Saving money as the priority (and one reflection on GOV.UK)

The same answer has cropped up in response to 3 different questions within the last week.

The questions were, respectively:

  1. What do you believe the purpose to be of your role as a commissioner?
  2. What is the purpose of GOV.UK?
  3. What is the purpose of integrating health and social care, for example of the scale mooted during the launch of Labour’s commission into health and social care?

The answer in each of these 3 cases was, basically, to save money.

A generous reading of each of these cases is that saving money is perhaps the most notable thing people will be interested in, and so is the component of the work the respondent to each question chose to highlight first.

Taken at face value, though, the common answer to the 3 questions is one I wouldn’t give. At least, I wouldn’t give it as the primary reason for doing things. In fact, it would get the Family Fortunes “our survey says…”


Saving money in public service reform is important, and I’m not advocating for profligate spending of public money. But I think we run 4 very great and related risks if we put this motivation ahead of good quality service provision:

  • Undermining the fabric of the state by arguing we should spend the least amount of money possible on providing services
  • Aiming to deliver public services for as cheaply as possible, irrespective of quality
  • Missing or obscuring the fact that better quality services can often achieve better value / cost effectiveness as a by-product of being better quality services
  • Forgetting what outcomes we want public services to support by determining what we’re willing to spend on them a priori.

Perhaps I’m being sensitive here, and we’re talking about shades of emphasis between better quality services, saving money and other measures of public service reform. But it’s something that’s been gnawing at me for the last week, so here it is in blogpost form.

(As an almost unrelated aside, and talking of things that have been gnawing away, I’ve hesitated including the GOV.UK example in this post.

I made a series of posts in the relatively private space of Facebook which said I’ve felt uncomfortable making public comments about GOV.UK. This is because of a combination of not wanting to be an arse (too late?), recognising they’re doing some great work and not wanting to be too publically critical of it as a result, but reflecting that I do have some worries about the whole enterprise (shared, it would seem, by other government-y types who aren’t directly involved with GOV.UK but have a professional and personal interest in its work).

The response to my Facebook posts, from a group of people that I know to include those very interested or directly involved in the GOV.UK enterprise, was virtually zilch. Similarly, the only tweet I ventured on the subject (via @ replies to specific people) garnered no responses at all.

I suspect this can be attributed to typical (defensive?) human behaviours amongst those leading or part of significant change processes, but nevertheless find it surprising that constructive criticism from a friendly, informed source can fall on such stony ground.

Partly to allay my paranoia that I am actually being an arse and so should rightfully be worried by appearing to be one, any engagement – ironically enough – from GOV.UK folks on the substantive point I’m making about the lack of engagement would be appreciated.)


e-Petitions: some headline figures

Just because I’m occasionally a miserable so-and-so, I thought I’d look to see what sorts of signature numbers e-Petitions attract. I should note straight up that I think e-Petitions are a superficial, trite and virtually pointless means by which people engage in the political process.

Overall, there are 14,382 completed e-petitions so far – all of which are listed here. This doesn’t include currently open e-petitions (of which there are 5,949) or rejected petitions (of which there are 17,525).

Of those 14,382 e-petitions which have been completed:

  • 16 have received more than 100,000 signatures (i.e. 0.1% of petitions completed so far)
  • 50 have received more than 10,000 signatures (0.3% of petitions completed)
  • 75 have received more than 5,000 signatures (0.5%). Or, put another way, 14,307 have received less than 5,000 signatures (95.5% of all completed petitions)
  • 239 have received more than 1,000 signatures (1.7%). Or 14,143 have received less than 1,000 signatures (98.3% of all completed petitions)
  • 368 have received more than 500 signatures (2.6%). Or 14,014 have received less than 500 signatures (97.4%).

Local by Social South West – some reflections #LbyS

I was fortunate enough to attend Local by Social South West in Bristol last Friday. Allotment 5 and a half has done a detailed round-up of the day, and the hashtag #LbyS is the best round-up of the how the day itself progressed for those interested.

Here I just wanted to capture a few, brief and generally unrelated reflections on the day.

  • Being in a room of people with diverse interests and perspectives is always fun. Pretty much every set of stakeholders was represented on the day, leading to a rich debate on the topics put forward.
  • Being in a room of people with the common interests of data, apps and gov2.0 was great. For me, it takes me out of the “frontline feeling” of constantly working through people to put ideas into practice and gives me time to think about ideas and draw energy and enthusiasm from other like-minded people. (“Frontline”, after all, is most commonly applied as a war metaphor, suggesting a break from it every once in a while is no bad thing.)
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard accessibility present itself as a theme so much in an event. I often need to make the point about access – in its widest sense – at various events I attend; Local by Social was a very welcome exception to this rule.
  • Though I was fairly pleased with the talk I gave – on how one well-known, existing group of apps (location-based social media like Foursquare and Gowalla) could be used to contribute to the solution of poor information in social care – I don’t think it got much traction in the room. I’ll confess to being a bit disappointed by this, since I think it is a practical solution using apps to one of the most pressing public policy and public sector reform issues we currentl face and are likely to face. My talk is embedded below, so you can judge this assertion for yourself.
  • I always have a slight frustration with days like Local by Social, and this is that ideas seem to be king. I take the view that it’s not ideas we’re short of, it’s the ability to turn them into differences in practice in the toughest of environments – organisational settings. When asked what my one reflection for the day was, I wish I’d said this instead of whatever I did say. (I wish also that I wasn’t always the pessimist in the room; this, sadly, is my nature.)
  • Attracting someone like Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Projects at GLA – to the day was a real coup, and Emer presented a fantastic talk. You can access it here, and I’d thoroughly recommend you do.
  • Ditto Tim Davies’s presentation. For an underpinning and understanding of open data and applications, you can do no better than follow Tim on Twitter and also check out his slides.
  • The organisers of the day – including Ingrid from IDe&A, FutureGov (Carrie, Francis and Lauren) and Connecting Bristol – did an amazing job.

I’m conscious this sounds like an at-best lukewarm view of the day. It’s not meant to be, because I thought the day was valuable; I suppose it’s just a reminder to myself that, alongside the ideas people, there will always be those needed to translate them into (1) actions and – for commissioners – (2) demonstrable (and cashable) benefits.

#opendata in the Voluntary Sector: ecdp’s example

(I’m afraid this is a bit rambling and incoherent, but (a) it’s not quite the end of a long day, and (b) I wanted to get this down. Please allow for both (a) and (b) when reading…)

I’ve been interested in Open Data for the past few months, and have hosted (what I think is) an interesting discussion on the topic and how it applies to the Voluntary & Community Sector (VCS) here and here. There’s also a really interesting discussion on charities, public services and releasing data on the excellent Open Local Data Blog.

Because I happen to be pretty senior in my role in a disability organisation in the VCS, I’m in the fortunate position that I actually got to do something about it. Thus, today my organisation (ecdp) shared its Open Data work. There you can find an overview of what it is, our Performance Dashboard since July 2009, copies of our Management Board papers stretching back to August 2007 and our Annual Reports going back to 2004/05.

I’ve also written an overview paper on Transparency and Open data, which is embedded at the bottom of this post.

Talking over the last few weeks and today with friends and people who actually know what they’re on about (e.g. @karlwilding, @kanedr, @citizensheep, @loulouk, @Paul_Clarke), there are numerous interesting questions and debates around Open Data and the VCS that remained undefined and unanswered. Below, based on my/ecdp’s experience of this work to day, I’ve tried to capture some of them.

  • Is it really Open Data, or is it just open / transparent working? If it’s the latter, are there already good examples of VCS organisations doing this sort of thing (like publishing their Management Board papers and exposing their decision-making process) or not?
  • If it’s not Open Data but it’s still data, what is it? Does it hold value to other people? (This is a version of a question I’ve posed before. I think the answer is yes, but it still seems to be something to be explored.)
  • I’m working on the assumption that VCS organisations, as deliverers of public services under contract to public bodies, will need to publish the relevant data. Is this actually true? If so, will the same hold for non-VCS organisations such as private businesses, social enterprises and employee-owned organisations? If not, on what basis do the exemptions work?
  • In line with the above, can a VCS organisation publish its contract monitoring arrangements and reports with a public body? I’d argue yes, but what if there’s a clash between the culture of a public body and a VCS organisation?
  • Is a VCS organisation that publishes its data openly now essentially committing competitive suicide (assuming the data is that sort of data)?

On a very practical level, who else out there in the VCS has shared any of their data – no matter how little, or how not-quite-open-data it may be – that they’d be happy to tell us about?

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, here are a few lessons or thoughts I had along the way of getting to the point where we’ve published what we have at ecdp today.

  • Strategic and operational context is vital in understanding and explaining why a VCS organisation needs to engage with the Open Data and transparency agenda
  • Open Data and transparency has been as much a useful driver internally as it has externally
  • It’s important to ensure all staff have the opportunity to see what’s being published externally before it is done so. This is just a motivation/belonging point rather than anything sinister about not revealing too much. Expecting staff to get the data at the same time as anyone externally risks undervaluing their role in the organisation
  • I think some public bodies can be thought of as intransigent or unwilling when it comes to things like Open Data and Transparency. The same can equally hold for VCS organisations
  • Expect colleagues to raise issues of risk, credibility and accuracy as a reason for not doing this, and have your arguments lined up. This said, as with anything else, engage your key decision makers (including relevant Trustees) to make sure they know the benefits, risks and reasons for doing this
  • Embed the process for creating the data in your day-to-day processes. Having this as an additional piece of work, especially in a VCS organisation, does not and will not go down well
  • There are several unintended benefits of driving Open Data and transparency in a (VCS) organisation, including strengthening governance arrangements, increasing cross-team collaboration, focusing on what matters rather than just measuring, and lifting everyone’s heads up to think about the outside world as well as just the immediacy of day-to-day work.

There are probably loads more, but hope that gives a flavour of the types of thoughts and issues going round my head over the last few days (on Open Data, at least).

Would be really interested in people’s views on this generally, the specifics of what ecdp has done and whether it’s any good (and how it can be improved).

Thanks to everyone – including those mentioned above – who have inspired or shaped this work. Let’s just hope a few other people from the VCS follow in this direction…