The publication of COINS database – the Combined Online Information System - marks a monumental step towards government transparency. The significance of this event can hardly be exaggerated: how government spends our money will now be laid open for all to see.
It is one of those moments that changes things for ever. When people can’t see where their money goes, they can make no comment, they can have no influence. Governments live and die by public approval; and once you can link spending decisions to identifiable civil servants, their careers will also live or die by our approval; so this kind of openness to scrutiny is utterly revolutionary. And it’s virtually irreversible: no politician would dare to draw the curtains again.
When it comes to spending, knowledge is power. The Conservatives were elected on a promise to give power away to the people. Today we see they really meant it. (Whether this database turns out to be as helpful in scope, detail or format as we hope is almost beside the point; imagine the struggle Downing Street must have faced to get Whitehall to release something this big so fast.)
I am an extreme radical when it comes to government transparency. I can see no excuse for withholding from us any data created from taxes. We have an owner’s right over what we pay for. Ok, there are issues of security, there are rights to privacy, and these will sometimes clash with our right to free data; we do need to accept some compromises.
The principle of a right to data was already accepted before the election in the Conservatives' Tech Manifesto (launched at an event of the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, of which – full disclosure - I’m Chairman) and was repeated in the Coalition's Programme for Government:
This is great – but we need to go a little further. The public shouldn’t need to request the database, we shouldn’t have to ask for it, because it already belongs to us; data should just be published as a matter of course. But perhaps I quibble.
The bigger issue is the huge resistance that will undoubtedly come, not (we now know) from the government but from the government’s employees. The civil servants I’ve talked to about this are generally onside with transparency, some of them are even genuine enthusiasts; but undoubtedly they will raise the kinds of concerns that will slow things down. One objection I came across recently was, “It won’t work if you impose these systems from above”. The opposite is true: it will only work if the rules of publication – the ‘what, when and how’ – are imposed by the radicals. I also heard it said by a senior Whitehall figure that publication won’t matter if it is done for the geeks and the activists, government needs to make it meaningful and relevant to the general public. Wrong again: it’s the geeks and the businesses who turn raw data into something useful, not Whitehall. Right now there isn’t a single iPhone app that links into the NHS. Not even to NHS Direct.
We can’t allow Whitehall to impose any slowing down, even if it’s well-intentioned, because transparency means saving money, it means innovation, it means ‘more-for-less’. We shouldn’t be thinking about the coming spending cuts in the negative terms of loss of services; we should be thinking about how to make our money work harder. So we need maximum transparency as quickly as possible. Usually when I write - here, here and here - about the Post-Bureaucratic Age, people are sceptical about the benefits. From today, that should change. We really have entered a new era.