Open Data to restructure government

(this page is part of my Open Data, Open Society report. Please follow that link to reach the introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to check the notes to readers!)

Generation and management of PSI is related to efficient, cost-effective and transparent governance in deeper and more critical ways than those already considered. Nations and cities are in desperate need of new ideas (J. A. Smith, Shareable Futures). There is a need to rethink and review public services, to understand if and when there’s still a need for them and if, when and how Public Administrations and citizens can work together. In such a scenario, opening PSI data can make the deep changes that will or should happen anyway in the next decades, happen in a less painful and possibly much more efficient manner.

Thanks to Open Data, and to computers in general, today it is possible, if not already necessary, to move away from the “vending machine model” in which all citizens get from government the same one set of automated, absolutely impersonal services, towards a model where citizens really participate because they can finally do part of the job themselves as THEY need, with as little intermediaries as possible. In the speech on Building Britain’s Digital Future, given on 22 March 2010, the UK Prime Minister said that “Open Data transform not just the way services are delivered but, more importantly, allow citizens to control those services." More than reducing government’s role, Open Data can improve its public services and decision-making processes through real participation, competition and load sharing. There are many experts and “professional amateurs” who would never get into politics, but could contribute effectively to the transition away from the vending machine model.

Here is the reason why it makes sense to open the whole process of making use of PSI now that it is technically possible to do it. By definition, official public websites can only offer the ways in which the administration who owns them wants to interact with the public. In many cases that same administration will have to spend extra money to make its data and operations known to all citizens. But in the real world, citizens often don’t know who’s responsible for getting something done, nor do they care. Once systems like those presented in the next chapter become available to all citizens, people will have, much more than before, all the elements they need to form their opinions, plus public services available in ways matching their real needs, without wasting energies to understand the bureaucracy and unwritten customs of many independent offices and fight them.

This scenario has been described saying that “Open data allows software programs and services to be designed by people for people”. Surely there is a lot of idealism in such a vision, but there is no doubt that it is also a very pragmatical, if not cynical one. Opening data quickly may be a very effective way, for any administration with a budget deficit, to cut on public expenses without greatly reducing the availability, for all citizens, of efficient and affordable public services, as well as the opportunity of more job or civic participation opportunities. Once many people and independent businesses can “play” with PSI to offer the same services, under public, possibly real-time scrutiny from everybody else, there are less expenses and reputational risk for the public sector, because it’s much easier to have somebody else doing the jobs that are possible only having access to PSI data.

It is crucial to understand the difference between this kind of “restructuring” or transformation and the privatization/deregulation policies of the last decades. All too often, deregulation has turned up to just be the transfer of a service from an initial monopoly (by some State or local Government) to another monopoly or oligopoly ran by very large, private, for-profit companies. Opening data, instead, means making publicly available to everybody, for free and for any purpose, all the PSI needed to run that service at the smallest possible cost. This not only allows anybody to run that service. It also (and above all) makes it much easier for everybody else, from public officers and other single citizens to competitors, to verify in any moment if that service is offered in the best possible way. Unlike old-style deregulation, Open Data means engaging with, and trusting, all citizens to participate in the offering, management and control of public interest services, while spending the smallest possible amount of public money.

The conclusion is that the social and political costs of limiting access to PSI can only grow. Today, very often the main point is not how a Public Administration should build and run by itself the best possible online service and websites, but how to make it really possible for everybody with the right skills to do the same or control the quality of the several services.