Author Archives: Tim

Shaping open government in the UK: call for steering committee nominations

[Summary: Looking for great candidates to drive progress on Open Government in the UK through the UK Civil Society OGP Steering Committee and Multi-stakeholder Forum. Nomination deadline: 16th April]

Nominations are now open for civil society members of the UK Open Government Partnership (OGP) Multi-stakeholder Forum. It’s a key time for open government in the UK, as we look to maintain momentum and push forward new reforms, within a wider national and global environment where open, participatory and effective governance is increasingly under threat.

If you are, or you know someone, passionate about open government reforms and with the capacity to drive change, please consider making a nomination. Self nominations are welcome, and membership of the Open Government Civil Society Network (the only pre-condition for nomination) is open to anyone who supports the principles of the network.

Shaping open government

The UK is currently preparing it’s fourth Open Government National Action Plan. In previous plans we’ve pursued and made progress on issues like beneficial ownership transparency (in the news this week as campaigners seek more data on offshore ownership of London property in the context of debates on illicit Russian money invested here), open contracting (equally topical as the Carrillion Crisis, and debates over passport printing unfold), and open policy making.

Yesterday, members of the current Civil Society Network Steering Committee and other guests were hosted at the Speakers House in Parliament to hear an update from Dr Ben Worthy, the independent reviewer of UK progress. The event underscored the importance of active civil society engagement to put issues on the open government agenda, and the unique opportunity offered by the OGP process to accelerate reforms and support deep dialogue between government and civil society. Ben also challenged those assembled to think about the ‘signature reforms’, engagement experiments and high profile interventions that the next National Action Plan should support, and to look to engage more with Parliament to secure parliamentary scrutiny of transparency and open government policy.

One of the ways in the UK OGP Civil Society Network we’ve been preparing to meet these challenges is by updating the Terms of Reference for the Civil Society Network Steering Group so that it is ready to act as the civil society half of a standing Multi-stakeholder Forum on Open Government in the UK. This will meet regularly with government, including with Ministers with Open Government responsibility, to secure and monitor open government commitments.

To bring on board a wider set of skills and experience, we’ve also increased the number of places on the Steering Committee, creating five spaces now up for election through an open process that also seeks to secure a good gender balance, and representation of both civil society organisations and independent citizens. I’m personally keen to see us use this opportunity to bring new skills and experience onboard for the Steering Committee and Multi-stakeholder Forum, including people with experience of working on reforms within government (though current government officials working on open gov policy are not eligible to apply), specialists in civic participation, and experts on right to information issues.

Responsibilities of Steering Group members include:

  • Engaging with the relevant Minister and civil servants with responsibility for the OGP
  • Participating in the Multistakeholder Forum between government and civil society
  • Speaking on behalf of the Open Government Network
  • Supporting and overseeing the work of the Network Coordinator and ensuring the smooth running of the OGN

and to date it’s been a committment of 3 – 15 hours a month (depending on the stage of the National Action Plan process) with a regular Steering Committee call and periodic meetings (usually in London, though we’ve been trying to move around the country whenever possible) with government officials and other members of the civil society network. The nomination form is here if you are interested – and even if you’re not interested in a role on the Steering Committee right now, do join the network via it’s open mailing list for other opportunities to get involved.

As a current Steering Committee member, I’d be happy to answer any questions (@timdavies) about the process and the potential here to take forward open government reforms in the UK, and as part of the 70+ country strong global OGP network.

Where next for Open Contracting in the UK?

[Summary: reflections and ideas building on conversations at the OGP National Action Plan workshop in Bristol yesterday with ideas about a fund for scoping studies, strengthening the ICO role around contract disclosure, and better national Management Information (and a continuation of this blog’s ‘Open Contracting’ season: I promise I’ll write about some other things soon!]

Open Contracting has been a theme in the last two UK Open Government Partnership National Action Plans. In 2013 Commitment 12 said:

*The UK government endorses the principles of open contracting. We will build on the existing foundation of transparency in procurement and contracting and, in consultation with civil society organisations and other stakeholders, we will look at ways to enhance the scope, breadth and usability of published contractual data. *

In 2016, the Open Contracting moved up to slot number 5, with a commitment to:

…implement the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) in the Crown Commercial Service’s operations by October 2016; [and to] begin applying this approach to major infrastructure projects, starting with High Speed Two, and rolling out OCDS across government thereafter.

As we head towards the next National Action Plan in 2018, it’s time to focus on local implementation. Whilst government policies on procurement, and even on asset disposals (e.g. selling off government land), provide clear guidance on transparency and publication of data and documents (including full contract text), local implementation is sorely lacking.

The day after Carillion’s collapse it was only possible to locate less than 30 of the 400+ government contracts with Carillion through the national Contracts Finder dataset. And none had the text of contracts attached. Local authorities continue to invoke ‘commercial confidentiality’ as a blanket reason to keep procurement or asset sale information secret, increasing corruption risks, and undermining opportunities to promote value for money, local economic development and strategic procurement across the public sector.

When policy is good, but implementation is poor, what levers are there? At the recent Bristol workshop we explored a range of opportunities. In general, approaches fall into a few different categories:

  • Improving enforcement. There are few consequences right now for a government agency that is not following procurement guidance. Although local government is prone to resist new or strengthened requirements that come without funding, there may be opportunities to strengthen regulators, or increase the consequences of non-compliance. However, this often needs to rely on:

  • Better monitoring. It’s only when we can see which authorities are failing in their procurement transparency obligations, or when we can identify leading and lagging agencies when it comes to use of pre-procurement dialogues for public and supplier engagement, that targeted enforcement of key practices becomes possible. Monitoring alone can sometimes create incentives for improved practice.

  • Making it easier. Confusion over the meaning of commercial confidentiality may be preventing good practice. Guidance from government, or better design of software tools, can all help streamline the process of complying. Government may have a role in setting the standards for procurement software, as well as the data standards for publishing transparency procurement information.

  • Show the benefits. The irony of low compliance with procurement best practices on transparency is, well, that best practice is often better. It brings savings, and better services. A programme to demonstrate this has a lot of value.

So, what could this look like in terms of concrete commitments:

  • Scoping study support fund. Open Contracting has the potential to be win-win-win: efficiency for government, accountability to citizens, and opportunities for local businesses. But building multi-stakeholder support for new initiatives, and setting priorities for local action needs an understanding of the the current situation. Where are the biggest blocks to opening up information on procurement? Are the challenges policy or process? Where will leadership for change come from? How can different stakeholders work together to generate, share and use data and information – and to design better procurement processes? These are all questions that can be answered through a scoping study.

    Development Gateway, HIVOS and the Open Contracting Partnership have well-tested scoping study methods that have been used around the world to support national-level Open Contracting initiatives. Adapting this method for city or regional use, and providing kick-start funding to help local partnerships come together, assess their situation, and plan for change, could be a very effective way to catalyse a move from open contracting policy to local, relevant and high-impact practice.

    With just £100k investment, Central government could support studies in 10 or more areas.

  • Improved national metrics. As part of implementation of the last NAP commitment, the Contracts Finder platform now has a (very) basic statistics page, providing an overview of which public authorities are publishing their contracts. With the underlying open data, it’s possible to compute a few more metrics, exploring the kind of contracts different agencies are publishing information on, or assessing gaps between tender and award. However, central government could go a lot further in providing Business Intelligence dashboards on top of the data in Contracts Finder, and publishing much more accessible reports on policy compliance. The OpenTender.eu project demonstrate some of what can be done with the analysis of collated procurement data, calculating a range of indicators.

  • Empowering the Information Commissioner’s Office. The ICO has a key role in enforcing the public right to information, yet has a substantial backlog of cases, many including FOI requests relating to contracts. Support for the ICO to develop further guidance, monitor compliance and take enforcement activities against authorities who are hiding behind bogus commercial confidentiality arguments, could shift the balance from the current ‘closed by default’ position when it comes to the contract details that matter, to proper implementation of the open-by-default policy.

  • Extending FOI for contractors. Although the idea that the Freedom of Information Act should apply to any provider of public services, regardless of whether they are public of private sector, is one that has been put forward, and knocked back, in previous National Action Planning processes, it remains as relevant as ever. In light of the recent Carillion Collapse, and with outsourcing arrangements looking increasingly shaky, the public right to know about delivery of public services clearly needs re-asserting more strongly.

  • Improved model contract clauses. Earlier rounds of the OGP NAP have secured model contract clauses for national government contracts, focussing on provision of performance information. Revisiting the question of model clauses, but with a focus on local government, and on further requirements around transparency of delivery, would offer a parallel route to increase transparency of local service delivery, creating a contractual right to information, pursued alongside efforts to extend the legal right through FOI.

A mix of the commitments above would combine different levers: enforcement, incentives and oversight – with a chance to truly build effective open contracting. Within the wider UK landscape, for the OGP process to remain credible, we will need to see some serious and ambitious commitments, and open contracting is a key area where these could be made.

(Hat-tip to @carla_denyer for the framing of how to motivate government action used in the above, and to all at the Bristol @openGovUK workshop who discussed Open Contracting.)

UK open contracting: good policy & maturing platform – it’s time to invest in implementation

[Summary: relecting on national open contracting progress in the UK]

Last week the Prime Minister issued a letter reminding central government departments of their transparency responsibilities and providing updated guidance on the information that should be disclosed and how. Amongst the guidance, is a revised note on “Publication of Central Government Tenders and Contracts” which provides a good snapshot of the current position for national government contracting (and which is also framed as useful guidance for Local Authorities considering their responsibilities under the local government transparency code).

The note covers:

  • The legislative requirement to publish most opportunities and awards over £10,000 via the Contracts Finder platform;
  • The policy committment of central government to see all tender documents, and contract texts attached to those notices on Contracts Finder;
  • Guidance on all the documents that go to make up the contract (and so that should be attached to Contracts Finder)
  • Re-iteration of the limitations to redaction of contract documents;
  • Recommendations on transparency clauses to include in new contracts, to have clear agreement with suppliers over information that will be public.

As contracting transparency policy goes: this is good stuff. We’re not yet at the stage in the UK of having the kind of integrated public financial management systems that give us transparency from planning to final payment, nor are their the kind of lock-in measures such as checking a contract has been published before any invoices against it are paid. But it does provide a clear foundation to build on.

The platform that backs up this policy, Contracts Finder, has also seen some good progress recently. With hundreds of tender and award notices posted every week, it continues to provide good structured data in the Open Contracting Data Standard through an open API. In the last few weeks, the data has also started to capture company registration numbers for suppliers – a really important key to linking up contracting and company ownership information, and to better understanding patterns of public sector contracting. The steady progress of Contracts Finder as a national platform (with a number of features also now added to help capture sub-contracting processes too) makes it absolutely key to monitoring and improving implementation of the policies described above.

There are still some challenges for the platform: data quality (and document availability) for many of the records in Contracts Finder relies upon the features of e-Procurement systems used by departments or local authorities to manage their contracting processes. If these systems don’t encourage inclusion of company identifiers, or contracting documents, we may struggle to reach full policy compliance and the best data quality. Ongoing improvements to the APIs for data entry, and to the tools for monitoring data quality, could certainly help here, as would increased engagement with e-procurement system vendors to get them to bake open contracting into their platforms, as Chris Smith has called for.

However, as we head in 2018, whilst we have to keep working on policy and platforms – the real focus needs to be on implementation: monitoring and motivating each department or public agency to be sure they are not only seeing transparency in procurement as a tick-box compliance excercise, but instead making sure it is embraced as a core part of accountable and open government. To date, Open Contracting in the UK has been the work of a relatively small network of dedicated officials, activists and entrepreneurs. If the vibe at OC Global last month was anything to go by, 2018 may well be the year it moves into the mainstream.

Disclosure/notes

I’m a member of the UK Open Contracting Steering Group, working under Commitment 5 of the UK OGP plan and I work for Open Data Services Co-op as one of the Open Contracting Data Standard helpdesk team.

On the journey: five reflections from #ocglobal17 (Open Contracting Global)

At it’s heart, open contracting is a simple idea: whenever public money and resources are at stake through a contracting processes, transparency and participation should be the norm.

Yet, as the Open Contracting Global Summit (#ocglobal17) in Amsterdam this week has demonstrated, it’s also an idea that brings together a very wide community. Reflecting on conversations from the week, I’ve tried here to capture five key reflections on where we are at, and where we might be heading:

(1) It’s not just procurement

Although the open contracting emphasis is often on the way governments buy goods and services, there are many other contracts where public resources are at stake: from licenses and concessions, to Public Private Partnership deals and grant agreements.

These each have different dynamics, and different approaches might be needed to open up each kind of process.

The Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) is primarily designed around procurement processes, although at OCGlobal we gave the first public preview of the OCDS for PPPs profile, that extends the OCDS data model to provide a structured way of recording in-depth disclosures for Public Private Partnership deals.

(2) It’s not just JSON

Thanks to Article 19, the corridoors at OCGlobal had been turned into a ‘gallery of redaction’. Copies of contracting documents obtained through FOI requests provided tantalising hints of government and private sector deals: yet with all the key facts blacked out. These stood as a reminder of how many times the public are kept in the dark over contracts

Neither documents, nor data, on their own will answer all the question citizens or companies might have about contracting. Not will they automatically spark the kinds of participation, scrutiny and engagement that are the essential complement of transparency.

Although publication of standardised data might be the most concrete manifestation of open contracting, it’s problematic to conflate transparency or open contracting with use of the OCDS JSON schema. Indeed, the 5-star model published as part of the guidance for OCDS 1.0 highlights that governments can taken their first steps towards open contracting data by publishing any contracting information on the web, stepping up to machine-readability and standarised data as capacity allows.

Any other approach risks making the perfect into the enemy of the good: preventing publication until data is perfect.

The challenge ahead is in designing and refining the incentive structures that make sure open contracting efforts do not stop at getting a few documents online, or some fields in a JSON dataset – but instead that over time they broadens and deepen both disclosure, and effective use of the information that has been made available.

(3) It’s an iterative journey

There’s a much refreshed implementation section on the Open Contracting website, curating a range of guidance and tools to help put open contracting ideas into practice. The framing of a linear ‘seven steps’ journey towards open contracting is replaced with a ‘hopscotch’ presentation of the steps involved: with interlocking cycles of development and use.

This feels much closer to the reality I’ve experienced supporting open contracting implementations, which involve a dance back and forward between a vision for disclosure, and the reality of getting data and documents published from legacy systems, transparency features added to systems that are in development, or policies and practice changed to support greater citizen engagement in the contracting process.

There was a lot of talk at OC Global about e-procurement systems as the ideal source of open contracting data: yet for many countries, effective e-procurement deployments are a long way off, and so it’s important to keep in mind different ways tools like OCDS can be used:

  • Based-on – OCDS can provide a guide for reviewing and reflecting on current levels of disclosure, and for turning unstructured information into data to analyse. This is the approach pioneered by projects like Budeshi, who started out transcribing documents to data to demonstrate the value that a more data-driven approach could have to procurement monitoring.

  • Bolt-on – OCDS can be used as the target format when exporting data from existing contracting data systems. These might be reporting systems that capture regular monitoring returns on the contracting process, or transactional systems through which procurement is run. Here, the process of mapping existing data to OCDS can often reveal data quality issues in the source systems – and with the right feedback loops, this can lead to not only data publication, but also changes to improve data in future.

  • Built-in – OCDS can be used to inform the design of new systems – providing common shared data models, and a community where extended modelling of data can be discussed. However, it’s important to remember that building new systems is not just about data structures – it’s also about user experience, and right now, the OCDS doesn’t address this.

To my mind, OCDS provide a structured framework that should support use in all these different ways. As we iterate on the standard itself, it’s important we don’t undermine this flexibility – but that instead we use it to establish common ground on which publishers and users can debate issues of data quality. With the standard, those debates should be actionable: but it’s not up the standard itself to settle them.

(4) Contracting is core: but it doesn’t start or end there

Contracting is just one of the government processes that affects how resources are allocated and used. Before contracting starts, budgets are often set, or wide-reaching procurement plans established. During contract implementation, payment processes kick-in. And for the private companies involved in public contracts, there are all sorts of interlocking processes of registration, financing and taxation.

From an architectural perspective it’s important for us to understand the boundaries of the open contracting process, and how it can link up with other processes. For example, whilst OCDS can capture budget information as part of a contracting process (e.g. the amount of budget allocated to that process), it starts stretching the data model to represent a budget process nested within a contracting process.

As one of the break-out groups looking at budget, contract and spend integration noted, the key to joining up data is not putting everything in the same dataset or system, but comes from establishing business processes that ensure common identifiers are used to join up the systems that manage parallel processes.

There’s a lot of work to do before we have easy interoperability between different parts of an overall [accountability architecture](ACSP LINK LINK LINK) – but the biggest issues are of data production and use, rather than of standards and schemas.

(5) It’s time to tidy our terminology

The open contracting community is broad, and, as I recently wrote over here, “the word ‘standard’ means different things to different people.”. So does contracting. And tender. And validation. And assessment. And so-on.

Following recent workshops in London and Argentina, the OCDS team have been thinking a lot about how we tighten up our use of key terms and concepts, establishing a set of draft translation principles and policies, and we’ve been reflecting more on how to also be clearer on ideas like data validity, quality and feedback.

But we also have to recognise that debates over language are laden with power dynamics: and specialist language can be used to impose or exclude. Open contracting should not be about dumbing down complex processes of contracting, but nor should it be able requiring every citizen to learn procurement-speak. Again, for OCDS and other tools designed to support open contracting, we have balancing act: creating boundary objects that help different communities meet in the middle.

The first step towards this is just working out how we’re using words at the moment: checking on current practice, before working out how we can improve.

Gratitude

Asides from sparking a wealth of learning, the other thing an event like #OCGlobal17 does is remind me just how fortunate I am to get to work with such a inspiring network of people: exploring challenging issues with a great collaborative spirit. Thanks all!

The reflections above are more or less fragmentary, and I’m looking forward to working with many of the folk in the picture below to see where the journey takes us next.

Exploring participatory public data infrastructure in Plymouth

[Summary: Slides, notes and references from a conference talk in Plymouth]

A few months back I was invited to give a presentation to a joint plenary of the ‘Whose Right to the Smart City‘ and ‘DataAche 2017‘ conferences in Plymouth. Building on some recent conversations with Jonathan Gray, I took the opportunity to try and explore some ideas around the concept of ‘participatory data infrastructure’, linking those loosely with the smart cities theme.

As I fear I might not get time to turn it into a reasonable paper anytime soon, below is a rough transcript of what I planned to say when I presented earlier today. The slides are also below.

For those at the talk, the promised references are found at the end of this post.

Thanks to Satyarupa Shekar for the original invite, Katharine Willis and the Whose Right to the Smart Cities network for stimulating discussions today, and to the many folk whose ideas I’ve tried to draw on below.

Participatory public data infrastructure: open data standards and the turn to transparency

In this talk, my goal is to explore one potential strategy for re-asserting the role of citizens within the smart-city. This strategy harnesses the political narrative of transparency and explores how it can be used to open up a two-way communication channel between citizens, states and private providers.

This not only offers the opportunity to make processes of governance more visible and open to scrutiny, but it also creates a space for debate over the collection, management and use of data within governance, giving citizens an opportunity to shape the data infrastructures that do so much to shape the operation of smart cities, and of modern data-driven policy and it’s implementation.

In particular, I will focus on data standards, or more precisely, open data standards, as a tool that can be deployed by citizens (and, we must acknowledge, by other actors, each with their own, sometimes quite contrary interests), to help shape data infrastructures.

Let me set out the structure of what follows. It will be an exploration in five parts, the first three unpacking the title, and then the fourth looking at a number of case studies, before a final section summing up.

  1. Participatory public data infrastructure
  2. Transparency
  3. Standards
  4. Examples: Money, earth & air
  5. Recap

Part 1: Participatory public data infrastructure

Data infrastructure

infrastructure. /?nfr?str?kt??/ noun. “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” 1

The word infrastructure comes from the latin ‘infra-‘ for below, and structure, meaning structure. It provides the shared set of physical and organizational arrangements upon which everyday life is built.

The notion of infrastructure is central to conventional imaginations of the smart city. Fibre-optic cables, wireless access points, cameras, control systems, and sensors embedded in just about anything, constitute the digital infrastructure that feed into new, more automated, organizational processes. These in turn direct the operation of existing physical infrastructures for transportation, the distribution of water and power, and the provision of city services.

However, between the physical and the organizational lies another form of infrastructure: data and information infrastructure.

(As a sidebar: Although data and information should be treated as analytically distinct concepts, as the boundary between the two concepts is often blurred in the literature, including in discussions of ‘information infrastructures’, and as information is at times used as a super-category including data, I won’t be too strict in my use of the terms in the following).

(That said,) It is by being rendered as structured data that the information from the myriad sensors of the smart city, or the submissions by hundreds of citizens through reporting portals, are turned into management information, and fed into human or machine based decision-making, and back into the actions of actuators within the city.

Seen as a set of physical or digital artifacts, the data infrastructure involves ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) processes, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), databases and data warehouses, stored queries and dashboards, schema, codelists and standards. Seen as part of a wider ‘data assemblage’ (Kitchin 5) this data infrastructure also involves various processes of data entry and management, of design, analysis and use, as well relationships to other external datasets, systems and standards.

However, if is often very hard to ‘see’ data infrastructure. By their very natures, infrastructures moves into the background, often only ‘visible upon breakdown’ to use Star and Ruhleder’s phrase 2. (For example, you may only really pay attention to the shape and structure of the road network when your planned route is blocked…). It takes a process of “infrastructural inversion” to bring information infrastructures into view 3, deliberately foregrounding the background. I will argue shortly that ‘transparency’ as a policy performs much the same function as ‘breakdown’ in making the contours infrastructure more visible: taking something created with one set of use-cases in mind, and placing it in front of a range of alternative use-cases, such that its affordances and limitations can be more fully scrutinized, and building on that scrutiny, it’s future development shaped. But before we come to that, we need to understand the extent of ‘public data infrastructure’ and the different ways in which we might understand a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’.

Public data infrastructure

There can be public data without a coherent public data infrastructure. In ‘The Responsive City’ Goldsmith and Crawford describe the status quo for many as “The century-old framework of local government – centralized, compartmentalized bureaucracies that jealously guard information…” 4. Datasets may exist, but are disconnected. Extracts of data may even have come to be published online in data portals in response to transparency edicts – but it exists as islands of data, published in different formats and structures, without any attention to interoperability.

Against this background, initiatives to construct public data infrastructure have sought to introduce shared technology, standards and practices that provide access to a more coherent collection of data generated by, and focusing on, the public tasks of government.

For example, in 2012, Denmark launched their ‘Basic Data’ programme, looking to consolidate the management of geographic, address, property and business data across government, and to provide common approaches to data management, update and distribution 6. In the European Union, the INSPIRE Directive and programme has been driving creation of a shared ‘Spatial Data Infrastructure’ since 2007, providing reference frameworks, interoperability rules, and data sharing processes. And more recently, the UK Government has launched a ‘Registers programme’ 8 to create centralized reference lists and identifiers of everything from countries to government departments, framed as part of building governments digital infrastructure. In cities, similar processes of infrastructure building, around shared services, systems and standards are taking place.

The creation of these data infrastructures can clearly have significant benefits for both citizens and government. For example, instead of citizens having to share the same information with multiple services, often in subtly different ways, through a functioning data infrastructure governments can pick up and share information between services, and can provide a more joined up experience of interacting with the state. By sharing common codelists, registers and datasets, agencies can end duplication of effort, and increase their intelligence, drawing more effectively on the data that the state has collected.

However, at the same time, these data infrastructures tend to have a particularly centralizing effect. Whereas a single agency maintaining their own dataset has the freedom to add in data fields, or to restructure their working processes, in order to meet a particular local need – when that data is managed as part of a centralized infrastructure, their ability to influence change in the way data is managed will be constrained both by the technical design and the institutional and funding arrangements of the data infrastructure. A more responsive government is not only about better intelligence at the center, it is also about autonomy at the edges, and this is something that data infrastructures need to be explicitly designed to enable, and something that they are generally not oriented towards.

In “Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State” 10, Jo Guldi uses a powerful case study of the development of the national highways networks to illustrate the way in which the design of infrastructures shapes society, and to explore the forces at play in shaping public infrastructure. When metaled roads first spread out across the country in the eighteenth century, there were debates over whether to use local materials, easy to maintain with local knowledge, or to apply a centralized ‘tarmacadam’ standard to all roads. There were questions of how the network should balance the needs of the majority, with road access for those on the fringes of the Kingdom, and how the infrastructure should be funded. This public infrastructure was highly contested, and the choices made over it’s design had profound social consequences. Jo uses this as an analogy for debates over modern Internet infrastructures, but it can be equally applied to explore questions around an equally intangible public data infrastructure.

If you build roads to connect the largest cities, but leave out a smaller town, the relative access of people in that town to services, trade and wider society is diminished. In the same way, if your data infrastructure lack the categories to describe the needs of a particular population, their needs are less likely to be met. Yet, that town connected might also not want to be connected directly to the road network, and to see it’s uniqueness and character eroded; much like some groups may also want to resist their categorization and integration in the data infrastructure in ways that restrict their ability to self-define and develop autonomous solutions, in the face of centralized data systems that are necessarily reductive.

Alongside this tension between centralization and decentralization in data infrastructures, I also want to draw attention to another important aspect of public data infrastructures. That is the issue of ownership and access. Increasingly public data infrastructures may rely upon stocks and flows of data that are not publicly owned. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Postal Address File, which is the basis of any addressing service, was one of the assets transferred to the private sector when Royal Mail was sold off. The Ordnance Survey retains ownership and management of the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN), a central part of the data infrastructure for local public service delivery, yet access to this is heavily restricted, and complex agreements govern the ability of even the public sector to use it. Historically, authorities have faced major challenges in relation to ‘derived data’ from Ordnance Survey datasets, where the use of proprietary mapping products as a base layer when generating local records ‘infects’ those local datasets with intellectual property rights of the proprietary dataset, and restricts who they can be shared with. Whilst open data advocacy has secured substantially increased access to many publicly owned datasets in recent years, when the datasets the state is using are privately owned in the first place, and only licensed to the state, the potential scope for public re-use and scrutiny of the data, and scrutiny of the policy made on the basis of it, is substantially limited.

In the case of smart cities, I suspect this concern is likely to be particularly significant. Take transit data for example: in 2015 Boston, Massachusetts did a deal with Uber to allow access to data from the data-rich transportation firm to support urban planning and to identify approaches to regulation. Whilst the data shared reveals something of travel times, the limited granularity rendered it practically useless for planning purposes, and Boston turned to senate regulations to try and secure improved data 9. Yet, even if the city does get improved access to data about movements via Uber and Lyft in the city – the ability of citizens to get involved in the conversations about policy from that data may be substantially limited by continued access restrictions on the data.

With the Smart City model often involving the introduction of privately owned sensors networks and processes, the extent to which the ‘data infrastructure for public tasks ceases to have the properties that we will shortly see are essential to a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’ is a question worth paying attention to.

Participatory public data infrastructure

I will posit then that the grown of public data infrastructures is almost inevitable. But the shape they take is not. I want, in particular then, to examine what it would mean to have a participatory public data infrastructure.

I owe the concept of a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’ in particular to Jonathan Gray ([11], [12], [13]), who has, across a number of collaborative projects, sought to unpack questions of how data is collected and structured, as well as released as open data. In thinking about the participation of citizens in public data, we might look at three aspects:

  1. Participation in data use
  2. Participation in data production
  3. Participation in data design

And, seeing these as different in kind, rather than different in degree, we might for each one deploy Arnstein’s ladder of participation [14] as an analytical tool, to understand that the extent of participation can range from tokenism through to full shared decision making. As for all participation projects, we must also ask the vitally important question of ‘who is participating?’.

At the bottom-level ‘non-participation’ runs of Arnstein’s ladder we could see a data infrastructure that captures data ‘about’ citizens, without their active consent or involvement, that excludes them from access to the data itself, and then uses the data to set rules, ‘deliver’ services, and enact policies over which citizens have no influence in either their design of delivery. The citizen is treated as an object, not an agent, within the data infrastructure. For some citizens contemporary experience, and in some smart city visions, this description might not be far from a direct fit.

By contrast, when citizens have participation in the use of a data infrastructure they are able to make use of public data to engage in both service delivery and policy influence. This has been where much of the early civic open data movement placed their focus, drawing on ideas of co-production, and government-as-a-platform, to enable partnerships or citizen-controlled initiatives, using data to develop innovative solutions to local issues. In a more political sense, participation in data use can remove information inequality between policy makers and the subjects of that policy, equalizing at least some of the power dynamic when it comes to debating policy. If the ‘facts’ of population distribution and movement, electricity use, water connections, sanitation services and funding availability are shared, such that policy maker and citizen are working from the same data, then the data infrastructure can act as an enabler of more meaningful participation.

In my experience though, the more common outcome when engaging diverse groups in the use of data, is not an immediate shared analysis – but instead of a lot of discussion of gaps and issues in the data itself. In some cases, the way data is being used might be uncontested, but the input might turn out to be misrepresenting the lived reality of citizens. This takes us to the second area of participation: the ability to not jusT take from a dataset, but also to participate in dataset production. Simply having data collected from citizens does not make a data infrastructure participatory. That sensors tracked my movement around an urban area, does not make me an active participant in collecting data. But by contrast, when citizens come together to collect new datasets, such as the water and air quality datasets generated by sensors from Public Lab 15, and are able to feed this into the shared corpus of data used by the state, there is much more genuine participation taking place. Similarly, the use of voluntary contributed data on Open Street Map, or submissions to issue-tracking platforms like FixMyStreet, constitute a degree of participation in producing a public data infrastructure when the state also participates in use of those platforms.

It is worth noting, however, that most participatory citizen data projects, whether concerned with data use of production, are both patchy in their coverage, and hard to sustain. They tend to offer an add-on to the public data infrastructure, but to leave the core substantially untouched, not least because of the significant biases that can occur due to inequalities of time, hardware and skills to be able to contribute and take part.

If then we want to explore participation that can have a sustainable impact on policy, we need to look at shaping the core public data infrastructure itself – looking at the existing data collection activities that create it, and exploring whether or not the data collected, and how it is encoded, serves the broad public interest, and allows the maximum range of democratic freedom in policy making and implementation. This is where we can look at a participatory data infrastructure as one that enables citizens (and groups working on their behalf) to engage in discussions over data design.

The idea that communities, and citizens, should be involved in the design of infrastructures is not a new one. In fact, the history of public statistics and data owes a lot to voluntary social reform focused on health and social welfare collecting social survey data in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to influence policy, and then advocating for government to take up ongoing data collection. The design of the census and other government surveys have long been sources of political contention. Yet, with the vast expansion of connected data infrastructures, which rapidly become embedded, brittle and hard to change, we are facing a particular moment at which increased attention is needed to the participatory shaping of public data infrastructures, and to considering the consequences of seemingly technical choices on our societies in the future.

Ribes and Baker [16], in writing about the participation of social scientists in shaping research data infrastructures draw attention to the aspect of timing: highlighting the limited window during which an infrastructure may be flexible enough to allow substantial insights from social science to be integrated into its development. My central argument is that transparency, and the move towards open data, offers a key window within which to shape data infrastructures.

Part 2: Transparency

transparency /tran?spar(?)nsi/ noun “the quality of being done in an open way without secrets” 21

Advocacy for open data has many distinct roots: not only in transparency. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that it is the confluence of many different agendas around a limited consensus point in the Open Definition that allowed the breakthrough of an open data movement late in the last decade [17] [18]. However, the normative idea of transparency plays an important roles in questions of access to public data. It was a central part of the framing of Obama’s famous ‘Open Government Directive’ in 2009 20, and transparency was core to the rhetoric around the launch of data.gov.uk in the wake of a major political expenses scandal.

Transparency is tightly coupled with the concept of accountability. When we talk about government transparency, it is generally as part of government giving account for it’s actions: whether to individuals, or to the population at large via the third and fourth estates. To give effective account means it can’t just make claims, it has to substantiate them. Transparency is a tool allowing citizens to exercise control over their governments.

Sweden’s Freedom of the Press law from 1766 were the first to establish a legal right to information, but it was a slow burn until the middle of the last century, when ‘right to know’ statutes started to gather pace such that over 100 countries now have Right to Information laws in place. Increasingly, these laws recognize that transparency requires not only access to documents, but also access to datasets.

It is also worth noting that transparency has become an important regulatory tool of government: where government may demand transparency off others. As Fung et. al argue in ‘Full Disclosure’, governments have turned to targeted transparency as a way of requiring that certain information (including from the private sector) is placed in the public domain, with the goal of disciplining markets or influencing the operation of marketized public services, by improving the availability of information upon which citizens will make choices [19].

The most important thing to note here is that demands for transparency are often not just about ‘opening up’ a dataset that already exists – but ultimately are about developing an account of some aspect of public policy. To create this account might require data to be connected up from different silos, and may required the creation of new data infrastructures.

This is where standards enter the story.

Part 3: Standards

standard /?stand?d/ noun

something used as a measure, norm, or model in [comparative] evaluations.

The first thing I want to note about ‘standards’ is that the term is used in very different ways by different communities of practice. For a technical community, the idea of a data standard more-or-less relates to a technical specification or even schema, by which the exact way that certain information should be represented as data is set out in minute detail. To assess if data ‘meets’ the standard is a question of how the data is presented. For a policy audience, talk of data standards may be interpreted much more as a question of collection and disclosure norms. To assess if data meets the standard here is more a question of what data is presented. In practice, these aspects interrelate. With anything more than a few records, to assess ‘what’ has been disclosed requires processing data, and that requires it to be modeled according to some reasonable specification.

The second thing I want to note about standards is that they are highly interconnected. If we agree upon a standard for the disclosure of government budget information, for example, then in order to produce data to meet that standard, government may need to check that a whole range of internal systems are generating data in accordance with the standard. The standard for disclosure that sits on the boundary of a public data infrastructure can have a significant influence on other parts of that infrastructure, or its operation can be frustrated when other parts of the infrastructure can’t produce the data it demands.

The third thing to note is that a standard is only really a standard when it has multiple users. In fact, the greater the community of users, the stronger, in effect, the standard is.

So – with these points in mind, let’s look at how a turn to transparency and open data has created both pressure for application of data standards, and an opening for participatory shaping of data infrastructures.

One of the early rallying cries of the open data movement was ‘Raw Data Now’. Yet, it turns out raw data, as a set of database dumps of selected tables from the silo datasets of the state does not always produce effective transparency. What it does do, however, is create the start of a conversation between citizen, private sector and state over the nature of the data collected, held and shared.

Take for example this export from a council’s financial system in response to a central government policy calling for transparency on spend over £500.

Service Area BVA Cop ServDiv Code Type Code Date Transaction No. Amount Revenue / Capital Supplier
Balance Sheet 900551 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 31.12.2010 1900629404 50,000.00 Revenue Zurich Insurance Co
Balance Sheet 900551 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 01.12.2010 1900629402 50,000.00 Revenue Zurich Insurance Co
Balance Sheet 933032 Other income 82700 01.12.2010 1900632614 -3,072.58 Revenue Unison Collection Account
Balance Sheet 934002 Transfer Values paid to other schemes 11650 02.12.2010 1900633491 4,053.21 Revenue NHS Pensions Scheme Account
Balance Sheet 900601 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 06.12.2010 1900634912 1,130.54 Revenue Shires (Gloucester) Ltd
Balance Sheet 900652 Insurance Claims Payment (Int) 47732 06.12.2010 1900634911 1,709.09 Revenue Bluecoat C Of E Primary School
Balance Sheet 900652 Insurance Claims Payment (Int) 47732 10.12.2010 1900637635 1,122.00 Revenue Christ College Cheltenham

It comes from data generated for one purpose (the council’s internal financial management), now being made available for another purpose (external accountability), but that might also be useful for a range of further purposes (companies looking to understand business opportunities; other council’s looking to benchmark their spending, and so-on). Stripped of its context as part of internal financial systems, the column headings make less sense: what is BVA COP? Is the date the date of invoice? Or of payment? What does each ServDiv Code relate to? The first role of any standardization is often to document what the data means: and in doing so, to surface unstated assumptions.

But standardization also plays a role in allowing the emerging use cases for a dataset to be realized. For example, when data columns are aligned comparison across council spending is facilitated. Private firms interested in providing such comparison services may also have a strong interest in seeing each of the authorities providing data doing so to a common standard, to lower their costs of integrating data from each new source.

If standards are just developed as the means of exchanging data between government and private sector re-users of the data, the opportunities for constructing a participatory data infrastructure are slim. But when standards are explored as part of the transparency agenda, and as part of defining both the what and the how of public disclosure, such opportunities are much richer.

When budget and spend open data became available in Sao Paulo in Brazil, a research group at University of Sao Paulo, led by Gisele Craviero, explored how to make this data more accessible to citizens at a local level. They found that by geocoding expenditure, and color coding based on planned, committed and settled funds, they could turn the data from impenetrable tables into information that citizens could engage with. More importantly, they argue that in engaging with government around the value of geocoded data “moving towards open data can lead to changes in these underlying and hidden process [of government data creation], leading to shifts in the way government handles its own data” [22]

The important act here was to recognize open data-enabled transparency not just as a one-way communication from government to citizens, but as an invitation for dialog about the operation of the public data infrastructure, and an opportunity to get involved – explaining that, if government took more care to geocode transactions in its own systems, it would not have to wait for citizens to participate in data use and to expend the substantial labour on manually geocoding some small amount of spending, but instead the opportunity for better geographic analysis of spending would become available much more readily inside and outside the state.

I want to give three brief examples of where the development, or not, of standards is playing a role in creating more participatory data infrastructures, and in the process to draw out a couple of other important aspects of thinking about transparency and standardization as part of the strategic toolkit for asserting citizen rights in the context of smart cities.

Part 4: Examples

Contracts

My first example looks at contracts for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an area I’ve been working on in depth over the last few years, as part of the team creating and maintaining the Open Contracting Data Standard. But, more importantly, its an under-explored aspect of the smart city itself. For most cities, how transparent is the web of contracts that establishes the interaction between public and private players? Can you easily find the tenders and awards for each component of the new city infrastructure? Can you see the terms of the contracts and easily read-up on who owns and controls each aspect of emerging public data infrastructure? All too often the answer to these questions is no. Yet, when it comes to procurement, the idea of transparency in contracting is generally well established, and global guidance on Public Private Partnerships highlights transparency of both process and contract documents as an essential component of good governance.

The Open Contracting Data Standard emerged in 2014 as a technical specification to give form to a set of principles on contracting disclosure. It was developed through a year-long process of research, going back and forth between a focus on ‘data supply’ and understanding the data that government systems are able to produce on their contracting, and ‘data demand’, identifying a wide range of user groups for this data, and seeking to align the content and structure of the standard with their needs. This resulted in a standard that provides a framework for publication of detailed information at each stage of a contracting process, from planning, through tender, award and signed contract, right through to final spending and delivery.

Meeting this standard in full is quite demanding for authorities. Many lack existing data infrastructures that provide common identifiers across the whole contracting process, and so adopting OCDS for data disclosure may involve some elements of update to internal systems and processes. The transparency standard has an inwards effect, shaping not only the data published, but the data managed. In supporting implementation of OCDS, we’ve also found that the process of working through the structured publication of data often reveals as yet unrecognized data quality issues in internal systems, and issues of compliance with existing procurement policies.

Now, two of the critiques that might be offered of standards is that, as highly technical objects their development is only open to participation from a limited set of people, and that in setting out a uniform approach to data publication, they are a further tool of centralization. Both these are serious issues.

In the Open Contracting Data Standard we’ve sought to navigate them by working hard on having an open governance process for the standard itself, and using a range of strategies to engagement people in shaping the standard, including workshops, webinars, peer-review processes and presenting the standard in a range of more accessible formats. We’re also developing an implementation and extensions model that encourages local debate over exactly which elements of the overall framework should be prioritized for publication, whilst highlighting the fields of data that are needed in order to realize particular use-cases.

This highlights an important point: standards like OCDS are more than the technical spec. There is a whole process of support, community building, data quality assurance and feedback going on to encourage data interoperability, and to support localization of the standard to meet particular needs.

When standards create the space, then other aspects of a participatory data infrastructure are also enabled and facilitated. A reliable flow of data on pipeline contracts may allow citizens to scrutinize the potential terms of tenders for smart city infrastructure before contracts are awarded and signed, and an infrastructure with the right feedback mechanisms could ensure, for example, that performance-based payments to providers are properly influenced by independent citizen input.

The thesis here is one of breadth and depth. A participatory developed open standard allows a relatively small-investment intervention to shape a broad section of public data infrastructure, influencing the internal practice of government and establishing the conditions for more ad-hoc deep-dive interventions, that allow citizens to use that data to pursue particular projects of change.

Earth

The second example explores this in the context of land. Who owns the smart city?

The Open Data Index and Open Data Barometer studies of global open data availability have had a ‘Land Ownership’ category for a number of years, and there is a general principle that land ownership information should, to some extent, be public. However, exactly what should be published is a tricky question. An over-simplified schema might ignore the complex realities of land rights, trying to reduce a set of overlapping claims to a plot number and owner. By contrast, the narrative accounts of ownership that often exist in the documentary record may be to complex to render as data [24]. In working on a refined Open Data Index category, the Cadasta Foundation 23 noted that opening up property owners names in the context of a stable country with functioning rule of law “has very different risks and implications than in a country with less formal documentation, or where dispossession, kidnapping, and or death are real and pervasive issues” 23.

The point here is that a participatory process around the standards for transparency may not, from the citizen perspective, always drive at more disclosure, but that at times, standards may also need to protect the ‘strategic invisibility’ of marginalized groups [25]. In the United Kingdom, although individual titles can be bought for £3 from the Land Registry, no public dataset of title-holders is available. However, there are moves in place to establish a public dataset of land owned by private firms, or foreign owners, coming in part out of an anti-corruption agenda. This fits with the idea that, as Sunil Abraham puts it, “privacy should be inversely proportional to power” 26.

Central property registers are not the only source of data relevant to the smart city. Public authorities often have their own data on public assets. A public conversation on the standards needed to describe this land, and share information about it, is arguable overdue. Again looking at the UK experience, the government recently consulted on requiring authorities to record all information on their land assets through the Property Information Management system (ePIMS): centralizing information on public property assets, but doing so against a reductive schema that serves central government interests. In the consultation on this I argued that, by contrast, we need an approach based on a common standard for describing public land, but that allows local areas the freedom to augment a core schema with other information relevant to local policy debates.

Air

From the earth, let us turn very briefly to the air. Air pollution is a massive issue, causing millions on premature deaths worldwide every year. It is an issue that is particularly acute in urban areas. Yet, as the Open Data Institute note “we are still struggling to ‘see’ air pollution in our everyday lives” 27. They report the case of decision making on a new runway at Heathrow Airport, where policy makers were presented with data from just 14 NO2 sensors. By contrast, a network of citizen sensors provided much more granular information, and information from citizen’s gardens and households, offering a different account from those official sensors by roads or in fields.

Mapping the data from official government air quality sensors reveals just how limited their coverage is: and backs up the ODI’s calls for a collaborative, or participatory, data infrastructure. In a 2016 blog post, Jamie Fawcett describes how:

“Our current data infrastructure for air quality is fragmented. Projects each have their own goals and ambitions. Their sensor networks and data feeds often sit in silos, separated by technical choices, organizational ambition and disputes over data quality and sensor placement. The concerns might be valid, but they stand in the way of their common purpose, their common goals.”

He concludes “We need to commit to providing real-time open data using open standards.”

This is a call for transparency by both public and private actors: agreeing to allow re-use of their data, and rendering it comparable through common standards. The design of such standards will need to carefully balance public and private interests, and to work out how the costs of making data comparable will fall between data publishers and users.

Part 5: Recap

So, to briefly recap:

  • I want to draw attention to the data infrastructures of the smart city and the modern state;
  • I’ve suggested that open data and transparency can be powerful tools in performing the kind of infrastructural inversion that brings the context and history of datasets into view and opens them up to scrutiny;
  • I’ve furthermore argued that transparency policy opens up an opportunity for a two-way dialogue about public data infrastructures, and for citizen participation not only in the use and production of data, but also in setting standards for data disclosure;
  • I’ve then highlighted how standards for disclosure don’t just shape the data that enters the public domain, but they also have an upwards impact on the shape of the public data infrastructure itself.

Taken together, this is a call for more focus on the structure and standardization of data, and more work on exploring the current potential of standardization as a site of participation, and an enabler of citizen participation in future.

If you are looking for a more practical set of takeaways that flow from all this, let me offer a set of questions that can be asked of any smart cities project, or indeed, any data-rich process of governance:

  • (1) What information is pro-actively published, or can be demanded, as a result of transparency and right to information policies?
  • (2) What does the structure of the data reveal about the process/project it relates to?
  • (3) What standards might be used to publish this data?
  • (4) Do these standards provide the data I, or other citizens, need to be empowered in relevant to this process/project?
  • (5) Are these open standards? Whose needs were they designed to serve?
  • (6) Can I influence these standards? Can I afford not to?

References

1: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=define%3Ainfrastructure, accessed 17th August 2017

2: Star, S., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111–134.

3: Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. The MIT Press.

4: Goldsmith, S., & Crawford, S. (2014). The responsive city. Jossey-Bass.

5: Kitchin, R. (2014). The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. SAGE Publications.

6: The Danish Government. (2012). Good Basic Data for Everyone – a Driver for Growth and Efficiency, (October 2012)

7: Bartha, G., & Kocsis, S. (2011). Standardization of Geographic Data: The European INSPIRE Directive. European Journal of Geography, 22, 79–89.

10: Guldi, J. (2012). Roads to power: Britain invents the infrastructure state.

[11]: Gray, J., & Davies, T. (2015). Fighting Phantom Firms in the UK : From Opening Up Datasets to Reshaping Data Infrastructures?

[12]: Gray, J., & Tommaso Venturini. (2015). Rethinking the Politics of Public Information: From Opening Up Datasets to Recomposing Data Infrastructures?

[13]: Gray, J. (2015). DEMOCRATISING THE DATA REVOLUTION: A Discussion Paper

[14]: Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journalof the American Institute of Planners, 34(5), 216–224.

[16]: Ribes, D., & Baker, K. (2007). Modes of social science engagement in community infrastructure design. Proceedings of the 3rd Communities and Technologies Conference, C and T 2007, 107–130.

[17]: Davies, T. (2010, September 29). Open data, democracy and public sector reform: A look at open government data use from data.gov.uk.

[18]: Davies, T. (2014). Open Data Policies and Practice: An International Comparison.

[19]: Fung, A., Graham, M., & Weil, D. (2007). Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.

[22]: Craveiro, G. S., Machado, J. A. S., Martano, A. M. R., & Souza, T. J. (2014). Exploring the Impact of Web Publishing Budgetary Information at the Sub-National Level in Brazil.

[24]: Hetherington, K. (2011). Guerrilla auditors: the politics of transparency in neoliberal Paraguay. London: Duke University Press.

[25]: Scott, J. C. (1987). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.

Open data for tax justice: the real design challenge is social

[Summary: Thinking aloud about a pragmatic / humanist approach to data infrastructure building]

Stephen Abbott Pugh of Open Knowledge International has just blogged about the Open Data for Tax Justice ‘design sprint’ that took place in London on Monday and Tuesday. I took part in the first day and a half of the workshop, and found myself fairly at-odds with the approach being taken that focussed narrowly on the data-pipelines based creation of a centralised dataset, and that appeared to create barriers rather than bridges between data and domain experts. Rather than the rethink the approach, as I would argue is needed, the Open Knowledge write up appears to show the Open Data for Tax Justice project heading further down this flawed path.

In this post, I’m offering an (I hope) constructive critique of the approach, trying to draw out some more general principles that might inform projects to create more participatory data infrastructures.

The context

As the OKI post relates:

“Country-by-country reporting (CBCR) is a transparency mechanism which requires multinational corporations to publish information about their economic activities in all of the countries where they operate. This includes information on the taxes they pay, the number of people they employ and the profits they report.”

Country by Country reporting has been a major ask of tax justice campaigners since the early 2000s, in order to address tax avoidance by multi-national companies who shift their profits around the world through complex corporate structures and internal transfers. CBCR got a major boost in 2013 with the launch of reporting requirements for EU Banks to publicly disclose Country by Country reports under the CRD IV regulations. In the extractives sector, campaigners have also secured regulations requiring disclosure of tax and licensing payments to government on a project-by-project basis.

Although in the case of UK extractives firms, reporting is taking place to companies house as structured data, with an API available to access reports, for EU Banks, reporting is predominantly in the form of tables at the back of PDF format company reports.

If campaigners are successful, public reporting will be extended to all EU multinationals, holding out the prospect of up to 6000 more annual reports that can provide a breakdown of turnover, profit, tax and employees country-by-country. If the templates for disclosure are based on existing OECD models for private exchange between tax authorities, the data may also include information on the different legal entities that make a corporate group, important for public understanding the structure of the corporate world.

Earlier this year, a report from Alex Cobham, Jonathan Gray and Richard Murphey set out a number of use-cases for such data, making the case that “a global public database on the tax contributions and economic activities of multinational companies” would be an asset for a wide range of users, from journalists, civil society and investors.

Sprinting with a data-pipelines hammer

This week’s design sprint focussed particularly on ‘data extraction’, developing a set of data pipeline scripts and processes that involve downloading a report PDF, marking up the tables where Country by Country data is stored, describing what each column contains using YAML, and then committing this to GitHub where the process can then be replicably run using datapipeline commands. Then, with the data extracted, it can be loaded into an SQL database, and explored by writing queries or building simple charts. It’s a technically advanced approach, and great for ensuring replicability of data extraction.

But, its also an approach that ultimately entirely misses the point, ignoring the social process of data production, creating technical barriers instead of empowering contributors and users, and offering nothing for campaigners who want to ensure that better data is produced ‘at source’ by companies.

Whilst the OKI blog post reports that “The Open Data for Tax Justice network team are now exploring opportunities for collaborations to collect and process all available CRD IV data via the pipeline and tools developed during our sprint.” I want to argue for a refocussed approach, based around a much closer look at the social dynamics of data creation and use.

An alternative approach: crafting collaborations

I’ve tried below to unpack a number of principles that might guide that alternative approach:

Principle 1: Letting people use their own tools

Any approach that involves downloading, installing, signing-up to, configuring or learning new software in order to create or use data is likely to exclude a large community of potential users. If the data you are dealing with is tabular: focus on spreadsheets.

More technical users can transform data into database formats when the questions they want to answer require the additional power that brings, but it is better if the starting workflow is configured to be accessible to the largest number of likely users.

Back in October I put together a rough prototype of a Google spreadsheets based transcription tool for Country by Country reports, that needed just copy-and-paste of data, and a few selections from validated drop-down lists to go from PDFs to normalised data – allowing a large user community to engage directly with the data, with almost zero learning curve.

The only tool this approach needs to introduce is something like tabula or PDFTables to convert from PDF to Excel or CSV: but in this workflow the data comes right back to the user to be able to work with it after it has been converted, rather than being taken away from them into a longer processing pipeline. Plus, it brings the benefit of raising awareness of data extraction from PDF that the user can adopt for other projects in future, and allowing the user to work-around failed conversions using a manual transcription approach if they need to.

(Sidenote: from discussions, I understand that one of the reasons the OKI team made their technical choice was from envisaging the primary users as ‘non-experts’ who would engage in crowdsourcing transcriptions of PDF reports. I think this is both highly optimistic, and relies on a flawed analysis of the relatively small scale of the crowdsourcing task in terms of a few 1000 reports a year, and the potential benefits of involving a more engaged group of contributors in creating a civil society database)

Principle 2: Aim for instant empowerment

One of the striking things about Country by Country reporting data is how simple it ultimately is. The CRD IV disclosures contain just a handful of measures (turnover, pre-tax profits, tax paid, number of employees), a few dimensions (company name, country, year), and a range of annotations in footnotes or explanations. The analysis that can be done with this is data is similarly simple – yet also very powerful. Being able to go from a PDF table of data, to a quick view of the ratios between turnover and tax, or profit and employees for a country can quickly highlight areas to investigate for profit-shifting and tax-avoidance behaviour.

Calculating these ratios is possible almost as soon as you have data in a spreadsheet form. In fact, a well set up template could calculate them directly, or the user with basic ability to write formula could fill in the columns they need.

Many of the use-cases for Country by Country reports are based not on aggregation across hundreds of firms, but on simply understanding the behaviour of one or two firms. Investigators and researchers often have firms they are particularly interested in, and where the combination of simple data, and their contextual knowledge, can go a long way.

Principle 3: Don’t drop context

On the topic of context: all those footnotes and explanations in company reports are an important part of the data. They might not be computable, or easy to query against, but in the data explorations that took place on Monday and Tuesday I was struck by how much the tax justice experts were relying not only on the numerical figures to find stories, but also on the explanations and other annotations from reports.

The data pipelines approach dropped these annotations (and indeed dropped anything that didn’t fit into it’s schema). An alternative approach would work from the principle that, as far as possible, nothing of the source should be thrown away – and structure should be layered on top of the messy reality of accounting judgements and decisions.

Principle 4: Data making is meaning-making

A lot of the analysis of Country by Country reporting data is about look for outliers. But data outliers and data errors can look pretty similar. Instead of trying to separate the process of data preparation and analysis, these two need to be brought closer together.

Creating a shared database of tax disclosures will involve not only processes of data extraction, but also processes of validation and quality control. It will require incentives for contributors, and will require attention to building a community of users.

Some of the current structured data available from Country by Country reports has been transcribed by University students as part of their classes – where data was created as a starting point for a close feedback loop of data analysis. The idea of ‘frictionless data’ makes sense when it comes to getting a list of currency codes, but when it comes to understanding accounts, some ‘friction’ of social process can go a long way to getting reliable data, and building a community of practice who understand the data in more depth.

Principle 5: Standards support distributed collaboration

One of the difficulties in using the data mentioned above, prepared by a group of students, was that it had been transcribed and structured to solve the particular analytical problem of the class, and not against any shared standard for identifying countries, companies or the measures being transcribed.

The absence of agreement on key issues such as codelists for tax jurisdictions, company identifiers, codes and definitions of measures, and how to handle annotations and missing data means that the data that is generated by different researchers, or even different regulatory regimes, is not comparable, and can’t be easily combined.

The data pipelines approach is based on rendering data comparable through a centralised infrastructure. In my experience, such approaches are brittle, particularly in the context of voluntary collaboration, and they tend to create bottlenecks for data sharing and innovation. By contrast, an approach based on building light-weight standards can support a much more distributed collaboration approach – in which different groups can focus first on the data that is of most interest to them (for example, national journalists focussing on the tax record of the top-10 companies in their jurisdiction), easily contributing data to a common pool later when their incentives are aligned.

Campaigners also need to be armed with use-case backed proposals for how disclosures should be structured in order to push for the best quality disclosure regimes

What’s the difference?

Depending on your viewpoint, the approach I’ve started to set out above might look more technically ‘messy’ – but I would argue it is more in-tune with the social realities of building a collaborative dataset of company tax disclosures.

Fundamentally (with the exception perhaps of standard maintenance, although that should be managed as a multi-stakeholder project long-term) – it is much more decentralised. This is in line with the approach in the Open Contracting Data Standard, where the Open Contracting Partnership have stuck well to their field-building aspirations, and where many of the most interesting data projects emerge organically at the edge of the network, only later feeding into cross-collaboration.

Even then, this sketch of an alternative technical approach above is only part of the story in building a better data-foundation for action to address corporate tax avoidance. There will still be a lot of labour to create incentives, encourage co-operation, manage data quality, and build capacity to work with data. But better we engage with that labour, than spending our efforts chasing after frictionless dreams of easily created perfect datasets.

The ongoing secrecy saga of Javelin Park: Ernst and Young Value for Money Analysis

[Summary: the latest in Gloucestershire County Council’s Javelin Park secrecy saga (read up on recent episodes here, here and here)]

In the Information Tribunal ruling EA/2015/0254-6 (which led to the provision of a mostly unredacted copy of the 2013 UBB Javelin Park Incinerator Contract), paragraph 27 contains a reference to reports produced for Cabinet by Ernst and Young that provide the basis for the high estimated cancellation cost of the Javelin Park Incinerator.

I requested a copy of these documents from Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) in an FOI request, and following a long review process, have been provided with a heavily redacted copy of the Ernst and Young report has been provided under the Environment Information Regulations (EIRs).

What can we learn from the redacted copy?

The report provides updated Value for Money and Affordability analysis for the Javelin Park Incinerator contract. It was provided to the Council on 5th November 2015, ahead of the Cabinet approving a second ‘Financial Close’ of the Javelin Park Public Private Partnership project at their meeting of 11th November 2015.

This updates many of the figures given in the 2012 Annex 4 ‘Resource Implications’ that was provided in a fully unredacted form following the Information Tribunal ruling. It also provides a number of insights into the actions of the council to inject additional funding into the project.

Whilst the redactions mean there is litle new financial information here on which to update an understanding of the project Value for Money, I did take note of the following:

  • Due to the planning delays, a ‘Revised Project Planning’ (RPP) process was triggered. This allows for various costs and figures in the contract to be updated (See the 2013 contract §3.3). §5.5 of the report indicates that there are updated tonnage prices in force under the Revised Project Plan, with the prose suggesting these have increased. The prose also suggests that anticipated third-party waste revenues have decreased.

  • The report calculates the cost of a Force Majeure Planning Failure Termination. In November 2015 planning approval was fully in place, so this would have been on the basis of GCC excercising their right to turn down the Revised Project Plan (RPP) from UBB.

  • The report does not calculate the cost of a ‘Voluntary Authority Termination’ (the council choosing not to proceed with construction), but instead states that it “would anticipate a sum in excess of £100m”.

  • §4 of the Ernst and Young report states that: “any decision to terminate and pursue a landfill alternative would require a termination payment to UBB to meet costs already incurred. This cost, amounting to c£60m (as set out in Appendix A) has been added to the cost of the Landfill Alternative.” Appendix A is heavily redacted, so it is not possible to identify the basis for this figure, or why this figure of £60m is lower than the sum ‘anticipated in excess of £100m’. However, this could be the source of the £60m – £100m cancellation cost estimates cited by Cabinet members.

  • In the ‘Force Majeure Cancellation Costs’ calculations in Appendix 1, under sub-contractor breakage and redundancy costs, Ernst and Young note that no evidence is held on the actual costs expended by UBB to date, nor the sub-contract breakage costs that would actually be incurred.

  • As of November 2015, Eversheds had produced legal advice to the council on Procurement risks including risk of challenge (p. 3)

  • The affordability analysis (§1.2) “identifies that without the capital contribution [£17m] the Project is in breach of the Council’s affordability limit until 2024 but there after falls inside the affordability limit” and introducing the £17m capital contribution moves affordability to 2022.

At the November 2015 Cabinet meeting the Cabinet claimed savings from the project of £153m, based on the difference between a Landfill base scenario of £522m and project cost of £399m (once a £13m financial contribution from the council had been made). This assumes a waste flow of 60% recycling. The savings substantially erode (a c. 60% decrease in Net Present Value) with lower waste flow from higher recycling rates.

What is still redacted?

The vast majority of financial sums are redacted from the document, with with the authority invoking ‘regulation 12(5)(e)’ of the Enviromental Information Regulations (EIRs).

There are also a number of redacted sentences, where the nature of the sentence and the goal of redaction is unclear.

Are these redactions justified?

It is notable that in the contract FOI request Information Tribunal Ruling, for similar information in Annexe 4, the Tribunal stated (§77):

“No particular case is made as to how the redacted information in Annex 4 comes within regulation 12(5)(e) but, even assuming it did, we are satisfied the Commissioner’s assessment on the public interest is correct.”

However, they do ground some of this reasoning in the length of time between the information and the present day, stating:

Given that by April 2015 the Contract had long since been signed and there was controversy surrounding it we consider that there was a strong public interest in disclosure of all this detail. The Council’s Checklist says that release would have harmed its negotiating position, presumably in relation to a new procurement. We have commented on that scenario in general terms. Any information about the Council’s general financial position reflected in Annex 4 ought we think to have been in the public domain in any event.

This same reasoning would appear to apply in 2017 to figures from 2015.

The redactions in this report also cover ‘key changes in UBB proposal compared to the position at financial close’, including updated tonnage costs.

The World Bank Framework for Public Private Partnership disclosure calls for publication of tariff information, and revisions to tariff information: suggesting international best practice is for this information to be in the public domain, not kept confidential.

Where next?

Campaigners and County Councillors from a number of parties continue to oppose the incinerator. A complaint has been lodged with the Competition and Markets Authority and local residents have filed formal complaints with the Council’s monitoring officer over the conduct of Cabinet members reporting figures, largely it would seem based on the Ernst and Young report. There will undoubtedly be further updates in local press.

Now open access: The Daily Shaping of State Transparency: Standards, Machine-Readability and the Configuration of Open Government Data Policies

[Summary: co-authored #opendata paper now available open access]

A while back, Sam Goeta kindly invited me to collaborate with him on a paper around open data standards, and the work involved in the back rooms of open data. The paper was finally published in a special issue of Science and Technology Studies on Knowledge Infrastructures late last year, and the open access version is now available.

Abstract

“While many governments are now committed to release Open Government Data under non-proprietary standardized formats, less attention has been given to the actual consequences of these standards for knowledge workers. Unpacking the history of three open data standards (CSV, GTFS, IATI), this paper shows what is actually happening when these standards are enacted in the work practices of bureaucracies. It is built on participant-observer enquiry and interviews focussed on the back rooms of open data, and looking specifically at the invisible work necessary to construct open datasets. It shows that the adoption of open standards is increasingly becoming an indicator of the advancement of open data programmes. Enacting open standards involves much more than simple technical operations, it operates a quiet and localised transformation of bureaucracies, in which the decisions of data workers have substantive consequences for how the open government data and transparency agendas are performed.”

Javelin Park: What’s in the Information Tribunal ruling?

[Summary: exploring on a local open contracting campaign victory and it’s implications for contract transparency]

On Friday, the Information Rights Tribunal ruled on the appeal by Gloucestershire County Council against an earlier ruling by the Information Commissioner that the contract for a large PFI (Public Private Partnership) project to build an waste incinerator at Javelin Park near Stroud should be substantially published.

Campaigners have been fighting for access to the contract since 2015, when their first Freedom of Information Request was refused. Although we discovered earlier this year that the contract text had been accidentally put into the public domain by the Council failing to properly apply all the redactions they have been arguing for to an earlier FOI response, the Information Tribunal ruling is important in that it:

  • Sets out clearly the Tribunal’s view on the sections of the contract and it’s schedules that should be in the public domain (almost all of it);
  • Sets out clear reasoning applicable to other UK contracts – supporting the idea that there is a strong public interest in the text of contracts, and that exceptions for commercial confidentiality should be minimal;
  • Provides support for the idea that contract text should be proactively published.

You can find a copy of the ruling here, but, as it runs to 67 pages I’ve pulled out a few of the key points below.

(A) The basics

In paragraph 6 – 21 the Tribunal helpfully describe the background of the case – which involves a 25-year Public Private Partnership contract involving the build and operation of a Waste Incinerator, with an estimated overall contract value of £500m, and annual capacity of up to 190,000 tonnes.

The original request for an unredacted copy of the contract was made under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) – and was fought by the council on the grounds of Intellectual Property Rights, and Commercial Confidentiality.

(B) The arguments

Below is a non-exhaustive summary of arguments explored in the tribunal report (from the perspective of a non-lawyer trying to sense-make):

(1) Environment Information Regulations vs FOI? The council argued that sections of the contract should be considered under FOI (slightly weaker access rights) instead of Environment Information Regulations. The Tribunal ruled that the contract, as a whole, fell under EIRs (Para 39 & 40) as it, as a whole, represents a measure with substantial environmental implications.

(2) Commercial confidentiality? The council argued that large sections of the contract, including pricing and volume information, were commercially sensitive and their disclosure could pose a risk to both the private contractor, and the council, in terms of impacts on any future tendering activity.

In paragraph 44 the tribunal provide a useful discussion of EIR Regulation 12(5)(e) and the difficulty of working out to what extent an adverse effect of disclosure on economic interests of parties need to be established to justify confidentiality. However, the arguments of the Tribunal hinge much more on Schedule 23 of the contract itself, which was headed “Commercial sensitive contractual provisions”, and which was cited in the contract (§84.1) as the list of items that should be kept confidential by the parties.

A large quantity of the redactions sought by the Council, and which they appears to have spent over £200,000 fighting for (based on transactions to their lawyers in the Spending over £500 data), are not contained in this schedule.

Whilst it therefore appears the contract did follow good practice of agreeing from the outset any sections that could be subject to confidentiality, the Council did not follow this in actually applying redactions.

(3) Public interests in disclosure? The Tribunal evaluated each of the redactions sought by the council, and tested (a) whether confidentiality could be reasonably expected under the contract clause and schedules referring to this; and (b) whether there was, in any case, a public interest in disclosure.

Paragraphs 57 – 59 discuss the basis of public interest are worth quoting at length:

“§57. …Concerns have been expressed about the EfW technology chosen by the Council, which those against it say may involve harmful emissions and toxic waste left over from the scrubbing process. Planning concerns have been expressed about the height, mass and design of the plant and the increase in heavy road traffic which will be caused along with consequential air pollution. Although we are not in any position to assess the merits of these concerns, they are clearly genuine and not frivolous.

§58. The Contract itself is a PFI contract involving the expenditure of a great deal of public money over many years;… We can, we think, take judicial note of the fact that the PFI model is itself controversial, with legitimate concerns expressed about bad value for money, opacity and the tendency to load expenditure on future generations. Further, it is said that the structure of the Contract, by requiring the Council to pay for a certain amount of waste to be incinerated (the so-called “take or pay” arrangement) may have tied the Council in to supply a quantity of waste which is not viable in future and may have negative environmental effect of discouraging recycling…

§59. Given those considerations, in our view there was a significant public interest in the disclosure of the entire contract, in the interests both of transparency and accountability, ie the enable the public to be informed as to exactly what the Council had agreed on their behalf and its long-term consequences and to hold it properly to account, in particular through Council elections.”

On the issue of whether sections of the contract can be selectively disclosed, the Tribunal state:

§59. “… We make clear that we are not suggesting that the exercise is an ‘all or nothing’ one all we are doing is recognising that the provisions which the Council seeks to withhold are part of a greater interlocking whole and must inevitably be seen in that context.”

They also draw attention to the Local Government Transparency Code 2014 and the presumption in there of proactive disclosure – something I cover in this post.

They further draw attention to the fact that, when the original request was made in March 2015:

“§61…”the controversy was particularly intense and there was a danger that the whole Contract would have to be terminated at a cost, according to the Council of up to £100 million. At that stage, in our view, the Council’s obligation to act transparency was particularly strong as was the public interest in the exact position in relation to the compensation payable in so far as the Contract contained relevant provisions.”

They also argue that what matters is not how much of the text of a contract is in the public domain (the council argued that 95% of the text was public from the 1000+ pages of documents), but the substantives of that text. The tribunal state:

“In our view, the fact that the public authority has disclosed some information in the past cannot be relevant to the issue of whether they should have disclosed more.”

On the majority of individual redactions evaluated, the Tribunal find the public interest overwhelmingly supports publication. Paragraphs 74 – 216 go through the contract redaction-by-redaction, schedule by schedule, providing the reasoning for each decision. Where redactions are upheld, this is down to their information being included in the schedule of confidential information, and the Tribunal finding no substantial public interest in disclosure (though in some cases they still express puzzlement as to why redaction might be required).

(4) Impact on future procurement? In paragraph 72 the Tribunal consider arguments from the Council and UBB that disclosure would prejudice future procurements, and prevent the Council getting the best deal. They state:

“§72… We cannot accept such a case. Any potential contractor seeking to do business throughout the EU must be well aware of the duties of public authorities in relation to environmental information. We do not accept that they would (or should) complain or change their behaviour in response to a disclosure of information by the Council or any other public authority which was required by the EIR (or indeed FOIA)…”

(5) Intellectual property protection? The council invoked a separate argument for Schedule 33 which covers the sale of electricity generated from the plant. The mechanism by which this is to happen is fairly opaque, and appears to involve as-yet untested deals for ‘power off-take’. The Tribunal note that they were not “…given a very clear explanation of how this was all going to work…” (§212), but that “…Mr Mawdsley [(the council officer responsible)] [hoped] to sell the contents of Schedule 33 to other local authorities.”

The council argued that the Schedule was their IP, “based on copyright , database rights and the law relating to trade secrets.”.

The tribunal dismiss this, and in a damning paragraph note:

“§216. So far as the public interest is concerned, we agree with the Commissioner that, if relevant, it favours the disclosure of Schedule 33. The Council expressly accepts that there is a public interest in transparency about its plans to sell electricity for wider use; in our view it is a weighty public interest. On the other hand, we remain unclear as to how the Council’s or UBB’s negotiating position with third parties will be damaged. As to the wish to protect the confidentiality of legal and technical details that are novel in order to sell them on to other local authorities, even assuming that Mr Mawdsley is not being overoptimistic about the potential for the Council to make money in this way, we do not think that there is a particularly great public interest in the Council being able to commercially exploit a scheme which is apparently designed to avoid the normal regulatory regime.”

Overall

I’m not sure to what extend Tribunal decisions set precedents for others – but it seems to me there are strong arguments here that supports the positions that:

  • Where contracts are made that commit public money – the public have a right to know the detail of those contracts;
  • Contracts need to be treated as a whole, and redactions kept to a minimum;
  • Only redactions agreed in advance, and set out transparently in a clear schedule should be allowed;
  • A public party cannot claim intellectual property over a negotiated contract text;

Now that we have official access to the substantial majority of the Gloucestershire Incinerator contract, the challenge ahead is to work our what of the damage done by the Council Cabinet and contractors unaccountable actions over the last 18 months can be challenged, and undone. Access to documents is ultimately just one part of a wider open contracting journey.

(C) Other things of note

There are a few other elements of note I jotted down whilst reading through the judgement.

  • The claim made to council on 18th Feb 2015 that it could cost £60m – £100m to cancel the contract appears to be based on calculations from officers, and/or Ernst and Young which have not been published by the authority (perhaps another EIR or FOIA request will be needed here…). The Tribunal ruling refers in Paragraph 27 to a document from Ernst and Young presented to Cabinet in November 2015. However campaigners reading the unredacted contract cannot find the substantiation for the cancellation costs being so high before the facility is operational. It appears breakage before the plant is in operation could cost substantially less than the break-points once it is up and running – and possibly even lower than the £30m the Council has subsequently committed from reserves to cover shortfalls in the project.

  • Fighting disclosure has potentially cost the council much more than the hundreds of thousands spent on legal fees. Now that the contract model can be scrutinised, and alternatives explored, it may turn out that delays have led to potential cancellation of the contract

  • Mr Mawdsley, the council officer who has been pushing the Incinerator contract, comes in for criticism from the Tribunal. In paragraph 73 they note “Mr Peiro’s [UBB staff member] evidence was inevitably likely to be rather partisan, and, although he is an official and was giving evidence on behalf of a public authority, we are afraid we reached the view that Mr Mawdsley’s evidence on behalf of the Council was also rather partisan. We were surprised at the failure of each to attach any great importance to clause 84 and Schedule 23 or to the Transparency Code… We accept the submission of Mr West at para 78 of his final submissions that Mr Mawdsley’s evidence was ‘…so far-reaching as to be unconvincing, in particular in relation to matters such as Access Road Disruption Events”.

What next?

I’ve tried, at least in section A and B above to summarise rather than analyse. But, as I’m posting this on a personal blog, if I might here be forgiven a personal and partisan point…

If you are in Gloucestershire and concerned about this – the Tribunal made a good point: elections are a key mechanism to hold the Council to account – and all the Councillors who voted for the Incinerator on the basis of bad information, or secrets known only to Cabinet, are up for re-election on May 4th.

I only discovered this local case when my wife, Rachel, started getting involved in local Green Party conversations, and pointed out the work our Green County Councillor Sarah Lunnon was doing to push for open contracting, and to challenge the secrecy of the Incinerator contract. We were both astonished to see the County Council being so reckless with public resources and our local environment – and to see them so opposed to transparent and accountable politics.

It spurred me into reading as much as I could of the information that was available on the contract – but Rachel has taken it a step further – and is standing as Green Party candidate for Minchinhampton Division in the upcoming County Council elections.

There is ultimately the chance that we could change the balance of power in Gloucestershire – voting out the Tory administration that’s made these reckless decisions – and getting in a progressive coalition who can work to undo the damage. So – if you happen to be local to Minchinhampton, Thrupp or Chalford: please support Rachel. If you live elsewhere in Gloucestershire: make sure you get out and vote on May 4th, and use your vote for a progressive candidate who will commit to open contracting, and to stopping this one wasteful incinerator deal.

And if this is all too parochial… think about the contracts your local authority has signed you up to. Have you looked to see that they really work in the public interest?


[Note – typos in transcription from the original judgement are my own. I’m working from a printed copy, awaiting access to digital copy from the Tribunal website]

UK Open Contracting goes local in Gloucestershire?

[Summary: Explore arguments for Gloucestershire County Council to support Open Contracting on Weds 7th December]

This Wednesday, on the eve of the Open Government Partnership summit in Paris, where I expect we’ll be hearing updates from Open Contracting projects across the world, my local County Council in Gloucestershire will be voting on an Open Contracting motion.

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If you’re not familiar with Open Contracting, it’s a simple idea, described by the Open Contracting Partnership here.

The motion, introduced by our local Green Party councillor Sarah Lunnon, calls on the Council to:

commit to the Open Contracting Global Principles and takes action to ensure that: – By the end of 2017 complete information for all contracting processes over £1m, including details of the tender, award and contract process, the full text of contracts and amendments, and performance information, are proactively published;* – By the end of 2018 complete information is available for all contracting processes, over £500, is proactively published”

It goes on to state that:

“The presumption should be that the text of all contracts is open by default. Redactions should only be permitted: (a) at the explicit written request of the parties to the contract; (b) subject to the public interest tests of the Freedom of Information act; (c) with the minimum possible redactions; and (d) with full justifications for any redaction given.”

Passing this motion would, as far as I’m aware, make Gloucestershire the first local authority in the UK to explicitly commit to the Open Contracting Global Principles. Although the Gloucestershire motion may be, at least in part, a response to the opaqueness of one particular contract, by being framed in terms of the Global Open Contracting Principles, if offers something of a win-win for local business (greater access to opportunities), citizens (greater understanding of how funds are spent) and the authority (better deals, and better scrutiny of spending).

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-15-31-49

If you’re a Gloucestershire resident, consider contacting your Councillor to ask them to support the motion.

If you’re not – perhaps there might be an opportunity to bring forward an open contracting initiative in your own area? As it turns out – all the national policy foundations are in place in the UK – it just needs commitment from local areas to put them into practice.

The framework exists for local open contracting in the UK

Below are a few of the resources I found to address common questions raised about Open Contracting, and disclosure of contracting documents, when I was researching a short letter to local councillors on the motion.

National procurement policy already establishes a presumption in favour of disclosure The UK’s Public Sector Procurement Policy incorporates a set of Transparency Principles that state that:

There should be a presumption in favour of disclosing information, with exemptions following the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act – for example, on national security or commercial confidentiality grounds. The presumption in favour of disclosure should apply to the vast majority of commercial information about government contracts, with commercial confidentiality being the exception rather than the rule.

The principles go on to note that exemptions may be available for pricing information, but that “This means the way the supplier has arrived at the price they are charging government in a contract, ****but should not usually be grounds for withholding the price itself.****” (emphasis added)

Commercial confidentiality concerns can be addressed through good planning

In 2014, the Centre for Global Development facilitated a multi-stakeholder working group on Publishing Government Contracts, including public and private sector representatives. This group concluded that:

While there are legitimate commercial, national-security, and privacy concerns, they involve a small minority of contracts and can be addressed using a principles-based redaction policy. (From issue brief. Full report here)

The findings of the CDG working group show that a principle of ‘open by default’ is viable and practice.

Data protection concerns rarely justify non-disclosure of contracts

The Local Government Transparency Code 2015 provides guidance on managing any data protection concerns that may arise from contract publication, stating that:

The Data Protection Act 1998 also does not automatically prohibit information being published naming the suppliers with whom the authority has contracts, including sole traders, because of the public interest in accountability and transparency in the spending of public money.

Section 20 of the code addresses commercial confidentiality, stating that:

The Government has not seen any evidence that publishing details about contracts entered into by local authorities would prejudice procurement exercises or the interests of commercial organisations, or breach commercial confidentiality unless specific confidentiality clauses are included in contracts. Local authorities should expect to publish details of contracts newly entered into – commercial confidentiality should not, in itself, be a reason for local authorities to not follow the provisions of this Code. Therefore, local authorities should consider inserting clauses in new contracts allowing for the disclosure of data in compliance with this Code.

Model transparency clauses can be used to manage disclosure of structured performance information

Initial advocacy for a Model Transparency Clause in the UK was led by Institute for Government, and the national transparency clause, now included in the Model Services Contract, was developed with input from the National Council for Voluntary Services, Open Data Institute, and major private sector contractors. The extensive work that has taken place to develop models of disclosure that balance commercial practicalities and government and public interests in having access to clear information on contract performance, provides a tried-and-tested template for local authorities to build upon.

Contracts Finder and the Open Contracting Data Standard provide ready-made tools to implement disclosure

Contracts Finder is the government’s national platform for publication of contracting opportunities and awards. Local authorities are mandated to submit above-threshold procurements through the platform, but, as far as I understand, can also submit data on all procurement opportunities via Contracts Finder if they choose.

This means there is little extra cost for a local authority to make structured information on all its procurement processes available.

Some planning may be required to manage contract document publication effectively, but the technical complexity involved should be no more than making space available on a local council website for the documents, and linking to these from submissions to Contracts Finder.

Contracts Finder has recently launched an Open Contracting Data Standard API, allowing access to structured information about contracting processes, and a discovery phase is currently underway to improve the platform: with the opportunity to feed in ideas about how local authorities might wish to get their data back, to be able to display it for contracting transparency locally.

Looking ahead

I hope I’ll be able to update this post with news of a successful motion on Thursday. In any case, I’ve been quite struck when working on the research above on the potential to really develop a local open contracting agenda in the UK.

Interested in getting involved too? Drop me a line and let’s explore (tim@timdavies.org.uk)