was collected as an essential part of running the school system. The consultation documents state that  “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices”, yet, it would be hard to argue this would constitute informed consent for the data to now be shared with commercial parties for uses far beyond the delivery of education services.

In the case of the NPD, it would appear particularly important to consult with children and young people on their views of the changes – as it is, after all, their personal data held in the NPD. However the DFE website shows no evidence of particular efforts being taken to make the consultation accessible to under 18s. I suspect a carefully conducted consultation with diverse groups of children and young people would be very instructive to guide decision making in the DFE.

The strongest argument for reforming the current regulations in the consultation document is that, in the past, the DFE has had to turn down requests to use the data for research which appears to be in the interests of children and young people’s wellbeing. For example, “research looking at the lifestyle/health of children; sexual exploitation of children; the impact of school travel on the environment; and mortality rates for children with SEN”. It might well be that, consulted on whether the would be happy for their data to be used in such research, many children, young people and parents would be happy to permit a wider wording of the research permissions for the NPD, but I would be surprised if most would happily consent to just about anyone being able to request access to their sensitive data. We should also note that, whilst some of the research DFE has turned down sound compelling, this does not necessarily mean this research could not happen in any other way: nor that it could not be conducted by securing explicit opt-in consent. Data protection principles that require data to only be used for the purpose it was collected cannot just be thrown away because they are inconvenient, and even if consultation does highlight people may be willing for some wider sharing of their personal data for good, it is not clear this can be applied retroactively to data already collected.

Personal data, state data, open data

The NPD consultation raises an important issue about the data that the state has a right to share, and the data it holds in trust. Aggregate, non-disclosive information about the performance of public services is data the state has a clear right to share and is within the scope of open data. Detailed data on individuals that it may need to collect for the purpose of administration, and generating that aggregate data, is data held in trust – not data to be openly shared.

However, there are many ways to aggregate or process a dataset – and many different non-personally identifying products that could be built from a dataset, Many of these government will never have the need to create – yet they could bring social and economic value. So perhaps there are spaces to balance the potential value in personally sensitive datasets with the the necessary primacy of data protection principles.

Practice accommodations: creating open data products

In his article for the Open Data Special Issue of the Journal of Community Informatics I edited earlier this year, Rollie Cole talks about ‘practice accommodations’ between open and closed data. Getting these accommodations right for datasets like the NPD will require careful thought and could benefit from innovation in data governance structures. In early announcements of the Public Data Corporation (now the Public Data Group and Open Data User Group), there was a description of how the PDC could “facilitate or create a vehicle that can attract private investment as needed to support its operations and to create value for the taxpayer”. At the time I read this as exploring the possibility that a PDC could help private actors with an interest in public data products that were beyond the public task of the state, but were best gathered or created through state structures, to pool resources to create or release this data. I’m not sure that’s how the authors of the point intended it, but the idea potentially has some value around the NPD. For example, if there is a demand for better “demographic models [that can be] used by the public and commercial sectors to inform planning and investment decisions” derived from the NPD, are there ways in which new structures, perhaps state-linked co-operatives, or trusted bodies like the Open Data Institute, can pool investment to create these products, and to release them as open data? This would ensure access to sensitive personal data remained tightly controlled, but would enable more of the potential value in a dataset like NPD to be made available through more diverse open aggregated non-personal data products.

Such structures would still need good governance, including open peer-review of any anonymisation taking place, to ensure it was robust.

The counter argument to such an accommodation might be that it would still stifle innovation, by leaving some barriers to data access in place. However, the alternative, of DFE staff assessing each application for access to the NPD, and having to make a decision on whether a commercial re-use of the data is justified, and the requestor has adequate safeguards in place to manage the data effectively, also involves barriers to access – and involves more risk – so the counter argument may not take us that far.

I’m not suggesting this model would necessarily work – but introduce it to highlight that there are ways to increase the value gained from data without just handing it out in ways that inevitably increase the chance it will be leaked or mis-used.

A test case?

The NPD consultation presents a critical test case for advocates of opening government data. It requires us to articulate more clearly the different kinds of data the state holds, to be be much more nuanced about the different regimes of access that are appropriate for different kinds of data, and to consider the relative importance of values like privacy over ideas of exploiting value in datasets.

I can only hope DFE listen to the consultation responses they get, and give their proposals a serious rethink.

 

Further reading and action: Privacy International and Open Rights Group are both preparing group consultation inputs, and welcome input from anyone with views of expert insights to offer.

Open Policy Making for the UK Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

[Summary: thoughts on opportunities and challenges for open policy making from today's OGP CSO Brown Bag lunch]

The Civil Service Reform Plan sets out a commitment that ‘Open policy making will become the default’ way policy is made, noting that ‘Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise’. The Reform Plan states that government will ‘establish a clear model of open policy making’. However, whilst a number of principles of open policy making have been articulated (such as shared accountability; transparency; and cross-boundary teams), open policy making appears right now to be in a more experimental phase, with a range of recent initiatives using the label. In their case study looking at the creation of the National Planning Policy Framework, and a number of other instances of open policy making, the Institute for Government argue that in practice “there is no one [open policy making] model – and the choice of model will depend on the objectives to be met through greater openness”.

So, the decision to explore the use of open policy making as a framework for government and civil society collaboration around the UK’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, and co-chairmanship of the global OGP, raises as many questions as it answers. This blog post captures some of my personal reflections on possible elements of a UK OGP open policy-making process.

(For background on the Open Government Partnership, and how UK civil society have been engaging with the OGP so far, see www.opengovernment.org.uk. The quick summary: The OGP is an international initiative for governments to commit to open government actions: the UK is a founding member, and currently co-chair of the initiative. It created an Action Plan in 2011 of open government commitments, and, as part of members of the OGP, must review and revise this in collaboration with civil society in 2012 and 2013.)

Elements: Shared submissions to ministers

UK involvement in the Open Government Partnership is ultimately the responsibility of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. As part of an open policy making process, civil society and civil servants can work together on developing submissions to the Minister, developing a shared evidence base and case for what a revised National Action Plan should cover, and potential actions for the UK to take as OGP co-chair and host of the 2013 OGP plenary meeting.

This approach can be contrasted to classic policy-making consultation, in which civil servants might go out to consult on a policy, but in which the submission to a Minister, and the responses, are composed entirely by, or addressed to, the civil servants.

Elements: shared and independent spaces

To make shared submissions work, it is important for government and civil society to distinguish between issues that can and can’t be handled through this process.

The UK’s current Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (drafted entirely within Whitehall) is resolutely focussed on open data, whilst many CSOs want to see the UK focus on the full range of topics set out in the Open Government Partnership Declaration, including access to information; citizen participation; anti-corruption and integrity of public institutions. When UK civil society met a few weeks back, they outlined a number of different priority areas related to open government, including a number of concrete advocacy asks on extractive industry transparency, whistleblower protection, an extension of the right to information to cover private sector delivering public services, and emphasising participation alongside transparency as key elements of open government.

Some of the issues on the civil society agenda overlap with those government is already working on. Others are off the current government agenda. We might visualise this with a venn diagram, where the overlap of civil society and government agenda’s provides the space for open policy making, but both government and civil society continue to have issues they care about that fall outside this shared space.

In these cases, participating in an open policy making does not preclude civil society from continuing to campaign for new issues to be added to the agenda, or adopting outsider advocacy strategies to call for an issue to be added to the shared space of open policy making.

Effective open policy making needs honesty and reasonable expectations on all sides about those issues where there is enough consensus for joint submissions and evidence gathering, and a range of alternative routes through which issues that don’t make it into the shared open policy making space can still be taken forward through other routes.

Elements: joint outreach

A number of the models of open policy making that the Institute for Government highlight in their report only really open up the policy making process to a small number of individuals – often ‘experts’ from organisations already involved in policy advocacy. However, opening government should be about more than just a few extra voices – and needs to connect with citizens and civil society groups working at the grass roots across the country.

Part of an open policy making process may involved shared identification of evidence gaps, and collaboration between government and civil society organisations to develop an outreach strategy, raising awareness of open government issues, and drawing on much more diverse evidence and inputs into key documents and decision making around the OGP.

Challenges: open meetings and open networks

So far, the network of CSOs on the Open Government Partnership has been organised in the open: through a mailing list that anyone can join, and using Google Docs shared for anyone to read and edit. There is no formal membership process, or terms of reference for the group. This way of organising provides space for the network to develop organically, to draw in new participants, and to avoid putting lots of energy into structure rather than substance – but it also potentially raises some challenges for open policy making processes – as sharing information and working collaborative with an open network in theory means having a process that is open to almost anyone.

Going back to the Institute for Government’s case study of the National Policy Planning Framework, it suggests that having some boundaries, and having the ‘open policy’ group working on the framework operating effectively under-the-radar for much of their duration was important to their ability to be effective, and not to be overwhelmed by competing demands. Yet, setting boundaries and being less than transparent about the existence, membership and work of an open policy making group on open government would seem at odds with open government values.

Finding agile methods to agree minutes from meetings (perhaps live-drafting in an online document with civil society and government co-editing the notes) without getting into long drawn-out sign off processes, and having clear principles on what information should be shared when, is likely to be important to having a credible open policy making process.

Challenges: resources and regions

At the heart of the proposed open policy making processes around the OGP is the idea of a regular co-working space, initially to be hosted at the open data institute, where civil society and government can meet on a weekly basis. This is a powerful demonstration of commitment to an open process, but also risks leaving policy shaped by those with the resources to regularly spend a working day in London.

Creating opportunities for online input can help address this, but attention still needs to be paid to inclusion – finding ways to ensure that resources are available to support participation of diverse groups in the process. This is perhaps part of a more general challenge for civil society as responsibility for core elements of public governance is increasingly shifted outside of government (as in open data supporting the ‘armchair auditor’), and onto civil society. We need to explore new mechanisms to support diverse civil society action on governance, and to prevent this outward shift of governance responsibility simply empowering the well resourced.

Next steps

For the OGP open policy making process, one of the next steps is likely to involve working out which issues can be addressed as part of the shared space between government and civil society. Keep an eye on the www.opengovernment.org.uk blog for news of upcoming workshops and meetings that will hopefully be exploring just that.