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Column: The Open Government Partnership offers real opportunities for civil society participation

We need to consign the culture of ‘group-think’ that contributed to the banking collapse to the dim and distant past. Open government and open data the way forward for job creation, writes Brian Hayes TD.

Brian Hayes TD

THE CELEBRATED SWEDISH statistician Hans Rosling has a good line about how we use data, “too much Word, not enough Excel”.

In a public service context this neat turn of phrase says a lot. It says a lot about how better use data can offset political imperatives and special interests and get to the heart of the matter in policy debates. A lot about how the data can better exact accountability and drive performance. It also says a lot about the untapped potential of public data as a driver of real economic activity.

There is a lot happening in the public sphere to address these issues. Open Government and open data are a good fit with the government’s reform and job creation agendas.

Greater participation by citizens and civil society

A recent development is Minister Brendan Howlin’s letter of intent, on behalf of the Government, to become a member of the Open Government Partnership. Key to our joining 60 partner States such as Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and the UK is the drafting of a National Action Plan.

This Plan will draw several related strands of eGovernment, Public Service and Government Reform, the Action Plan for Jobs, and the National Digital Strategy together under the Partnership’s guiding principles of transparency, accountability, technology and innovation, and citizen participation.

This last principle in particular represents an opportunity for greater participation by citizens and civil society.  This is an initiative that over the longer-term aims to go further than simply getting more public data out into the open.  With this in mind, the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform has appointed Transparency International Ireland to coordinate civil society input into the development of the National Action Plan.


Digital technology permeates every aspect of our lives

Forget ‘crowd sourcing’ and ‘neural networks’ for a moment.  This is about people and groups with ideas and vision influencing how open data and online public services can better respond to the needs of citizens.  To borrow a quote from the economist Frances Cairncross, “Good information is essential for effective political involvement, and the communications revolution makes information more readily accessible than ever before.

A couple of examples illustrate exactly how the revolution in digital technology permeates every aspect of our public and private lives.

We are awash with data. So much of our daily routines, relations and transactions are recorded or are recordable.  Take the Tesco club card on your key ring.  Every second Tesco’s fidelity system processes 100 shopping baskets which equates to 6 million transactions per day.

DNA gene sequencing encapsulates advances in processing power.  Just over a decade ago the sequencing of a single human genome took several years at a cost of $100 million, today gene sequencing technology can read 26 billion characters per second, while decoding a human genome now costs $10,000.

How to master all this data?

Common to these examples are the enormous amounts of data produced. The challenge for each, equally applicable to a public sector context, is the ability to master the data to beneficial ends, be they social, economic or medical.

To this end, eGovernment actions aim to map the public service data infrastructure.  A recently established (24th June) joint Government and Industry Task-force will identify and develop two pilot projects within the Public Service.  While these pilots are primarily focused on leveraging the employment potential in the fast growing sector of ‘Big Data’, they will provide a template to determine the social and economic costs and benefits of identifying and extracting public sector data and information.

Furthermore, the Public Service will benefit from the research findings of a €1 million investment by Minister Richard Bruton in data analytics.  The recent appointment of Bill McCluggage as Chief Information Officer for the Public Service brings much needed external expertise and a whole-of-service coherence.

Greater coherence is necessary if OECD estimated reductions in administrative costs of between 15 per cent-20 per cent are to flow from better the use of public data. One of Bill’s first big challenges is to identify and open up public service organisations’ latent and active stores of data.

These are welcome and overdue developments. Yet they remain by definition top-down responses.

Real insight into nuts and bolts of government

Across the water in the UK, we see the advantages of bottom-up input from civil society engagement through the Open Government Partnership, not least in terms of increased transparency and accountability for the taxpayer.  The establishment of a Civil Society Network under the UK’s Open Government Partnership is an initiative that we should look to replicate as a by-product of the Irish Action Plan’s consultation process.

The inclusion of organisations such as the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, Practical Participation, and Publish What You Pay UK give you a flavour of the agenda this Network pursues.

Websites such as www.wheredoesmymoneygo.org demonstrate how open government data provides the citizen with real insight into nuts and bolts of government.  Such tools, developed by a new breed of civic entrepreneur, inject greater accountability into how and in what manner government spends taxpayer revenues to fund public services.

Viewing the Action Plan as a means to establish an Irish Network is key to moving public sector organisations closer to a data-driven socio-economic model.

Consigning the culture of ‘group-think’ to the past

This form of dialogue is central to engineering a wider cultural shift where data, objectively validated and adhering to data privacy regulations, underpins policy development and brings more of a focus on the quality and performance of decision making.

I also hope that by internationalising our reform efforts, via such initiatives as the Open Government Partnership, we will consign the culture of ‘group-think’ that contributed to the banking collapse to the dim and distant past.

Tomorrows introductory consultation event offers an opportunity to for people with ideas and energy to get involved, I urge you to take it.

Brian Hayes, TD is Minister of State for Public Service Reform

Go to www.ogpireland.ie for information on Ireland’s OGP Action Plan and to register (no fee) for the introductory consultation event next Wednesday, 9.15am, 10 July 2013

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Brian Hayes TD

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