By Joshua.Chambers

02 Apr 2013

The government’s open data programme is going to transform what citizens know about individual civil servants. Joshua Chambers meets Paul Maltby, the government’s director of transparency, to find out more



 


When it comes to investing in industry, central government doesn’t have a good reputation for picking winners. However, when Paul Maltby – the Cabinet Office’s new director of open data and transparency – picks a policy area, that’s a pretty reliable indicator that its intellectual stock is in the ascendancy.

Throughout his career, Maltby’s ended up in the hottest areas of government policymaking. In 2001, he worked for influential think tank the IPPR on public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives (PFI) – just as the Treasury was pursuing these schemes with vigour (some would say reckless abandon). Then in 2004, Maltby moved into the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, working on anti-social behaviour just as prime minister Tony Blair – having exhausted his international influence in the sands of Iraq – focused his energy on hoodies and neighbourhood-level nuisances.

After the formation of the coalition government, Maltby once again embraced the zeitgeist by going on secondment in a local authority: then-cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell had called on civil servants to “get out to get on”, and localism was the buzzword across Whitehall. And while at Leicestershire County Council, Maltby was working on the two hottest areas of public service reform: academy schools, and cross-public service commissioning.

In his latest job, Maltby’s in charge of one of the government’s pet projects: publishing vast reams of data from all parts of the public sector, be it NHS patient records, procurement spending figures, or flood maps. “The job we have as a team, and I have individually, is to make what is quite a technical – even geeky – subject real for people out there in the wider world and in government, so that people understand that this is a big revolution that’s happening around them,” he explains.

Maltby certainly sounds the part, combining casually-expressed enthusiasm with a tight grasp of a technical brief. He looks the part too, with his geek-chic spectacles, striped skinny tie and monochrome suit in-keeping with the latest trends. But why is the particular policy area he’s picked such a hot topic in government? How much progress has been made on this agenda, and how is it affecting the work of civil servants?

Making money for free
To answer this, it’s important to understand the purpose of the open data agenda. “In a nutshell, it’s about making government work better, and adding value to the economy,” Maltby says. Publishing government’s performance data is intended to improve the operation of central government, allow citizens to choose the best performing services, and offer companies new ways to make money.

Free support for policy makersFirst, we talk about the economic benefits of open data. Maltby says that freely-available government data is useful both to existing technology firms and start-up companies. Indeed, using public data to create new products is “genuinely one of those areas where you can say Britain’s businesses are leading the world,” he says.

To this end, government funds the Open Data Institute, which is “incubating” small technology firms as they try to use this data in innovative new ways, and “you’ve got loads of examples of people doing this in real life already,” Maltby says. “We [in the Cabinet Office] host data.gov.uk, which is the portal for all of central government’s open data. On that, we’ve got a facility where developers can tell us once they’ve made an app, and we’ll highlight it on the site. We’ve got 300 of those examples.” For example, there’s a surfing app that uses data from MoD firing ranges to warn people when to avoid certain beaches, and combines that data with weather and tidal info to provide a valuable product.

Isn’t it something of a leap of faith for the government to be publishing reams of data and hoping that firms figure out a way to make money out of it? “How many have made a profit from it, I don’t know, but certainly [the apps hosted on the site] aren’t the whole picture,” Maltby says. For example, logistics firms are using public data to better plan how to get their lorries from one depot to another, plugging into freely-available maps, weather and traffic information, the business register, and their own private data. “We’d probably never hear about that, certainly never have it on the website to showcase it, because it’s adding value to a business in contrast to their competitors,” he says, adding that open data is “quite new, but the sense is that this could be a really transformative bit of the economy.”

The economic potential of government data is enhanced by recent increases in processing power, Maltby says, allowing data to be automatically cross-examined and sorted. There’s more data becoming available, too, because a vast number of consumer products – such as mobile phones, Tesco Clubcards and GPS systems – are now collecting information about their users. Data scientists can use this to make sophisticated assumptions about human behaviour, Maltby says. “Those that work in this field say that they expect it to be as big – if not bigger than – the internet, in terms of the change it’s going to make to our lives over the next decade. We’re right at the foothills of this”.

Helping people choose
The second potential benefit of publishing government data is that it allows citizens to make informed choices about their public service provider. “Truly transformative stuff will come in more complex public services, whether that’s health, education or social care,” Maltby says.

Finally, this data can be used to improve the operation of government, and here Maltby poses a challenge to senior civil servants. “Are you aware how data’s going to change all of our lives – including your job, the culture that we have in the civil service around how policy is made, and the ability to have insight in your area of business at a level that you never would have dreamed possible before?”

The publication of government data will, he says, change not only the operation of government, but also the very nature of working in the civil service. Public administration is going to become much more public; Maltby explains that “on our organogram data we say who works where, and in what position. We can start to overlay that with salaries and other things, so these are linked data, and you can track the connections between people, their jobs, their money and other things. It’s much easier to have a deeper level of knowledge.”

Doesn’t privacy apply to people working in government anymore? “There’s always some trade-offs,” he says with a chuckle. “Whilst we’re trying to get this position of open data by default, there’s always trade-offs in that, and I think that’s true for senior civil servants. It means I can now find my colleagues across Whitehall because I can see the organograms, so there’s the convenience of knowing that – but also the accountability of knowing that.”

Maltby himself has already experienced the new world of ever more public administration. “I’ve worked in public service reform all of my career, but there’s always been a degree of distance between you as the reformer and the community that’s being impacted or interested in it. And what was a real wake-up call for me was the degree to which, after my position was announced in mid-December, the open data community was there in my face on Twitter, asking questions, pointing things out.” Is that a good thing? “Yeah. It’s great: it means that – in real time – you’ve got a feel for what the policy issues are, and there’s a knowledge amongst that community that’s second to none.” Maltby also believes this “augurs for how it will feel being a senior civil servant” in the future.

However, while increased transparency and accountability sound like good things, not everyone agrees. For example, Harvard academic Lawrence Lessig has written that increased transparency makes people more cynical about government, without improving its operation. Maltby respond: “That’s the gauntlet laid down to government, to say: ‘It’s not just about being accountable; you’ve got to respond. Accountability’s not an end in its own right; accountability’s there to get better public services, to get better spending, and to help the economy grow. It’s no good if you’re just accountable [when failures occur] and then you carry on.”

Maltby also believes that transparency will change the culture of policymaking. “We’ve been used to a research-informed, but argument- and logic-driven method of policymaking, but I think the tables will turn on that when you can have huge amounts of really useful data. It won’t be a matter of argument and judgement: we’ll be able to know in real time, sometimes, on all the data that we have, what’s going on and where we should be.”

This shift will also change the relationships between some of the professions in government, he believes. “Analysts [are] sometimes kept on the periphery, depending on what the public service in question is, but how do we bring some of those centre stage? And what does that mean for my team and the dynamics of my team – particularly as we’re creating policy, not just monitoring implementation?” All civil servants involved in policymaking will need to understand data, he believes, and learn how to manipulate it.

His role
Maltby has three roles: evangelising data publication; liaising with the members of the public requesting datasets from parts of government; and supporting departments as they publish information. His team is relatively small – just 21 people – but he’s backed up by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who’s got a proven track record in pushing his pet projects through Whitehall.

His team was set up by his predecessor Tim Kelsey in 2011 (see our interview from 1 December 2011), and since then over 9,000 datasets have been published, Maltby says. There’s also been the publication of an Open Data White Paper, and all departments have published their own open data strategies.

Businesses and citizens can request the publication of any dataset through the data.gov.uk website, and this request then goes to the Open Data User Group: a panel of businessmen and others interested in open data, who decide whether to put forward a business case to publish the data. Currently, users can only request data from public sector organisations, but the Cabinet Office is starting to put clauses into public sector IT contracts insisting that private sector suppliers’ data must also be published (see news).

However, on occasion there’s opposition from departments and agencies to publishing datasets. “There’s sometimes bigger cultural problems,” he says; some officials react by saying: “‘This is my lovely data, what do you mean we’ll just give it away for free?’” This is most often the case with trading funds and public companies, which currently make money by charging for some datasets. For example, Maltby says, “there’s been quite a lot of internal wrangling” over whether to publish Royal Mail’s postcode data for free (see feature).

But is it accurate?
What’s done to ensure that datasets are accurate before they’re published? “There’s a misnomer here that everything has to be perfect before you can put it out,” Maltby responds. “What we’re finding is that, actually, some of the datasets are a bit messy. We try to keep them as high-quality as we can; but other organisations then clean up the data and sell it on, so there’s quite a rich economy in this and sometimes we just need to get the data out and work on improving it”.

Author Evgeny Morozov has warned that big data analysis can be quite damaging because unless datasets are completely accurate, false conclusions can be drawn that can harm individuals or public service delivery. “It probably depends on the dataset,” Maltby says, “so as part of the [publishing] process sometimes [accuracy] is really, really important. If you think of things like county court judgements, if they got the defendant and the plaintiff mixed up, that could be really serious for your credit ratings.”

However, deciding the level of accuracy is a matter for departments, he says, and the Cabinet Office doesn’t intervene. “What in some ways I’m managing in the system is the sense that there’s sometimes a reluctance to get data out from the civil service; and whilst we see many examples of people understanding the reasons why data has been put to use, I’d say the general default is still not pro-release. So sometimes, all sorts of reasons come out for why you mustn’t do anything, and it’s quite hard to get the right judgement, or to keep putting pressure on to make sure that we’ve got an appropriate balance of the risks.”

Maltby is more concerned that the data published is in a format that makes it easily accessible and comparable, “because on that depends whether people are actually going to use it, rather than pumping out lots of data people can’t use.” Recently, CSW ran a survey in conjunction with data management firm Listpoint, and found that more than half of civil servants struggle to access data from other parts of the public sector (see CSW 20 February 2013). Maltby responds that the government has now set up a Breakthrough Fund, controlled by the business department, to help departments clean up difficult datasets and make sure that they’re comparable.

The key thing is that data should be in a CSV (Comma Separated Values) format – with each piece of data in plain text and separated by a comma – rather than a PDF file, he says, because “PDFs are the enemy of open data”. Admittedly, “some of the [internal civil service] systems don’t make things easy,” the business department’s cash can help overcome such obstacles.

Ask any member of the public about open data, however, and they’re unlikely to be concerned about its format. Instead, they’ll worry about their own privacy. Maltby admits that “there’s a question in many of these datasets of privacy and the ability to identify individuals. Obviously, we have to remain really ruthless about making sure that people can’t use very clever analytical techniques to [extract data on] particular individuals, particularly in areas like crime where you want to be really careful about identifying victims.” The government has published an independent review commissioned from Southampton University’s Dr Kieran O’Hara that considered privacy issues, and now has privacy experts on departmental open data panels, he says.

Members of the public may be sceptical, and doubtless some civil servants are too – “Surely it’ll never take off’: that’s the type of phrase you still sometimes hear whispered out and about” – but Maltby has the zeal of a recent convert. He doesn’t come from a computing background, yet he’s rapidly become an enthusiast for a very technical area of government. “What’s interesting to me is that you’ve got a whole business agenda here; a whole pro-growth agenda,” he says, “and it feels to me increasingly that it’s not so much just data you‘re working with; it’s power which is transferring back to the public.” It’s hard to tell as yet whether Maltby is right to champion open data so loudly as the next big thing in government – but given his track record, you’d be a fool to bet against him.

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