Open data and all that

Right to Government Data… unless it’s been outsourced

with 5 comments

The UK’s coalition government has followed up on its promises of a general Right To Public Data, with sweeping and fast-moving measures to open up whole sectors of public sector information, from the salaries of senior civil servants to spending by local councils.

For those who attended the pre-election Post-Bureaucratic Age (PBA) conference (which was heavily populated by Conservative thinkers), this is not such a surprise, and it’s also worth acknowledging the steps the previous government took – principally making the decision to open up Ordnance Survey data.

But, there’s one thing that nobody’s talking about, and significantly it’s a question that was asked (but ducked) at the final PBA panel: what about government data that happens to be held by the private sector, principally information that’s been outsourced?

Now lest anyone think this is nitpicking here, we’re not talking about the odd dataset here and there – whole areas of government work, both national and local, have been outsourced to the private sector, including the almost the complete frontline services for some councils.

The problem with this – as far as information goes – is that private sector companies aren’t covered by the same regulations as public sector bodies. They aren’t, for example, subject to FoI requests, even if they are doing the work that would have been done by the private sector (actually it’s much worse than this: even if companies are 90% owned by a public body they are not subject to FoI requests, nor, currently are Joint Ventures between public bodies).

The same problem looks likely to afflict the right to data, with no Right To Data held by private companies (or JVs) on behalf of public bodies.

[I should state here, that I’m no fan of outsourcing – buying services as a commodity, yes; outsourcing no – for more on this see my presentation Open Data & The Rewards of Failure. Too often it’s an unequal balance, with the contractor knowing way more than the purchaser, and often is carried out by companies just as bureaucratic as public bodies.]

A current example portal

Enough about the generalities. Let’s look at a specific case – one that was raised at the EPSI conference in Madrid last week, by Jose L. Marin from Euroalert. Turns out they’d been trying to get access to the information from the government tender portal, which is run on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) by BiP Solutions. In fact, according the the website, BiP Solutions are [merely] the service provider for the portal and are… responsible for its development, support and maintenance.

There’s clearly a case for making this information as widely available as possible, as you want the public bodies to have as good a choice as possible.

However, despite their best efforts, Euralert have not had any luck getting access to the data. They’d even enlisted the help of the good people from OPSI, who are tasked with facilitating access to public data. But even this didn’t work, as last week they received an email from OPSI, with this response from BIS.

As you are aware, both BIS and BiP have refused Mr. Marin’s request. There are both policy and commercial reasons why this decision has been made.

It is BIS’ view that the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005 are not applicable in the circumstances. The information which Mr. Marin is seeking is not “held by a public sector body” as required by Regulation 4; BIS is a public sector body, but does not hold the information, BiP holds the information, but is not a public sector body. Furthermore, Regulation 7 makes it clear that decisions on re-use are a discretionary matter for the public sector body concerned. In the event that we considered that the Regulations did apply, we would nonetheless have still decided not to permit the re-use Mr. Marin requests for policy and commercial reasons.

In the alternative, if Mr. Marin considers that the information on Supply2Gov is held by the public sector bodies which placed the contract opportunities on the site, then the request for re-use in relation to each contract opportunity should be made to the public sector body concerned, not to BIS, which does not hold the information.

There’s something rather patronising and condescending about this response that I find quite appalling. In short, we don’t want you to have the data, and because it’s held by a private company there’s nothing you can do about it, and frankly you wouldn’t understand the reasons even if we could be bothered to tell you. In other words (and in the immortal words of the French soldier from Monty Python & The Holy Grail): ‘I fart in your general direction.

It seems clear to me that if the coalition is genuinely committed to open data, it will stamp out this sort of thing immediately – it’s a concern that the letter was sent post-election, and from a department headed by Liberal Democratic Vince Cable.

But whichever way it goes, make no mistake, if we don’t get the right to reuse public data that has been outsourced to the private sector, we will not only be missing out on the benefits of open data, but I suspect we will also see the most politically embarrassing data being outsourced just to hide it from public view.

Update: Just as I finished writing this I saw via Twitter that the Office of Government Commerce was being taken away from the BIS and moved to the Cabinet Office, home to many of the best people in the UK Government helping open up data. Given that the OGC is responsible for tendering/procurement it ‘s to be hoped that not only does go with it, it gets opened up as part of the Cabinet Office’s opendata work.

Written by countculture

June 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I think it is a great description of the underlying problem, and for sure there are many other important examples of this issue.

    As Euroalert ( failed to unlock the tendering data, and we have spent considerable efforts, we decided to open up all the information we are gathering, just in case it is useful for anybody else.

    Both the successes and failures while trying to unlock public procurement information in Europe are at the ShowMeTheTenders website:(

    Every contribution will be much appreciated.

    Jose L. Marin

    Jose L. Marin

    June 16, 2010 at 9:27 am

  2. […] But now we can say with some confidence that the battle has been won. There are still pockets of resistance. There is still danger of counter attack and much greater danger of guerilla insurgency behind the […]

  3. […] convinced? How about this quote from the website of a similar company, BiP, who I mentioned in a post about public data held in private databases: Public procurement is highly process orientated, and is subject to a wide range of legal […]

  4. […] First the announcement is a joint one from the
    Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude (who seems to very much get
    the need for open public data in the changed world in which we
    live) and from Business Minister Edward Davey, who I know
    nothing about, but his department BIS (Dept of Business,
    Innovation & Skills) has very much not been pushing
    for open data, and in fact  has in the past refused to
    make data it oversees openly available. […]

  5. It has to be written in black and white into outsourcing or service provision contracts.

    David Pidsley

    January 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm

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