Open data and all that

Not the way to build a Big Society: part1 NESTA

with 9 comments

I took a very frustrating phone call earlier today from NESTA, an organisation I’ve not had any dealings with it before, and don’t actually have a view about it, or at least didn’t.

It followed from an email I’d received a couple of days earlier, which read:

I am contacting you about a project NESTA  are currently working on in partnership with the Big Society Network called Your Local Budget.

Working with 10 pioneer local authorities, we are looking at how you can use participatory budgeting to develop new ways to give people a say in how mainstream local budgets are spent. Alongside this we will also be developing an online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

We would like to share our thinking and get your thoughts on the online tool to get a sense of what is needed and where we can add value. You are invited to a round table discussion on Friday 19 November, 11am – 12.30pm at NESTA that will be chaired by Philip Colligan, Executive Director of the Public Services Lab. Following the meeting we intend to issue an invitation to tender for the online tool.

Apart from the short notice & terrible timing (it clashes with the Open Government Data Camp, to which you’d hope most of the people involved would be going), the main question I had was this:


I got the phone call because I couldn’t make the round table, and for some feedback, and this was the feedback I gave: I don’t understand why this is being done. At all.

Putting aside the participatory budgeting part (although this problem seems to be getting dealt with by Redbridge council and YouGov, whose solution is apparently being offered to all councils), there’s the question of the “online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

Excuse me? Most of the data hasn’t been published yet, there are several known organisations and groups (including OpenlyLocal) that have publicly stated they going to to be importing this data and doing things with it – visualising it, and allowing different views and analysis. Additionally, OpenlyLocal is already talking with several newspaper groups to help them re-use the data, and we are constantly evolving how we match and present the data.

Despite this, Nesta seems to have decided that it’s going to spend public money on coming up with a tendered solution to solve a problem that may be solved for zero cost by the private sector. Now I’m no roll-back-the-government red-in-tooth-and-claw free marketeer, but this is crazy, and I said as much to the person from Nesta.

Is the roundtable to decide whether the project should be done, or what should be done? I asked. The latter I was told. So, they’ve got some money and  have decided they’re going to spend it, even though the need may not be there. At a time when welfare payments are being cut, essential services are being slashed, for this sort of thing to happen is frankly outrageous.

There are other concerns here too – I personally think websites such as this are not suitable for a tender process, as that doesn’t encourage or often even allow the sort of agile, feedback-led process that produces the best websites. They also favour those who make their living by tendering.

So, Nesta, here’s a suggestion. Park this idea for 12 months, and in the meantime give the money back to the government. If you want to act as an angel funding then act as such (and the ones I’ve come across don’t do tendering). A reminder, your slogan is ‘making innovation flourish’, but sometimes that means stepping back and seeing what happens. This is not the way to building a Big Society

Written by countculture

November 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Chris, maybe they will still take all of the cash, but rip off your council spending feeds, saving themselves a major headache in terms of scraping and compiling the data.

    Matt B

    November 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm

  2. They can’t give the money back, because that would demonstrate they don’t have a need for it. They have to tender, because their rules say so. Things don’t necessarily make sense in the world of grant funding, they just have to fulfil the criteria and deliver the outputs…

    Harriet W

    November 17, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    • They can’t give the money back, but maybe they could use it to support existing innovation (such as OpenlyLocal) rather than reinventing the wheel?

      Michael Grimes

      December 7, 2010 at 6:41 am

  3. […] Not the way to build a Big Society: part1 NESTA « countculture (tags: opendata government nesta) […]

  4. Chris

    I think NESTA’s money mainly comes from a massive endowment from the lottery in 2000. This gives them perhaps more than they need ?

    Could be that they are like government and have to spend / waste a lot in the run up to year end ?



    December 8, 2010 at 7:49 pm

  5. What’s not to understand? This is what has benn happening for decades, if not longer. It is as Harriet says, and an inevitable result of the organisational DNA of bodies like NESTA. The contradictions are embodied in the legal frameworks surrounding tendering, and supported by our own morality regarding spending charitable or public money. Neither are easy to change.


    December 14, 2010 at 10:52 am

  6. who is in charge of this? are there any coalition MPs who are up on the idea of open data? where are the political pressure points? :/


    December 27, 2010 at 1:39 am

  7. […] and we contacted Nesta to see if they were interested in providing seed funding by way of a grant. I’ve been quite critical of Nesta’s processes in the past, but to their credit they didn’t hold this against us, and more than that showed they were […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: