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Francis Maude: Open data is uncomfortable, but we can’t turn back

Minister for the Cabinet Office has called on the media to identify waste and incompetence

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has said that open data and public sector transparency is both 'uncomfortable' and 'awkward' for government, but it shouldn't turn back on it, as it drives innovation and growth.

Speaking today at a Reform conference on transparency and open government, Maude said that open data is not a 'fad', but a permanent feature in the UK public sector.

He said: "Advances in technology have made data the entitlement of many, not just the privileged. Data is the new resource, it's the new raw material of the 21st Century. Its value exists in holding government to account and enabling informed choices to be made by citizens.

"[Open data] is feeding innovation and enterprise, which drives growth. There is a whole new industry emerging around the exploitation of data, and jobs and wealth will flows from this."

The UK government is investing heavily in transparency, where Maude recently launched a white paper that detailed the government's drive to release data into the public domain for analysis and re-use.

Across UK government more than 9,000 datasets have been made available via data.gov.uk and the Cabinet Office plans to launch a £10 million Open Data Institute, headed up by inventor of the internet Tim Berners-Lee, to help businesses maximise the commercial value of open data.

The UK has also recently taken up its position as co-leader of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

The OGP was formally launched in September 2011 by eight founding countries, including the UK, as a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

It has since grown to 57 member governments, representing approximately two billion people, of which 46 governments have published action plans detailing more than 300 commitments to open government. The OGP has an annual rotation of two leaders, where the UK and Indonesia will now take up their position as co-chairs up until September 2013, while the US and Brazil step down.

Since its launch the OGP has made strides, 57 members have signed up. This must be more than just a talking shop and a facility for governments to pat each other on the back for making grand sounding commitments, it has to be about granular actions. After all the enthusiasm and rhetoric of the first year of OGP, we now need to establish it as a credible international organisation that makes governments better.

However, Maude today warned that countries around the world shouldn't join the OGP unless they are serious about fulfilling its commitments.

"I don't want all governments to join it actually, because some of them will join it just because they think it's a forum for making themselves sound and look better. OGP needs to have, and will have, the teeth to require members to deliver on the commitments in their actions plans, if they wish to remain members," he said.

He added: "There is every reason for governments to sign up to transparency, but the danger is that they sign up to it on their own terms, reneging on commitments as and when it suits them. We are not trying to claim that we get it right all the time, we have had teething problems ourselves, but we are getting better."

The government has also announced today that the Efficiency and Reform Group has developed a guide for other countries and administrations to help them build an online data portal, using the source code from data.gov.uk. Maude said: "We want to see the equivalent of our data portal in places all over the world."

Finally, Maude issued a call to action for the media to work with the datasets that the government is releasing, so as to hold ministers and departments to account for inefficiency. He was firm in his views that the media should remain as open as possible.

"As lead co-chair of the OGP we will be working with another group alongside civil society organisations. A group that historically exposed lies, corruption and the ineffectiveness of people in power. I am of course talking about the media, which has a crucial role in holding governments to account," he said.

Maude said that Whitehall had 'entered a new age' where it is pushing our information and inviting the media to hold it to account, rather than disguising and denying as much as it can.

He said: "We want the media to engage with and exploit open data in ways that it is only just beginning to do. The media has a unique role, I want to see journalists everywhere engaging with this data to expose waste and incompetence."


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