Monday, 19 December 2011

The decline of democracy?

Weird starting with Francis Maude again but his "bonfire of the quangos" Public Bodies Act quietly came into force last week with Royal Assent. Putting aside the rather lacklustre execution to date of the quango cull it was the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) that attracted the most comment in a rather under-reported story.

Now the RDAs certainly are not perfect and for many have failed to deliver on some of their purposes, notably in getting match funding to accelerate economic development. You could as I do call this a problem of execution rather than function or you could see it as an exemplar of all that is wrong with quangocracy with all the placemen, red-tape, inertia etc beloved of red top ridicule.

Just for a moment step back and consider QUANGO - quasi autonomous non governmental organisation - organisations to which government has devolved power, which operate at arms length from Ministers and which in government parlance are referred to a Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). Very much a product of 1980s thinking there are well over 1000, with 177 or so due to fall under the latest axe. And they sound like a mechanism for mediation too, for coordinating and focusing the often conflicting demands of different stakeholders in local issues, dispassionately, putting out some mfires and stoking others to, in the regional context, at least, seek ultimately to lead not follow.

The irony is that for some quangos offered a route for delivering traditional governmental services along more commercial lines, independently of politics and changeable government priorities and unencumbered by civil service practices and bureaucracy. And in so doing could in some cases, such as RDAs, be seen to provide a more local, coordinating perspective than heavility centralised sensibilities in Westminster.

So now we have the death of RDAs and the return to centralised edict, masked by the mantra of localism. In a perfect world there would be thriving vibrant communities with all the diversity of US sitcom networking, interacting, supporting each other in the daily struggle to maintain their environment across social, economic, environmental, political, cultural milieus. But it aint so an to pretend it is and will all be address by a multi-channel digital by default paradigm in two flicks of a lambs tail is naive. I beleive in all of that and wish it would be but wishing wont make it so and a huge investment in ripping up the rule book of design and delivery is needed to even begin the process; one hopes that GDS might make some headway in this direction.

In the meantime, back to localism. In the accepted absence for most of a coordinated localism rooted in consultation and compromise, localism comes very quickly to represent the worst shades of the human condition. Trade associations, lobbyists, vested interests and men with menaces, George Monbiot's elite 1% (well mostly) are incredibly adept at painting a prosperity canvas highly loaded in favour of laissez-faire 'development'. RDAs (or organisations like them) provide the sounding board, neutrality (though obviously can be gamed if you're in it for the long term), reference point, guidance, mechanism for consultation and compromise that most in any community would expect of their representatives and worthies.

Pork barrel politics and the presumption to approve (planning) will combine to steam roll through all kinds of misbegotten short term development in the interests of the few. The consequences, pickaxes and filth encrusted letterboxes notwithstanding, are the loss of planning, over-pressured resources, over-heated south east, the loss of more green lung space (SANGs anyone?) and the deliberate absenting of government from the one thing that it was elected for - allegedly to run the (whole) country.

A few years back I was in the Potteries, Newcastle-under-Lyme specifically and having never been there before was shocked and stunned to find an area, for all its legacy of skilled workforce, proximity to markets, excellent communications (really excellent actually) not to mention stunning environs, palpably down on its luck - it felt under-invested, forgotten almost. If those factors alone don't alert anyone still still expousing regional planning virtues to what could be done to coordinate and run the (whole) country (to the greater good and at lower cost) then I would be surprised. And in a digital, linked data world, we don't all have to be in Shoreditch or Holborn.

Trouble is localism is meant to solve this on its own and it can't when the whole process has been emasculated and opened up to gerrymandering - quangos may be undemocratic and counter-intuitively to have ended up over-extending the hand of government but localism is really another side of that same coin. That's government reneging on its remit to lead.

Why am I so vexed? - everything happens somewhere but something should happen just about everywhere, even if its peace and quiet!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Can data boost growth?

Francis Maude has today been quoted on Twitter that the Cabinet Office is busy talking to 250 companies in a bid to "identify data sets that will boost growth". Leaving aside how much what I know to be a rather over-pressured and under-resourced CO can do and how much knowledge it has, it rather begs the question, not of who they're talking to (though that should be open too) or even the data sets that might be identified (or the methodology by which that is arrived at - that ought to be open too) but rather whether indeed the sought after, mythologised even, 'growth' and the jobs and tax revenues that will allegedly follow can be acheived.

Even if you believe the Euro 40bn (once you've read the report you won't) much of any 'value' to be gleaned comes from savings to government from being the beneficiary of improved knowledge and decision making - valuable yes, growth no.

The big win to be had from big data is analytics; while sales and marketing are traditionally thought of as the areas where enterprises can leverage their customer data (with or without third party data sources such as data.gov.uk) it is frequently the case that such activities are about gaining competitive advantage from fresh insights that help deliver market share, better targeting, improved productivity and greater efficiency. That's also the 'excitement' over FB - being able to deliver specific messages to very specific market niches - doing more with less (though at a premium to untargeted ads).

And so it is with analytics across the board - doing more (or even the same) with less. In current economic times many are having to come to terms with doing less with less such are the level of cuts. And big data sure can help, but is it growth?

On the one hand we have a cry for government to up its game in the analytics field so it can do better itself. On the other hand we are told that "the best thing that will be done with your data will be done by somebody else". Further there is the ongoing potential of an entitlement culture undermining the freemium model often touted as the best chance for leveraging revenue from free or open data. Something like 81% of all apps downloaded are for games; $3000 is the average revenue per developer of apps. That circle doesn't square.

So we have the prospect of a bun-fight as the open data economy struggles to emerge. Take market presence - in the real world we don't take it for granted but however good or useful or politically connected a web presence might be does not mean that others shouldn't be encouraged from improving on that in entering the market. Or take lobbying - dirty word de nos jours perhaps but one only has to look at the membership of various open data entities - panels etc - to see how successful an approach this can be. Or the continued pedalling of ever bigger and unsubstantiated numbers - the growth argument has become an act of faith (Michael Cross) only. And yet there was fuss earlier this year over spotlightonspend, SpikesCavell's data analytics service adopted by some local authorities to both provide easily digestable representation of local authority expenditure to citizens and allow under pressure executives to drill down into how that spend can be rationalised/optimised.

The fuss purported to be indignation that these useful citizen facing services were a smokescreen behind which the source data was still buried; and indeed the raw data is now available. But one wonders also whether there wasn't some moral outrage that a commercial enterprise was providing paid for services on top of open data when some bedroom hacker could do have done it for nowt. But no one ever says this. Government is an organisation like any other and needs surety of service and everything else, things that start-ups, bedroom hackers and many SMEs struggle with, so outsourcing your analytics under a commercial arrangement makes sense and will become commonplace. And as the G-cloud tender documentation illustrates just the hurdles to become an approved supplier can be daunting for an SME.

The future of the freemium model for open data is around smart analytics being used to provide consulting and other services back to...government (either directly or via their third party service providers). Government can't afford to recruit, train and retain a cadre of data scientists when the commercial shortfall of these skills remains acute. It might want to but it just won't be able to and so the best thing will be done by other people. But the sting in the tail is that those people will then be selling both the resulting analytics and the services back - to deliver the change necessary to meet spending and other targets/measures.

This is a game already joined at enterprise engagement level and it seems likely that a kind of PPP position might be arrived at around free and open data in which the public role is to give data away and the private role is to sell it back in order to drive out costs, improve productivity, do more with less. So far so predictable, but growth it aint.

And bigpharma extending its wealth of personal (you dont believe de-anonymisation do you?) data to produce new drugs/remedies as other revenue generating ones run out of patent aint growth either but should at least hold up their billion dollar businesses. They'll be pleased no doubt that the data will be available and won't even notice the fraction of a fraction of a percentage point that the fact that it is free and open affords them but then that's a different story.....

There are those of course who will benefit and will grow out of the back of open data - there are self evidently smart things that can be done and smart positions and relationships to be in in a 'from data to insight' ecosystem - and that is great but I don't think the evidence supports a growth agenda at scale.


And I've just realised that that is only my second post this year - been busy!