No 10 petition urges open sourcing council software

If councils spend citizens’ money on developing systems to inform and engage citizens, shouldn’t they also share the software?  
A while back I wrote about my experience of sitting on a Government advisory board discussing plans to spend £2 million of public money on Citizen Engagement Tools. We weren’t making decisions – just helping civil servants reflect upon what might be best value, and what might have been done already.
I was flattered to be invited – but it seemed a rather haphazard and limited process, and I suggested that in these days of digital engagement it should be possible to take wider soundings, for example:

  1. Instead of limiting input to a Board of a dozen, why not organise a half-day event rather like the recent UKGovCamp09, and invite anyone with expertise in the area to turn up.
  2. Secondly, why not anonymise the bids and post them online for comment, rather like the Power of Information report promoted by social media Minister Tom Watson. That attracted over 300 contributions.

I don’t think anyone took any notice, but I felt a bit better … and now the story continues elsewhere. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced earlier this week that ten council have been awarded a total of £620,000 for some pilot projects under the Timely Information to Citizens project, which was one of the packages we were advising on.  They include online consultation tools, online communities, reporting neighbourhood problems, and a volunteering and participation database. It’s all part of developing a body of good practice that will be packaged in an advisory toolkit.
There’s not enough information in the announcement to judge whether the projects could be done more cheaply using off-the-shelf systems, or by borrowing from other councils.
However, over on the No 10 petition site Adrian Short invites us help make sure that it may be possible to make those judgements in future, and spread the benefits of investment:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ask the Communities Secretary to require that all software produced by councils under the Timely Information to Citizens project be released under an open source licence.

I’ve signed up. I doubt if that’s any more effective than suggesting changes in procedure at a board … but maybe it will get a response if enough citizens join in. Any other ideas on how to ensure council use our money effectively in this field? I’ve a hunch that mySociety could do many of these projects at a fraction of the cost – but I could be quite wrong. How can we find out next time before the money is spent?

2 Comments

  • April 13, 2009 - 9:34 pm | Permalink

    David,

    Interesting post, but what are you basing your hunch on? MySociety do fantastic work, but they focus on a narrow band of applications. One of the reasons they do such good work at a reasonable rate compared to large IT consultancies is because they pick and choose their projects allowing them to use volunteers. It means they are less likely to do dull, but useful work that still requires doing.

    In terms of disclosure, we’re working with one of the successful councils on a project and it’s worth pointing out that the technology portion of the budget is not the majority of the budget. It takes a lot more than a bit of coding to embed a project successfully in a community.

  • April 14, 2009 - 9:01 am | Permalink

    Shane – really interesting and valid point you make about tech not being most of the project cost. Obvious really, and I should have given it more thought. Perhaps I was mentally diverted by the CLG “tools” description. My main query is, how can we find out more about the projects before decisions are taken. Even if it isn’t a public process, how can civil servants and those advising them know enough about the projects *and others elsewhere* to form judgements? There was quite a bit of discussion in the Board I attended about this, on the basis of whether “tools” had been developed elsewhere and could be re-used.
    Of course it might be that the technology had already been developed, and the project cost was in staff time. I guess that’s the point at which the petition point comes in … if software is being re-used does the second council have to pay?
    This is, perhaps, a small example of exchanges of information and knowledge that the Knowledge Hub idea is trying to address. It seems to me a particularly interesting case, because it potentially involves sharing knowledge between central and local government, and those outside government trying to promote “citizen empowering” technology. At the moment all the citizens can do is ask the questions …

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