Just How Open Are Open Consultations, If Only Big Companies Have The Resources To Answer The Questions?

from the if-you-need-to-ask-the-price-you-can't-afford-it dept

One of the important achievements of the open government movement in recent years has been a widening of consultations. Where before the only external input came from industry interest groups and their lobbyists, today the general public in many countries is invited to give its views on a range of proposed government policies. But is this just window-dressing?

That’s what Chris Taggart, co-founder of OpenCorporates and founder of the UK local government site OpenlyLocal, wondered recently when he was preparing to participate in a UK government workshop about open data:

Yesterday I received an email from a Cabinet Office civil servant in preparation for a workshop tomorrow about the Open Data in Growth Review, and in it I was asked to provide:

“an estimation of the impact of Open Data generally, or a specific data set, on UK economic growth? an estimation of the economic impact of open data on your business (perhaps in terms of increase in turnover or number of new jobs created) of Open Data or a specific data set, and where possible the UK economy as a whole”

My response:

“How many Treasury economists can I borrow to help me answer these questions? Seriously.”

Because that?s the point. Like the faux Public Data Corporation consultation that refuses to allow the issue of governance to be addressed, this feels very much like a stitch-up. Who, apart from economists, or those large companies and organisations who employ economists, has the skill, tools, or ability to answer questions like that.

Taggart’s rhetorical question exposes the continuing bias in apparently open consultations that ask for detailed responses: only big companies with the people or resources to apply to such questions are taken seriously, which means that the views of the general public are once more discounted.

In fact, it’s worse than that, since the actual figures produced by big companies ? particularly those with a vested interest in preserving outdated copyright laws, say ? often turn out to have no real basis in fact, as numerous previous Techdirt stories have shown. Large organizations can just use their size to lend an air of credibility to estimates that may be little better than some back of the envelope calculation.

Recognising this fact, Taggart decided to fight fire with fire by producing his own estimates that were pretty much jotted down on the back of an envelope. He also cleverly turned the question around, calculating not the positive impact of open data ? something hypothetical and hence very hard to estimate ? but the observed negative impact of closed data.

His calculations are surprisingly detailed (it must have been a big envelope), and are well-worth reading. His final figure? A loss of £17,850 million ? around $28 billion ? a year to the UK economy:

That, back of the envelope-wise, is what closed data is costing us, the loss through creating artificial scarcity by restricting public sector data to only those pay. Like narrowing an infinitely wide crossing to a small gate just so you can charge ? hey, that?s an idea, why not put a toll booth on every bridge in London, that would raise some money ? you can do it, but would that really be a good idea?

And for those who say the figures are bunk, that I?ve picked them out of the air, not understood the economics, or simply made mistakes in the maths ? well, you?re probably right. If you want me to do better give me those Treasury economists, and the resources to use them, or accept that you?re only getting the voice of those that do, and not innovative SMEs [small and medium enterprises], still less the Big Society [ordinary people].

Just because consultations are open doesn’t mean the submissions are representative.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

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Comments on “Just How Open Are Open Consultations, If Only Big Companies Have The Resources To Answer The Questions?”

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Kapsar (profile) says:

Detailed reports aren't the only way

Great article. I think one way for the public to enter the conversation is through large complaints. It’s not efficient and doesn’t lead to the best results but eventually governments may listen. I’m thinking of some of the large protests to the GM movement in the past, the UK student protests and now the OWS movements. These seem to be one way to get governments to pay attention.

Another way is to support NGOs. NGOs might be able to muster resources to help combat the corporate influence. The EFF and UCLA do a good job of this in the US. Much of it is after the fact similar to protests, but they also engage in policy recommendations during the deliberation period.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can't get what's wrong

He want to go to the workshop, and the organizing party ask him to prepare data. Is it mandatory that he an’t go unless the data is prepared? If no I see no problem.

Afterall, it makes quite some sense for the organizing party asking want kind of data the participants are going to give out as supporting evidence of opinions they’re going to make.

It helps if they can make sure everybody is on the same page before the event starts.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: I can't get what's wrong

Did you seriously not get the point of the article?
” “How many Treasury economists can I borrow to help me answer these questions? Seriously.”

Because that?s the point. Like the faux Public Data Corporation consultation that refuses to allow the issue of governance to be addressed, this feels very much like a stitch-up. Who, apart from economists, or those large companies and organisations who employ economists, has the skill, tools, or ability to answer questions like that.”

He’s been asked to prepare data that he can’t possibly prepare. Thus, the only data that will be shown at this conference will be data prepared by large corporations. Which is what this article is about.

anonymous says:

even if it were possible for him to state with absolute accuracy what the economic impact would be, it would be totally ignored anyway. this is, as stated in the article, simply window dressing. a way of making it look as if the government is giving ‘the other side’ a chance of providing input, simply to then ignore it anyway. the outcome has already been decided because only one side is able to ‘encourage’ that decision by giving ‘incentives’ where needed

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My experience of replying to these consultations is that the responses of ordinary citzens are politely solicited – and then ignored – sometimes with insulting remarks about factual inaccuracy ( when we know the corporate submissions are FULL of such inaccuracies themselves).

In addition the questions are also often phrased in a way that more or less presumes a certain answer.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not sure, what the point here was, I love the idea of open government, but that civil servant requests sounds like a normal one to me, what I read and understood was that the CS was asking for data he could have collected about his little piece of the world maybe to see if it agrees with other data or something, I don’t believe that is unreasonable and not out of reach to anyone, everybody has control over their expenditures, we are all our own economies and we all have that data.

Our individual data point make not make it relevant but the combined some of it may prove that, in the past only governments had that ability, the internet changed that, it is now in reach of the common citizen to have that data.

To prove that point here is an example of data collected by a lot of individuals that match and in some cases is better than studies done by big corporations, the bad part is that it is a company and it already tried to claim ownership on that data given to them by others.

But it was an individual initiative and just proves that can be done it is not something from dreams, it is real and achivable.

The question I want to see answered is why people not organizing and compiling their own set of data points?

I do understand that those data can hurt people if they can be correlated to individuals, but today everyone can report on their corner of the world and I believe that was what the government representative wanted from him, or this was not what was asked?

out_of_the_blue says:

The fewer economists, the more is /known/.

Mistake to assume that “Treasury economists/ know anything more than persons with a few facts in hand. Economists must first establish a need for themselves, so they complicate everything.

Economics is not “hard science”, it’s /opinion/ of who should labor for how much and who should live in idle luxury off those labors. Economists are usually just the lazy lackeys of the rich, those who aren’t ambitious and take it up as an easy path, become a form of priest who argue over how many widgets a laborer can make an hour, without any experience at all in ever having made widgets. Economists are the products of ivy league diploma mills to turn out the next generation of overseers; it’s the science of slavery. They can justify any moral outrage in the name of “efficiency”. Marx was an economist; his premises led to a controlled economy; Milton Friedman was an economist, and his ideas /also/ lead to a controlled economy, the one we’re moving into. All economists are just control freaks, pretending that they’re experts who know best.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The fewer economists, the more is /known/.

The philosophy of economics has about as much to do with the modern meaning of the term and practice of economics as the philosophy of psychology has to do with neurology or psychiatry. Rational argument (philosophy) is a useful endeavor but don’t conflate it with objectively observable facts gleaned from rigorous empirical study.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The fewer economists, the more is /known/.

So it’s your opinion then that there are zero Economists that went to a state school and worked their way through college? You should really really get out more.

I’m curious if you actually believe that theory being used for nefarious purposes actually means the person who came up with the theory is at fault. Would you hep blame on Einstein in the same manner you heaped it upon Friedman?

Marx was an historian and a philosopher by the way, not an economist. I can understand the confusion though, given that ‘Economics’ appears in a title attached to a posthumously published collection of his notes by the Soviet Union. You probably didn’t read anything after that having gleaned all the information you needed to make the leap above.

Like it or not economics is as hard a science as meteorology. The issue isn’t in the ‘hardness’ of the science but in the expectation that because it is a science it will make clairvoyant predictions of the future. Internet commenters who don’t understand this are just ignorant and pretend that the experts are no smarter than they because it helps them cope with the fear of acknowledging their own ignorance.

The Groove Tiger (profile) says:

Re: Re: The fewer economists, the more is /known/.

“So it’s your opinion then that there are zero Economists that went to a state school and worked their way through college? You should really really get out more.”

Sure but that makes them “College Boys” and as such they can be dismissed by ootb as hipsters. And Rich People.

And Capitalism. And Google.

Mike42 (profile) says:

Data Driven

It’s good that a government wants to make decisions based on facts and data. It’s stupid to ask the public for the data to make that decision, as it’s going to be opinion. If you want data, FUND SOME STUDIES. Big companies will, of course, fund their own studies, and you will have several datasets to choose from. You will then be able to make a better decision about a policy which will affect a great number of people.
The way they are doing it now is based on faith and opinion. The dark ages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Data Driven

I disagree since the public will be the one giving the data anyway.
There is no escaping that the source of all that data will always be the public, so you either trust that data or you don’t, doesn’t matter who collects it, it will be the same data that everyone has access to.

How people or companies do present that data however is open to debate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Data Driven

Yes, but the data always comes from the public, it is after that that the data is corrupted or “formatted”, but the data is always the same for anybody who comes to collect it, unless many people care about the same things and agreed to deliver one set of data to one party that is different from what they delivered to another which is possible but unlikely.
It can happen though, in cases like criminal statistics people would never be completely open with government officials, but they might put forth a different set of data if they were anonymous, or if it was given to a more trusted party.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Data Driven

Again, it is not true that the data is always the same for anybody who comes to collect it. How the data is collected matters, not just what is done with the data afterword. It doesn’t even have to be something as overt as anonymous vs. named. It can be something as subtle as the ordering of the possible responses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Data Driven

Care to show an example of that.

Facts are facts no matter who collects them, age, total food expenditure, sex, religion, how many friends you have, how many cars do you have, how many times did you go to the hospital, those are not opinions and I have a hard time seeing where bias can have any effect on the outcome except on the presentation of that data. Now if people where trying to collect data on opinions that might be a problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Data Driven

No, the fact being that a liar will give lies to the government or anybody else and a serious person will give the same data he can recall or collected to whomever asks for it.

The data will be the same.

One person reporting the price of shampoo at one particular store has to agree with other reporting that price in the same time period no?

One can identify good and bad data by correlation, statistical analysis is not just for fun you know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Data Driven

Why trust memory when you have the most extensive sensor array ever deployed?

Use your smartphones to scan prices when you go to the supermarket, the phono automagically can send a photo, with GPS coordinates, data and time, people can track price changes accurately and thus the price of living, you can create your own CPI at a personal level without having to trust your memory and with some proof the data is reliable and you can send that exact data in real time to anywhere you choose.

But as said before, it takes some discipline to remember to do it every time you are in the market, to log every thing you paid for which is not necessary, if you just log most of it the data can still be useful.

Anonymous Coward says:


What is the British equivalent to the American Census Bureau or the FedStats?

Is the Office for National Statistics?

Just an example:

Suppose that some dude wants to compare his cost of living, how should he proceed?

– Get a copy of the UK CPI(Consumer Price Index) and use it as a template to see how to do it. What are the products used in that index to calculate it? Could anybody make their own index off of the things they buy?

Could anyone build their own CPI index on a personal level and share that information with others to see what really is happening inside a community?

Making a CSV(Comma-separated values) is not that hard.

If people start doing it, we could even prove that those other numbers that goes on official reports are wrong! or they could be correct and help to elevate the trust in the government, I don’t really care in which way it goes as long as it shows the true direction it is going so I can make up my mind to start complaining or just be quiet about it, or they could show that those datasets from the government don’t translate to what happens in the smaller scales of communities.

Smartphones are a wonderful thing, those are pocket sensors that everybody can carry around, you can input data anywhere and with things like Siri and Speaktoit you don’t even need to type it anymore.

The complaints being levelled here I believe are misguided, the responsibility for that data should lie in each and everyone of us. Each and everyone of us can collect data and make it part of a bigger database which can show us a clear picture, that wouldn’t be opinion would it?

So why is that, we don’t have the data?

We have the means to collect it, we have the means to store it and we have the means to distribute it, why is that people are not collecting that data?


Date,mmHg/Systolic,mmHg/Diastolic,”Heart Rate”,”Pulse Pressure”,Weight(Kg),Temperature(Centigrates)
“2011/08/25 05:50:00”,121,80,80,41,71.5,35.9
“2011/08/25 21:10:00”,120,84,75,36,71.9,35.5
“2011/08/26 05:59:00”,117,76,71,41,70.8,35.3
“2011/08/26 21:05:00”,120,83,83,37,71.6,36
“2011/08/27 06:29:00”,123,83,73,40,70.8,35.4
“2011/08/27 19:06:00”,121,83,86,38,71.7,35.9
“2011/08/28 05:28:00”,110,73,84,37,70.8,35.3
“2011/08/28 18:26:00”,127,84,93,43,71.9,36.1
“2011/08/29 06:06:00”,113,76,71,37,71.1,35.2
“2011/08/29 19:14:00”,114,78,83,36,70.6,36.6
“2011/08/30 05:00:00”,120,82,65,38,71.6,35.4
“2011/08/30 23:52:00”,122,81,86,41,71.6,35.6

You can import CSV files into any spreadsheet software and they are available for smartphones(iPhone and Android), with that you can make beautiful graphs with it.

I do it for health reasons but why are we not doing it for other things too?

This is why I don’t think or believe it is out of reach for anybody to get that data, that the government ask and even if they did ask for it in the believe it would make it difficult for others to come up with it, this is a great opportunity to make them look like fools.

One thing I would say it is that to do that one needs to have some will and discipline, to have a complete dataset, but even incomplete ones are still useful.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Isn’t this the whole problem with lobbying in general? Only companies that can afford to hire people full time to push their issues in government get their issues heard and get to input on those issues, while the people those issues directly affect have no say in the matter simply because their job isn’t pushing the issue in Washington.

This is exactly what Lawrence Lessig keeps going on about.

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