Government on the web: the next revolution

Seventeen years ago this month, I set up the first British government website.  I was a young economist at the UK Treasury, and I thought the budget documents should be available online.  I proposed this to the Treasury Management Board, most of whom had no idea what I was talking about, but Terry Burns was into computers and to his credit he backed the idea.  I chose the domain name “hm-treasury.gov.uk”, a burden which they still bear today.

We got the text of the budget documents as ASCII files on 3.5″ disks from the typesetters, and I worked through the night, using a basic text editor to put the HTML codes into the files manually. I finished marking up the pages about an hour before the Budget Speech began; and we went live as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down at the end of his speech.

Not only was the Treasury the first UK government department to have a website, the UK was the first country anywhere in the world to put its budget documents online.  Today, of course, it is inconceivable that this information would not be available online. We could see then that the World Wide Web, invented three years earlier by Tim Berners-Lee, would change the way people access information, and we were proud to be part of that change.

In 2009, Tim Berners Lee (now Sir Tim) described in a TED talk his vision of a new internet, that will do for numbers what the web has done for words, pictures and video. He called for data to be unlocked. A year later, in a short 5 minute talk, he shows what can happen when the data are liberated.  It is well worth watching:

Once again I find myself persuaded by Tim Berners-Lee’s vision.  With an ace team at aidinfo,  we are working to see it applied to information about foreign aid.  We are working with donors to help them to work out the best way to put their aid data online in a common format (vision paper here – pdf) so that anyone with access to the internet can take that information from many donors, mix it together, and use it to help change their world.

If you want to hear more about why aid transparency is important, listen to this Center for Global Development “wonkcast” – a 20 minute interview with me.  And if you want to hear more about how citizens in East Africa are using information to increase “social accountability”, listen to the subsequent wonkcast with Rakesh Rajani.

7 comments on “Government on the web: the next revolution”

  1. Crikey. This post takes me back. Fourteen years ago, also to the month I’m pretty sure, I was working in the CFO’s office of a government ministry, pulling a pre-budget allnighter to prepare & publish the annual Budget Statements… which we then did external free distribution of to the national library, parliamentary offices, and a bunch of public and university libraries… and then charged $100 a copy to anyone else who asked for one!

    How time flies…

  2. What a fantastic recollection. If you had never done anything else, that in itself would be a fantastic legacy to have. As a matter of interest, any idea how many people accessed the budget documents back then?

  3. Putting budget documents on-line and enhancing transparency about aid are great things to have done/be doing, and the work of AidInfo is very useful, but these sorts of initiatives do leave me pondering some questions and issues.

    They also leave me wanting to emphasise that “transparency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective accountability”. As does Tim Berners-Lee’s motto of “Raw data now!” or AidInfo’s “Liberate the data” (although I acknowledge that those slogans are slightly catchier – in a geeky way – than “necessary but not sufficient … blah blah”)

    Anyway, three sets of issues:

    1) To make sense of “raw data”, one needs a theory. I think that this sometimes gets forgotten as if one can just make sense of massive influxes of data, without some framework of/for understanding. A variant of this problem is when the theories that are shaping how “raw data” is selected, connected and interpreted are left unexamined as if they were value-neutral. At risk of straying into one of my gripes about mainstream economics, I’ll leave that one there …

    2) To make the “raw data” or transparency deliver something useful – policy and practice that is better because it is based on better evidence, for instance – requires that there are structures and processes in place, let’s call them “accountability systems”. So – as well as not neglecting those – when people are trying to “liberate the data”, it’s important that they also think about how the data might best be used and whether that might make a difference to what data is liberated and how. I expect that the AidInfo initiative is doing this, and would be interested to know more.

    3) I guess this is related to 1 and to 2 and at the moment I won’t say much about it, but it’s important to understand the political economy of data. That is, to get your head round the system of data flows and to contribute to making it work better, you need to understand the political economy and the power dynamics of the production, distribution and consumption of data. It ain’t – despite the pretense of those who talk about evidence-based (rather than informed) policy – a politics free or value free system; to understand it – and change it – requires a clear recognition of that. If information/evidence/data is “the currency of accountability” (Droop, Isenmann, Mlalazi, 2008 – OPM paper), then a political economy perspective ought to have considerable value.

    Ooops, sounding like a marxist again

    PS: I am coining a new term. Bloggybacking. Currently with only one google hit in the whole googlyverse. Promoting one’s own blog on the back of someone else’s better known efforts. Thanks Owen. And others!

  4. Alan

    You are absolutely right that data are necessary but not sufficient; and that how the information is used will determine the effect.

    Development Initiatives became involved in this because we use data; our own use is primarily to do with holding donors to account. We also help other organisations, including many southern NGOs, to use existing aid data. So we think all the time about how to ensure the data are put out in a way that is actually useful to people.

    We’ve also tried very hard to ensure that the emerging IATI standard actually addresses the needs expressed to us by southern stakeholders – and to ensure that these include civil society, parliamentarians and the media, and not just developing country governments.

    I’m glad that there wasn’t someone sitting in the Treasury saying that we had to work out how data was going to be used before we released it. It is true that how the information is used will determine what effect it has, but the job of the governments is to get the data out there, and to let others decide how they want to use it. The questions you are asking are all intellectually valid, but they must not be allowed to become an excuse not to publish the information that donors have.

    Owen

  5. Intellectually valid and politically important, or merely “intellectually valid”?

    However, we agree that the issues I raise should not be allowed to become an excuse for limiting transparency. Perhaps the folks you are dealing with are more unscrupulous than I realise?

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and