Get Excited and Make Stuff

Last weekend I braved a visit to the UK for Social Innovation Camp Scotland. My remit had been to be a roving expert, flitting from team to team, but I was so impressed by the first team I started working with that I ended up staying with them the whole weekend — right through to the point where we won!

Yesterday the News of the WorldSunday Times ran a rather hilarious scare-mongering piece about it. They quote Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, as saying: “the police service already have ways for the public to express dissatisfaction”.

The point that this so magnificently misses, however, is that those ways aren’t good enough. Local councils already have ways for the public to report potholes, graffiti, broken streetlights etc. — yet FixMyStreet flourishes. All public authorities already have ways for the public to make Freedom of Information requests — yet in just over a year WhatDoTheyKnow has already grown to handle about 10% of all such requests. The National Health Service already have ways for the public to provide feedback — yet over 7,000 people have preferred to use Patient Opinion (who have also managed to pull off the neat trick of getting the NHS to pay them to deliver complaints to them.)

There are many reasons why someone would prefer to use these sorts of sites rather than going directly. For some it’s purely practical: in many cases it’s much easier to visit a single easy-to-use site with a consistent interface rather than navigate the more, erm, interesting, waters of official sites, some of which still sport “Beware of the Leopard” signs.

For others it’s the communal nature of these sites, where others who have experienced the same problems can chip in with support and advice, or even just learn that they’re not alone.

But for me it’s all about how transparency reverses the balance of power. For too long too many government agencies have forgotten that they are meant to be our servants, not our masters. Before they will engage with us, they make us jump through hoops that do nothing but frustrate us, in the guise of making their lives somehow easier (though usually anyone with any inkling of business processes can’t help but wonder how it possibly ever could). And more often than not, complaints get the stonewall or runaround treatment, and those who persist often get little more than a bland not-quite-apology with no indication that anyone ever took the time to engage with the matter, and certainly no sign that anything might actually change as a result.

The simple act of moving all this out into the open changes things dramatically. Everyone knows that “what gets measured gets done”, and, in the UK at least, government bodies tend to be rather sensitive to what the public at large think of them. As such, rubbish that has been left in an alleyway for weeks has a habit of suddenly being collected rather quickly when there’s a public report of it on FixMyStreet for anyone browsing that Council’s page to view. Agencies tend to be less inclined to take 6 months to respond to Freedom of Information requests when anyone looking at their WhatDoTheyKnow page could see at a glance that they never meet the required timescales. (We’ve heard, for example, that the Information Commissioner’s Office love WDTK as now they get see all manner of patterns and common problems that are missed when only dealing with complaints that get escalated to them.)

Transparency is powerful, as the UK has learned dramatically over the last couple of months. And once it’s in place, it’s extremely difficult to remove it. A central proposition of the Open Source movement has been that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. I wish I were witty and wise enough to come up with an equivalent for Open Government (suggestions welcome!), but even without a catch-phrase the underlying idea still holds. Government in the open will, more often than not, be better government. In some parts of the world, this is a concept that still needs to be fought for. In the rest, where there’s at least a token agreement, even if (or perhaps especially if) it’s more honour’d in the breach than the observance, then join in. Create your own site. Shine some more sunlight. You don’t need permission. You’re already in charge. Just Do It.

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