Reversal of government fortunes

Transform government IT projects from expensive white elephants into open, collaborative innovations, but without compromising our right to privacy.

DATABASE at Postmasters, CC BY-SA 2.0

Image: DATABASE at Postmasters, March 2009 by Michael Mandiberg/CC BY-SA 2.0

What if – I say, what if? – a country in which government IT projects have always been marked as huge, expensive, lengthy failures could transform itself into a country where IT genuinely works for both government and the people? What if the cheeky guys who founded MySociety and made communicating with your MP or looking up his voting record as easy as buying a book from Amazon were given the task of digitizing government? The guys (which I use as a gender-neutral term) who made e-petitions, PledgeBank, and FixMyStreet? Who embarrassed dozens of big, fat, failed government IT projects? What would that look like?

Government IT in Britain has been an expensive calamity for so long that it's become generally accepted that it will fail, and the headlines describing the latest billions lost in taxpayers' money have become a national joke on a par with losing at sports. People complain that Andy Murray hasn't won anything big, but the near-miss is thoroughly ingrained in the British national consciousness; the complaints are as familiar and well-worn a track as the national anthem. No one is happy about it – but it's like comfort food.

It was gently explained to me this week – in a pub, of course – that my understanding of how the UK government operates, based as it is on a mish-mash of single readings of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, repeated viewings of the 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister, and the occasional patient explanation from friends and acquaintances needs to be updated. The show was (and remains) a brilliant exposé of the inner workings of the civil service of the day, something that until then was completely obscure. Politicians repeatedly said it was a documentary, not fiction – and then they began to change in response to it. Who saw that coming? The Blair government bypassed the civil service by hiring outside consultants – who were expensive and, above all, not disinterested. The coalition has reacted by going the other way, thinking small, and hiring people who are good at doing things with all this fancy, new technology. Cheap things. Effective things. Even some of the MySociety people. I know, right?

The fact that people like Mike Bracken, who masterminded the Guardian's open platform and who is a founder of MySociety, are working in government is kind of astonishing. And not just him: also Tom Loosemore, whom I first met editing the mid-1990s version of Wired UK, and who has gone on to work for the BBC and advise Ofcom on digital strategy and Richard Pope, another of the MySociety guys.

The question is, can a small cohort of clever people succeed in turning a lumbering ship like a national government, let alone one running a country so wedded to the traditional way of doing things as Britain is? This week, the UK government has seemed to embrace both the dysfunctional old, in the form of promising the nation's public health data to life sciences companies, and the new, in the form of launching the Government Digital Service. You almost want to make one of those old Tired/Wired tables. Tired: centralisation, big databases, the British population as assets to be sold off or given away to "users", who are large organisations. Wired: individual control, personal data stores, users who are citizens in charge of their own destinies.

Yesterday, Bracken was the one to announce the new Government Data Service. William Heath, who founded the government consultancy Kable (since sold and now Guardian Government Computing) and, in 2004, the Ideal Government blog in pursuit of something exactly like this, could scarcely contain his excitement.

What's less encouraging is seeing health data mixed in with the Autumn Statement's open data provisions (PDF). As Heath wrote when the news broke, open data is about things, not people. Open data is: transport schedules, mapping data, lists of government assets, national statistics, and so on. This kind of data we want published as openly and in as raw a form as possible, so that it can be reused and form the basis for new businesses and economic growth. This is the process that Data.gov started.

But anything that is personally identifiable information (PII) – such as NHS patient records – is not the kind of data we want to open. Yes, there are many organisations that would like access to it: life sciences companies, researchers of all types, large pharmaceutical companies, and so on. This is a battle that has been going on in Europe for more than ten years and for a somewhat shorter amount of time in the US, where the lack of nationalized health insurance means that it's taken longer for the issue to come to the front. In the UK, Ross Anderson (see also here) and Fleur Fisher are probably the longest-running campaigners against the assembling of patient records into a single national database. As the case of Wikileaks and the diplomatic cables showed, it is hopeless to think that a system accessible by 800,000 people can keep a secret.

But let's wait to see the details before we get mad. For today, enjoy the moment. Change may happen! In a good way!


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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