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:
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.
"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"
"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.
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than that, since the actual figures produced by big companies – particularly those with a vested interest in preserving outdated copyright laws, say – often turn out to have no real basis in fact, as numerous previous Techdirt stories have shown.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?
Just because consultations are open doesn't mean the submissions are representative.
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].