As part of “Right to Know” week in Canada, Saskatchewan’s Right to Know Committee hosted a lecture by Graham Smith, the Deputy Commissioner and Director of Freedom of Information, United Kingdom Information Commission.
The United Kingdom is known for its progressive stance on Open Government and Open Data and has made monumental strides in that space in the past decade. Surprisingly, the UK did not have a Freedom of Information Act until 2000 when the Blair Government made the commitment during its first term in office. In fact, the FOI Act did not come fully into effect until 2005.
The Blair Government’s Open Government agenda was primarily focused on improving voter turnout during elections and curing the voter apathy that had resulted from a long tradition of keeping the public in the dark about what the Government was up to.
This new level of transparency and openness was seen as a way to regain the public trust and improve the perception of government and it has largely worked. What’s amazing is that the UK Government used Canada’s and Australia’s FOI Act as a model for their Act, but they have since surpassed us in their progressive use of Open Government and Open Data practices, policies and principles.
The current UK government has completely embraced the Open Goverment concept and has quickly gone down the path of promoting open government data, through the development of http://www.data.gov.uk. They have made hundreds of government datasets available for free — to be used as people like. As a result citizens and commercial ventures have made use of the data to develop useful applications.
The UK government has also been progressive in making digital or “soft copies” of information available. Smith talked about the importance of keeping up with the current technology and providing information in a format that is useful and preferred by those requesting it. They will even post to Facebook or Twitter if that’s how it is preferred.
That is not to say that the UK is still not very concerned about personal privacy. Smith made it clear that there is a balance required, but it would seem that the UK government is more willing to accept some risk to ensure there is true transparency and openness. That is refreshing!
He even discussed how the UK is currently considering providing people with access to their own personal health records, and explained that there are great potential benefits including improved accuracy of health information. As far as I’m concerned this makes perfect sense and I don’t understand why I don’t have access to that now — they are MY health records.
True public transparency in the UK is still a work in progress. For example, civil servant salaries are still not disclosed to the public and there is a great deal of controversy surrounding that topic. However, that will go ahead in the near future. While the UK has moved quickly in some areas, it lags in others – he explained that often politicians talk about the importance of Open Government, but in many cases it is just rhetoric and their words are not put in to practice.
The message that resonated most with me was his comment that governments need to “go beyond minimum compliance requirements” and begin to proactively disclose information to build trust and transparency in government. It is after all the people’s “right to know” what is going on with their government.
New technology has made it easier than ever before to communicate and collaborate with others. The quick global adoption of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have completely changed the landscape for how the masses communicate. While the private sector has moved quickly to innovate and change service delivery, the public sector has been slow to react; much to the dismay of citizens. Governments are now in catch-up-mode and looking for quick wins and long-term strategies. Progressive governments have adopted what has been dubbed as the “Open Government” approach.
Essentially, Open Government is about providing easy open access to government information, improved service delivery and enhanced interaction and collaboration with citizens and the business community. The move towards Open Government is essential, because citizens are no longer willing to accept slow unresponsive service and expect to be able to have meaningful real time interactions with their governement . We have all been spoiled by instantaneous access to private sector information and services and we expect the same level of service from our governments.
Kate Lundy, Australian Senator and Open Government proponent, gave an excellent description of Open Government in her speech at the 2010 Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC. She explained that there are three essential principles of Open Government: democratizing data, citizen-centric services and participatory democracy. Open Government builds “trust and confidence in government..,” said Lundy, “…the internet is the prime catalyst for the next big step in democracy.”
Lundy’s Three Pillars of Open Government:
- Making information available in a useful open format unless there is a demonstrable reason not to.
- A pro-disclosure approach where the default is to publish.
- Encourages citizens and business to contribute and to innovate with government information adding social and economic value.
- User experience that is clear, seamless, easy-to-use and up-to-date.
- Not cluttered by multi-level complexities of government.
- Tailorable to meet the needs of individual citizens.
- Engaging citizens collaboratively on the design, development and implementation of government policy and services
- Adaptable, applied, purposeful and outcome oriented policy development
- The best ideas for government are not alway found within government.