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The Timely Information to Citizens project was setup as part of the UK Government white paper Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, published in July 2008. This paper dealt with how people can use existing and new tools to exert power, influence and control within their communities. One of the primary aspects of the paper was to identify ways in which the government could help local authorities provider better information to their citizens on public services and community initiatives in their local areas.

The aim of the project is to:

  • Establish a body of good practice for the effective provision by local authorities of timely information on local services and performance to their citizens.
  • Evaluate innovative new approaches to informing citizens through piloting with local authorities
  • Through the IDeA, RIEPs and other support organisations, develop a programme of activities to support the spread of good practice among local authorities.

The first round of pilots was announced earlier this week. Ten councils were allocated a share of £620,000 in order to make it easier for citizens to access their local council services. A full list of the successful councils is available at Communities.gov.uk, but some of the most interesting include:

  • London Borough of Barnet – will create an online consultation tool showing information on planning applications in a more useful format. It will allow users to track applications, comment on decisions and communicate with other users. Examples of this kind of public commentary is available at WriteToReply and was used successfully with the recent Power of Information Taskforce report.
  • Birmingham City Council – will develop an online community that will enable local people to influence the planning and delivery of services
  • Gloucestershire County Council – will create 18 online community notice boards for neighbourhoods that will provide information on local services and allow people to contact service providers. There will also be dedicated space on notice boards for partners such as police who will provide crime maps for the area
  • Leeds City Council – will create an interactive information site for older and disabled users of adult social care that will enable users to find out about different options for services near where they live and see the reviews of services by other older and disabled people in their area
  • Liverpool City Council – will develop the ‘My Neighbourhood’ portal that will allow people to request services, report problems in their neighbourhood and track how they are being dealt with

Petition for Open Source

These pilot projects are all addressing pressing needs and could be usefully applied to many local councils around the country. For this reason, and to avoid duplication of effort and expense, a petition was setup this week campaigning for all the software created as part of these pilots to be released under an open source licence. The petition currently has the support of nearly 200 people, including many prominent bloggers in the area of local government.

Tom Watson (Cabinet Office Minister for digital engagement) said in a recent statement that the British government will accelerate the use of open source software in its public services. As part of this acceleration he outlined the need to:

encourage innovation and innovators – inside Government by encouraging open source thinking…We want to give leadership to the IT industry and to the wider economy to benefit from the information we generate and the software we develop in Government

Licensing any software created as part of these pilot projects would demonstrate the leadership to the IT industry that the Government seeks. Given the increasing utilization of Open Source software within government – for example, the Number 10 site runs on WordPress – it is only fair that the government gives back to the community in this way. Some of the pilots relate to building communities and as such may build on Drupal or Elgg software.  As such, whether it is through releasing Drupal modules or WordPress/Elgg plugins, it’s important for local councils to demonstrate an appreciation of the open source community, and to support it through active engagement and participation. Licensing as Open source any software from the Timely Information to Citizens pilots would be a great start.

To support this initiative sign the Number 10 petition, or send a tweet to CommunitiesUK.

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