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Opening Up Gov.uk – [VIDEO]

Guardian Technology reporter Jemina Kiss talking to Mike Bracken (UK Government Digital Chief) and Francis Maude (Cabinet Office Minister) about Gov.uk and a radical shakeup in the government’s digital estate.


(via guardian.co.uk)

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Jordan Raynor – Co-founder of Citizinvestor — outlines his new platform for the crowd-funding of local government projects. The site – similar to Kickstarter – highlights public services projects that are in the pipeline but unfunded and provides a mechanism for citizen to contribute financially to their implementation.

(h/t Govfresh)

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Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke’s powerful Ted talk traces her battle to uncover the British Parliamentary financial expenses and the resulting political scandal in 2009. She urges us to ask our leaders questions through platforms like Freedom of Information requests — and to finally get some answers.

On her fight for Parliament expenses information:

So I fought for about five years doing this, and it was one of many hundreds of requests that I made, not — I didn’t — Hey, look, I didn’t set out, honestly, to revolutionize the British Parliament. That was not my intention. I was just making these requests as part of research for my first book. But it ended up in this very long, protracted legal battle and there I was after five years fighting against Parliament in front of three of Britain’s most eminent High Court judges waiting for their ruling about whether or not Parliament had to release this data. And I’ve got to tell you, I wasn’t that hopeful, because I’d seen the establishment. I thought, it always sticks together. I am out of luck.

Well, guess what? I won. Hooray. (Applause)

On the democratization of information:

So we are moving to this democratization of information, and I’ve been in this field for quite a while. Slightly embarrassing admission: Even when I was a kid, I used to have these little spy books, and I would, like, see what everybody was doing in my neighborhood and log it down. I think that was a pretty good indication about my future career as an investigative journalist, and what I’ve seen from being in this access to information field for so long is that it used to be quite a niche interest, and it’s gone mainstream. Everybody, increasingly, around the world, wants to know about what people in power are doing. They want a say in decisions that are made in their name and with their money.

On the demand for data:

So that’s why we’re seeing increasingly this demand for access to information. That’s why we’re starting to see more disclosure laws come out, so for example, on the environment, there’s the Aarhus Convention, which is a European directive that gives people a very strong right to know, so if your water company is dumping water into your river, sewage water into your river, you have a right to know about it. In the finance industry, you now have more of a right to know about what’s going on, so we have different anti-bribery laws, money regulations, increased corporate disclosure, so you can now track assets across borders. And it’s getting harder to hide assets, tax avoidance, pay inequality.

On advances in freedom of information:

So this is a guy called Seb Bacon. He’s a computer programmer, and he built a site called Alaveteli, and what it is, it’s a Freedom of Information platform. It’s open-source, with documentation, and it allows you to make a Freedom of Information request, to ask your public body a question, so it takes all the hassle out of it, and I can tell you that there is a lot of hassle making these requests, so it takes all of that hassle out, and you just type in your question, for example, how many police officers have a criminal record? It zooms it off to the appropriate person, it tells you when the time limit is coming to an end, it keeps track of all the correspondence, it posts it up there, and it becomes an archive of public knowledge. So that’s open-source and it can be used in any country where there is some kind of Freedom of Information law.

On advances in investigative reporting and collaboration:

In my own field of investigative journalism, we’re also having to start thinking globally, so this is a site called Investigative Dashboard. And if you’re trying to track a dictator’s assets, for example, Hosni Mubarak, you know, he’s just funneling out cash from his country when he knows he’s in trouble, and what you want to do to investigate that is, you need to have access to all of the world’s, as many as you can, companies’ house registrations databases. So this is a website that tries to agglomerate all of those databases into one place so you can start searching for, you know, his relatives, his friends, the head of his security services. You can try and find out how he’s moving out assets from that country.

On radical openness:

So I’ve mentioned WikiLeaks, because surely what could be more open than publishing all the material? Because that is what Julian Assange did. He wasn’t content with the way the newspapers published it to be safe and legal. He threw it all out there. That did end up with vulnerable people in Afghanistan being exposed. It also meant that the Belarussian dictator was given a handy list of all the pro-democracy campaigners in that country who had spoken to the U.S. government. Is that radical openness? I say it’s not, because for me, what it means, it doesn’t mean abdicating power, responsibility, accountability, it’s actually being a partner with power. It’s about sharing responsibility, sharing accountability.

One future solutions:

So what is the solution? It is, I believe, to embody within the rule of law rights to information. At the moment our rights are incredibly weak. In a lot of countries, we have Official Secrets Acts, including in Britain here. We have an Official Secrets Act with no public interest test. So that means it’s a crime, people are punished, quite severely in a lot of cases, for publishing or giving away official information. Now wouldn’t it be amazing, and really, this is what I want all of you to think about, if we had an Official Disclosure Act where officials were punished if they were found to have suppressed or hidden information that was in the public interest?

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The popular website KildareStreet.com, was effectively shut-down earlier this month by changes to data feeds on the Irish Government’s Oireachtas website. The independent website – created and run by John Handelaar – utilized public data sets to provide a convenient and searchable archive of everything said in the Dáil [Irish Parliament] since January 2004, and Seanad [Ireland’s Upper House] since September 2002.

While the site was hugely popular – receiving over 570,000 unique visitors in the year to September (a third of these from Irish government addresses) – it has been unable to update its archive of data since the beginning of the new Dáil term on September 18th. The reason is down to changes in how the Houses of the Oireachtas publishes its XML feeds, and raises questions about the Government’s commitment to Open Data.

According to a statement by John Handelaar of Kildarestreet:

On September 18th, 2012, with no warning or published statement of intent, a significant change to the Houses of Oireachtas website housing the public record of Dail and Sinead debates was made, effectively killing KildareStreet.com for the foreseeable future.

It appears that such changes were made to achieve efficiencies through the removal of a layer of outsourcing. Ryan Meade’s blog on the debacle sums up the rational:

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications for the Oireachtas, confirmed to me on Twitter that the recent changes to the site were designed to achieve efficiencies by ending the outsourcing of “a large amount of work involved in debates. That’s where a saving arises.” I asked him if this meant that Propylon were no longer managing the debate records and he replied, “Yes, I can confirm that to be the case. Using existing resources we will provide access to debates more quickly”.

The consequences of these changes (which were implemented without prior warning), however, were to kill the data feeds that KildareStreet relied on. In order to recover from this loss of data, KildareStreet have embarked on a 2 week fundraising campaign to assist with a new edition of the website to cater for the Government’s XML design changes (and use of the proprietary and dated Lotus Notes platform).
KildareStreet.com

This rebuilding effort is expected to take several weeks to design and implement.

It is worth noting, however, that the changes to the Oireachtas website do not appear to have gone without incident. Simon McGarr notes (and I can personally testify to the following):

The search doesn’t work and never did. You can’t link to any particular part of a debate. You can’t look for contributions by a particular Oireachtas member. Basically, you can’t do anything you could possibly imagine you might actually want to use a record of the Oireachtas debates for.

KildareStreet in contrast has a very intuitive user interface and allows for email alerts when various key words are spoken in parliament. It has operated since 2009 on €5,800 raised from donors and does not receive any government funding. It’s a supremely efficient and effective service and deserves public support.

To donate, goto kildarestreet.com/zombies

For more check:

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Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk, “How the Internet will (one day) transform government,” is a powerful assessment of how governments can utilize the power of the Internet to lower the costs of doing things. He investigates the government’s role in the coordination of collective effort, and how the intrinsic features of the web can mean the dramatic lowering of costs facilitating big changes.

Via TED:

The open-source world has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services like GitHub — so why can’t governments? In this rousing talk Clay Shirky shows how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet, to be not just transparent but also to draw on the knowledge of all their citizens.

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The UK Cabinet Office’s behavioural insights team recently published a guidance document on the topic ‘Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials‘. The paper describes how the government should be more rigorous in assessing the impact of its policies to make sure they’re effective, deliver value for money and represent the best use of government resources.

Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials

The central thesis of the guidance is that ‘Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are the best way of determining whether a policy is working’ and these should be used more to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions. The report says random trials could be applied to “almost all aspects of public policy”. It recommend starting the trials in uncontroversial areas (see Reducing fraud, error and debt) – such as the wording on tax reminders (one trial suggested different wording could improve effectiveness by around 30%)  – before working up to more contentious social issues.

9 Key Steps to Conducting a Randomised Control Trial

The paper then goes on to outline in detail the 9 separate steps required to setup any Randomised Control Trial. These steps represent the Behavioural Insights Teamʼs ʻtest, learn, adaptʼ methodology, and focus on understanding better what works and continually improving policy interventions to reflect learning from different trials.

Test – (ensuring you have put in place robust measures that enable you to evaluate the effectiveness or otherwise of the intervention)

1) Identify two or more policy interventions to compare (e.g. old vs new policy; different variations of a policy).
2) Determine the outcome that the policy is intended to influence and how it will be measured in the trial.
3) Decide on the randomisation unit: whether to randomise to intervention and control groups at the level of individuals, institutions (e.g. schools), or geographical areas (e.g. local authorities).
4) Determine how many units (people, institutions, or areas) are required for robust results.
5)  Assign each unit to one of the policy interventions, using a robust randomisation method.
6) Introduce the policy interventions to the assigned groups

Learn – (is about analysing the outcome of the intervention, so that you can identify ‘what works’ and whether or not the effect size is great enough to offer good value for money)

7) Measure the results and determine the impact of the policy interventions.

Adapt – (using learnings to modify the intervention, that that you are continually refining the way in which the policy is designed and implemented)

8) Adapt your policy intervention to reflect your findings.
9) Return to Step 1 to continually improve your understanding of what works.

Examples

Along with providing detailed steps for how to create a Randomised control Trial, the document outlines a series of examples to illustrate the benefits that can occur from such systematic analysis of public policy interventions.

One such example concerns a controlled experiment to study the impact of three schemes to support incapacity benefit claimants in England: support at work, support focused on their individual health needs, or both. The experiment found that while the extra support cost £1400 on average it found no benefit over the standard support that was already available. Thus, the RCT ultimately saved the taxpayer millions of pounds as it provided unambiguous evidence that the additional support was not having the intended effect.

These kinds of findings provides important feedback for policy-makers who can then search elsewhere for effective solutions to practical problems.

Debunking the myths

Randomised trails are common practice in many areas of development and science, but are used nearly universally as a means of assessing which of two medical treatments works best. This was not always the case, however, and when they were first introduced in medicine they were strongly resisted by some clinicians who believed that personal expert judgement was sufficient to decide if a particular treatment was effective.

The myths around RCTs primarily focus on four areas:

1) We don’t necessarily know ‘what works’ – the paper counters this by explaining how RCTs can still be worthwhile in quantifying the benefit and which aspects of a program have the greatest effect. We should be willing to recognise that confident predictions by policy experts often turn out to be incorrect and RCTs demonstrate where  interventions which were designed to be effective were in fact not.

2) RCTs don’t have to be expensive - Costs involved very much depend on how the RCT is designed and with planning they can often be a cheaper than other forms of evaluation.  This is particularly true when a service is already being delivered, and when outcome data is already being routinely collected. Rather than focusing on what a RCT costs to run, the paper suggests, it might be more appropriate to ask: what are the costs of not doing an RCT?

3) RCTs can be unethical - There is often objects to RCTs on the basis that it is unethical to withhold a new intervention from people who could benefit from it. This is particularly true in terms of spending on programmes which might improve health, wealth or educational attainment by one group. They note how we can not be certain of the effectiveness of an intervention until it is tested robustly and sometimes interventions which were long believed to he effective have turned out to be ineffective or even harmful on further experimentation.

4) RCTs do not have to be complicated or difficult to run – The paper notes that ‘RCTs in their simplest form are very straightforward to run.’ The paper explains in great detail the pitfalls and provides much advice on the steps needed – as briefly outlined above – to create such a trial.

The gathering of evidence to support public policy is increasingly important when government resources are stretched. There is a huge responsibility on public policy leaders to show the effectiveness of their projects and ensure value for money. Only those services delivering proportionate value for money should be funded, while those programmes failing to deliver evidence-based results should face reform.

(more at Cabinet Office and guardian.co.uk)

 

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