Some Sketchnotes on a Few of My Concerns About #opendata

With my growing unease about just what the agenda driving open government/public data is, I think I’m going to have to find some time away to walk the dog lots, and mull over what pieces might be part of the jigsaw, as well as having a go at trying to put some of them together…

Near the top of the list is a concern about information asymmetry and how open data may be used by private concerns to provide a one-off advantage for them when it comes to poaching services from the public sector. How so? My gut reaction thinking is this: if, as part of the procurement process, the private sector can use open public data to help it secure a contract in competition with a public sector provider, then when contracts come to renewal the public sector may know less when it comes to bid than the private sector company was able to learn when it first tendered. The question here is: does open public data put private sector companies in an advantage when it comes to bidding for public service contracts against an encumbent public provider compared to a public body bidding to recapture a service from an encumbent private provider, given that the private provider may not be required to open up information (for example, through FOI requests, transparency or public reporting obligations) in the same way that a public body is.

Another take on a similar theme is the extent to which there may be a loss of transparency when a service goes from a public to a private provider. If we think there is some benefit to be had from transparency in general terms, then private providers of public services should have the same openness requirements placed on them as the public body. If private companies can claim revealing information is against their commercial interest, can public bodies make the same claims on exactly the same terms under FOI exemption rules, for example (eg MoJ Freedom of information guidance: Exemptions guidance – Section 43: Commercial interests).

Taking the NHS as a case example, here are a few things on my reading list:

  • Monitor report from March 2013 on A fair playing field for the benefit of NHS patients [actual report]. For example, the report identified the following distortions:

    1. Participation distortions. Some providers are directly or indirectly excluded from offering their services to NHS patients for reasons other than quality or efficiency. Restrictions on participation disadvantage providers seeking to expand into new services or new areas, regardless of whether the providers are public, charitable or private. Participation distortions disadvantage nonincumbent providers of every type.
    2. Cost distortions. Some types of provider face externally imposed costs that do not fall on other providers. On balance, cost distortions mostly disadvantage charitable and private health care providers compared to public providers.
    3. Flexibility distortions. Some providers’ ability to adapt their services to the changing needs of patients and commissioners is constrained by factors outside their control. These flexibility distortions mostly disadvantage public sector providers compared to other types.

    I’m not sure to what extent, if any, the report reviews distortions and asymmetries arising from open data issues.
    A search of the report for mentions of FOI turns up:

    Provider transparency
    Historically, public providers have faced higher levels of scrutiny than other providers, including requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. This degree of scrutiny can improve accountability to patients and promote good practice. Freedom of Information requirements have been extended through the standard NHS contract to private and charitable providers. However, it is not clear that this is operating effectively as yet, and other aspects of transparency do not apply across all types of provider.
    29. The Government and commissioners should ensure that transparency, including Freedom of Information requirements, is implemented across all types of provider of NHS services on a consistent basis.

    As I said, it’s on the reading list…

  • A terrifying post on the Computer Weekly/Public Sector IT blog – NHS watchdog commandeers data in bid to stimulate privatization and an earlier one on the naive take on hospital mortality data: Data regime makes merciless start on NHS privatization. Are there any reports or strategy documents from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) I need to add to my reading list?
  • Something academic… such as this piece from the Proceedings of the 21st European Conference on Information Systems on The Generative Mechanisms of Open Government Data, much of which I suspect is summarised by these two figures taken (without permission) from the the paper:

    generative mechanisms open gov data

    THE GENERATIVE MECHANISMS OF OPEN GOVERNMENT DATA

  • Opening up data (particularly data held by public bodies) around private companies is another area I can quite get my head round, particularly when it comes to comparing information about the machinations of private companies as compared to public bodies. To what extent should companies that are public and limited liability have data that is held by them by public bodies be openly available, for example? Maybe related to this is a currently open BIS consultation: Company ownership: transparency and trust discussion paper as well as the HMRC consultationon Sharing and publishing data for public benefit (press release) that I linked to from yesterday’s Rambling Round-Up of Some Recent #OpenData Notices. (OpenCorporate’s Chris Taggart posts some interesting thoughts on the sheen given to the proposed release of VAT registration data to credit agencies that the consultation is in part based around: Open tax data, or just VAT ‘open wash’.) A recent edition of File on 4 (h/t @onthewight) on charity based tax fraud – Faith, Hope and… Tax Avoidance – also got me wondering further about what information is openly available about charities’ activities (eg A Quick Peek at Some Charities Data…)?
  • One to dig for… via Lexology, a post on Freedom of information in the private sector? which claims that “The Confederation of British Industry (“CBI“) has revealed that it is developing ‘transparency guidelines’ that will apply to private companies that provide services to the NHS.” Have these appeared yet, even in draft or consultation form?

A few other things on my to-do list in this area: map out the lobbiests and board/panel members around open data; use disclosure logs to search for companies putting in FOI requests in different sectors; see who’s pitching ideas in to ODUG; map out who’s funding NGOs and activities in the opendata space.

Sigh… no time…;-)

PS Not sure if there is a full paper version of this…? Bates, J. 2013, Information policy in the crises of neoliberalism: the case of Open Government Data in the UK at International Association of Media and Communications Researchers Conference, Dublin, June 2013: “Whilst open data releases by the UK government have received substantial support within UK civil society, often being interpreted as a creative and innovative response to a range of social issues, and, for some, a radical challenge to key components of neoliberal capitalism, this paper argues that deeper analysis of the OGD initiative suggests that it is being shaped by the UK government and corporate interests in an attempt to leverage a distinctly neoliberal agenda. The adoption and development of the OGD agenda as core to the policy response adopted by the UK Government to conditions of political economic crisis, suggests that information policy is being implemented as a key, yet often opaque, element of the neoliberal policy toolbox.” See also an earlier paper, “This is what modern deregulation looks like”: Co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative (“whilst OGD [Open Government Data] might potentially support modes of transparent and democratic governance, the current ‘transparency agenda’ should be recognised as an initiative that also aims to enable the marketisation of public services, and this is something that is not readily apparent to the general observer.”) and a statement of Jo Bates current research project in the are: The politics of Open Government Data in the UK

PPS Supporting the idea of symmetry in reporting between public services and private companies delivering public services, Richard Murphy on Making public services accountable. And some excellent writings critiquing computational thinking and the teaching of code by Ben Williamson.

6 comments

  1. Simon Perry

    What Tony presents here is quite shocking – that Open data (that we’ve all loved) might be used as a tool to fillet/disassemble some of the things that many of us hold dear, such his NHS example.

    For a long time I’ve been confused why many of the dyed-in-the-wool Conservative have been so enthusiastic in their embrace of Open Data – Francis Maude being a case in point. Tony’s raises ideas that could fit my confusion.

    Open data has, until now, always just felt so right. Of course it _must_ be a good thing we thought, it’s about opening up things, right? How could that be bad?

    Perhaps that thinking has led us all in a sort of blindness where we haven’t ever thought to question if this free access to Open Data could be used in a ‘bad’ way.

    Thanks for opening this up Tony. There might not be anything to worry about, but it’s well worth exploring an possible issues and how they can be mitigated against.

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  3. ambrouk

    As always, your thinkses touch a nerve.
    I was in a twitter discussion the other night about open access and open education, and I said I’m concerned about how openness can be used to asset strip the public sector. I haven’t worked it all through yet, we got tangled in notions of what’s commercial or for profit, and what public means. But as you describe, sectors that were mostly public infrastructure are increasingly being fragmented into sets of “public services” provided by a range of organisation types (health and education being good examples). Are they operating under the same constraints? no. Who wins? the players with the least constraints.
    And what role does the drive to open play in this.
    On a bad day I think about 1984 and the way that the counter revolutionaries (the good guys in the eyes of the narrator) turn out to be a front: they were unknowingly all part of the big plan. In that scenario what’s happening is more than “openwashing”, it’s a little sinister.
    (Maybe today is a paranoid day).

  4. Tony Hirst

    Amber/Simon – I think @j0bates ‘modern deregulation’ paper from a year ago (and then again more recently) sounds a good note of caution about the way in which many of us have optimistically advocated open data: “in relation to Coalition policy the awareness of how OGD is being used to push forward a marketisation agenda is very limited. Rather, advocates often contextualise OGD in terms of transparency, participation, innovation, and countering information asymmetries by reclaiming public data from monopoly capture (whether public or private).”

    Do you ever get the feeling you’ve naively been had?!

    For example, from looking at things like the Open Data User Group, I guess a cynic might say that it, and its processes, were being co-opted by data munching corporates who are already using (or are geared up to using) government datasets, maybe for a fee, but who see great financial benefit for themselves in getting access to more data at free reuse rates? Maybe…?!;-)

    Or how about claims that a “great success” from transparency data releases is the sale of procurement advice back to the public sector, a claim that made me cold. I have always thought a great boon of open data processes is the ability for elements of an organisation to know more about itself (anyone working in an institution will know how difficult it can be to get data out of other parts of the institution; open data is one way for the institution to make its information/data resources freely available to itself). So why is it being used as an opportunity to make public bodies less reflective and less internally critical?

    I guess I also get concerned about who may be advising on open data policy? For example, I probably need to read Deloitte’s 2013 Market Assessment of Public Sector Information again… https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/198905/bis-13-743-market-assessment-of-public-sector-information.pdf

    One thing I didn’t put in the post was any mention of midata – https://blog.ouseful.info/tag/midata/ – which appears to be a mechanism for getting folk to hand over the keys around their personal data to anyone who wants to buy or sell it (for example, data brokers) for whatever purpose. Relevant legislation is the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 c. 24 PART 6 Supply of customer data http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/24/part/6/crossheading/supply-of-customer-data/enacted See also the midata innovation lab – http://www.midatalab.org.uk/what-is-the-mil/

    Re: the open access thing – is anybody critiquing that at the moment? As far as OERs go, I think they will only reach a large audience when one or more publishers start selling access to OER collections…. To fan the flames of that line of thinking, see eg http://funnymonkey.com/blog/thank-you-pearson-oer-metadata-gateways-and-elephants

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