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UK Open Government Report: A Blueprint for Obama?

BY Tom Watson | Saturday, February 7 2009

Does Gordon Brown have a trick or two to show President Obama? As change and greater digital access to information come slowly to the U.S. Government, it's more than worthwhile to delve into a newly-released beta report from the British Cabinet Office's Power of Information Task Force, which aims to reinvent the British people's interaction with their government.

Written by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg. the report is wide-ranging and though-provoking - much of it came together on wiki - and its authors explicitly link their work to the theme of American change: "Early signs from the Obama administration in the USA suggest that digital innovators in the Administration are thinking along about re-use of data along the lines above. "

Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson, the MP who commissioned the task force (and my blogging doppelganger), said the work of the team has "already helped shape action across government; whether it be the re-use of data agenda, public servants and their use of social networks or how the tools can be used to innovate."

The overall goals are quite bold, and will certainly spur discussion amidst the new tech leadership group coming together under the Obama Administration (and, we'd suppose, among Conressional webmasters and database geeks as well):

Millions of people in Britain regularly seek help online in public about their daily lives. The help people seek is often about the delivery of public services or on a wide range of issues such as tax, benefits, healthcare, noise pollution, running a business, local democracy or even animal husbandry where the public sector is trying to help. The public sector can and should help people online in the places they go to seek help.

The public sector can play a valuable role in adding expert advice to support discussions online as long as it respects the context of the discussion. This is a culture shift for people who work in public services and for civil servants in particular.

One of the most striking proposals in the report is its idea of a ‘backstage model‘ - an open, online collaboration space for the public and government staff to help create new web services based on government data. In a section of the report called 'Innovate and co-create with citizens online', the authors mash up idea competitions and the BBC's new model for collaboration:

The web enables and indeed is enabled by open innovation on a large scale. There is an opportunity for the public sector to work with the web community to drive innovation in public information and web services. The Show Us A Better Way competition, a simple online call for ideas on reuse of public data attracted 500 entries. One of the UK’s and arguably the world’s leading examples of information-based open innovation is the BBC service known as ‘backstage.bbc.co.uk‘.

There's support for this idea among the officials behind Directgov, the British Government's equivalent to the American USA.gov portal for Federal agencies and services. The report authors see several ways to exploit the 'backstage' idea:

* It would create an ongoing source of innovative ideas for the use of government data, some of which may be rolled back into the principal websites whilst others remain free-standing.
* It has the potential to build stronger working relationships between developers inside and outside government strengthening the capabilities of both parties.
* And it would provide a useful channel for resolving some of the technical issues around access to government data that is made available under the Public Sector Information reuse regime.

Reaction to the report has been generally positive among open government and new media analysts; BBC blogger Bill Thompson approves:

They've consulted widely over the last few months, posting on their weblog throughout and turning up at conferences, unconferences, barcamps and all the other types of event that populate the geek calendar.

Having written a draft version of the report - collaboratively over the internet using a wiki - they put it onto a dedicated website, called it a Beta Release, and invited anyone who is interested two weeks to comment on the proposals. ..This, it seems to me, is how digital Brits expect their government to do things in this networked age.

Christopher Dorobek, who writes a top blog for the Federal IT community, delved into the UK blueprint and noted:

"For me, one of the most fascinating things about the report is that the issues faced by governments on both sides of the Atlantic are very similar....Many of the challenges listed mirror those raised by U.S. government Web forum members and the National Academy of Public Administration’s Collaboration Project."

And this isn't a document for a dusty government bookshelf, either - the Power of Information Task Force recommends launching a version of "a live backstage service for Directgov by end June 2009 or earlier."