I find myself using the phrase ‘open by default’ more and more frequently. This post is an attempt to explore what I mean.

We use so many of these terms so rather loosely so that they start to lose their meaning – engage, participate, innovate, open – if we want to keep the power in the language we need to drill down and be clear on what the meaning is and why the term is important. With a phrase like open by default this is even more important as it has that special quality of elusive meaning that means it is perilously close to being spin doctor jargon rather than being something that is making a difference to people’s lives.

I think the meaning breaks down into 4 different aspects:

Open information – not just data
Open data – the idea that government originated data should be in the public domain in an accessible and useable way is now a fairly established idea even if its implementation is as yet rather patchy (Have a look at LinkedGov to understand the work involved in getting this right). There are two motivations behind open data, the first is a desire to make government more accountable. This would be enough of a reason in its own right as without transparency its very difficult to imagine how we will rebuild trust in the democratic process without a shift away from the idea that information is something that needs to be controlled in its contact with the public.

More than that – there is an injustice in the idea that we pay for the creation of this data, its data about us and yet we don’t have access to it all because the systems assume that information is in a sealed file in a dusty drawer in the basement. I feel this point very strongly with respect to research data – we pay for our higher education system through taxation and then we pay through the nose to read the results of the research process (There is an interesting debate about this on the LSE Politics Blog).

Secondly, the motivation is the growing understanding that if we are going to reboot the economy we will need knowledge based businesses to pay a major role in this. In addition to the specialist manufacturing and design innovation that the UK can provide we need to create a new kind of Digital economy that goes beyond using the internet to sell stuff and uses it to create real value. The raw material for this value creation is information – and a lot of it is locked up in government data silos.

There is a movement building behind the idea of open data, brilliant stuff from CountCulture, innovation from the London Data Store and the first OpenData Cities conference in Brighton.  I would argue however that open data is only part of what open by default really means.

Open process
Again, there are two sense this is important firstly with respect to trust in the democratic process and secondly with respect to the benefits of more open processes generally.

Trust in process is created by being clear about what the process is. A good democratic experience is one where you are happy that the outcome is fair even if it isn’t your preferred outcome. At present many of our decision making processes do not feel open to the public as they assume that the public have access to the only through their representatives and the public do not feel connected to politicians. We have a choice – amend the process or improve connections between citizens and politicians. The answer may be a combination of the two.

More generally, open processes enable far wider participation and also build in the possibility of creativity and innovation far more effectively than a process which assumes that the process managers have all the answers in advance. Look at events like CityCamp Brighton  to see what happens when you bring interested people together with no agenda and some basic resources. Personally – I don’t ever want to see a community meeting agenda again which has more than 50% of the time taken up with speakers as opposed to participants.

Open access
Open access is really about making sure that Government is ‘available’ to the public – as are politicians. This means taking the conversation, and the decision making process, to the places where people are and having the debate on their terms not at the convenience of government. Its also about using new channels to make it possible for far more people to connect directly to politicians. There are some things which need a face to face conversation but new technologies and the social shift around the way in which we use them means that we should insist that politicians and government actively engages with us using these channels – this is an entirely solvable problem.

Open standards
Technical standards allow interoperability and ultimately support collaborative behaviour online. By adopting an open, by implication shared, standard the developer is open to the idea of wider connection and cooperation between their work and others. Quite apart from the practical benefits this is a cultural statement. Taking this further and adopting open source licence models which encourage reuse and further development the use of open standards is a power – if technically sent – message. The Public Sector often talks of open source as being a cost saving measure with very limited understanding of the whole open source lifecycle and the real costs for making it successful. The real benefit of open source and open standards in my mind is the design signal that it sends in creating online experience.

If we want to be “open by default” then we need use open standards to build our civic architecture.

Open mind
There is a final sense in which I think we need to consider ‘open’ and ask ourselves how open we are to new ideas. One of the side effects I believe, of living a more digital and as a result public life is that your thinking is exposed. This blog is an active attempt to explore this – as an action researcher I am documenting my explorations and you can find numerous influences and contradictions in this. If we are open by default we have to be open to external influences as well as being open with our thought processes.

Is there a choice?
I am not sure that there is. The data and the content is all out there and I have no confidence that the people holding it – government and corporate – are going to keep it locked up properly even if they want to. I think the world is changing and that it is far better to move towards this actively rather than letting it happen.

Open by default doesn’t and shouldn’t mean completely open. I believe very strongly in our right and the importance of privacy and also in the importance of discretion and privacy within some conversations. However if we don’t start to redraw some of the legal and behavioural frameworks around these issues then the important elements that we want to preserve risk being overwhelmed as people just set data free. We need a proper conversation about this that accepts, the new reality, the risks and the opportunities and starts to shape what being open really means – we need to recalibrate our privacy machine.

I sometimes ask myself to what extent this is this a moral rather than a practical position for me. I am increasingly drawn to greater openness and transparency as I think that people function better with all the information and that people are able to make reasonable judgements about what they learn. I also think its easier – to be open means that you don’t have to remember who you have said what to and also minimises internal politics and builds trust. Ultimately I think its the right thing to do – the fact I have logical reasoning for believing this does not make it less of a moral position.

Being ‘open for by default’ – in the rich sense that I have outlined here – is what open practice means to me. Its more than just opening up the data or the standards and more than just being open minded. It is an effect of the publicness of a digital life but also a practice that allows you function well in open networks where there are not fixed and contained boundaries.

I have been speaking to people about the new Police and Crime Commissioners recently and asking questions about how we can build a good democratic experience into these new roles. I am advocating the use of open practice – of being open by default – and it feels risky and bold to the people I speak to. But I keep asking – because I want politicians to be risky and bold – and I want them to be open by default – and I think this is both a moral and a practical belief to hold.


So – it turns out that my inability to fix my research methods chapter had the effect of rendering me unable to write anything else – who can understand the workings of the human mind??? Chapter 4 now dispatched I am now trying to catch up on backlog (this includes 3 UKGC12 posts – oh how I rue the day I pitched so many…). Anyway. This post is jumping the queue because I have been doing a lot of mulling recently, for various reasons, about organisational culture – its an attempt to synthesise these thoughts and organise them a bit.

The first thing that brought this on is that fact that Carl Haggerty is going to be joining Public-i 2 days per week to work as Product Manager for Citizenscape. Carl has written about this here so this is my turn….I’m delighted Carl is joining us for all kinds of different reasons.

The first is the simple fact that Carl is great to work with – having worked with him on the Virtual Town Hall pilot, as a client at Devon County Council and also in various GovCamp sessions I know that he combines expertise and forward thinking with the ability to challenge your thinking in a really positive and constructive way.

This ability to issue constructive challenge is going to be crucial to someone who is coming into a project – Citizenscape – which has been very a huge amount of work for a lot of people for the last couple of years. The product has developed hugely from the initial EU project and then Virtual Town Hall pilots and has now been deployed across our core Connect sites as well – but we still it can go a lot further. Its live, stable and useful but so much of the functionality is lying below the waterline – in the code, locked into the UX and in the admin functionality. We are hoping that a fresh pair of eyes – from someone who understands what we are trying to achieve with Citizenscape – will help push it forward.

The second reason I am delighted to have Carl join is about the blurring of boundaries. The fact that we will be sharing him with Devon County Council makes this a fairly unusual arrangement but one which I think reflects the new ways in which public and private sectors need to be working together. I hope that we will learn a lot from working with Carl but I also hope he will learn from us. I am very grateful to Devon CC for being willing to support this kind of working and I hope that the institutional learning goes both ways as well.

There is a lot of talk about the Public Sector needing to be more business-like, to behave more like the private sector, but we don’t often reflect on what this actually means. This kind of shared working is a way of exploring the cultural qualities that might flow in both directions. I am hoping that Carl will have a positive experience of working a small business which is able to be far more agile and innovative than a local authority just by dint of its size but that also needs to be constantly thinking about selling as an essential part of its lifecycle.

There. I’ve said it. The ‘S’ word. Doesn’t it send a shiver down the spine?

Dan Slee posted a very pithy piece which explained very clearly why the public sector is right to have a poor impression of the private sector sales process and, as someone running a company, made me cringe. However I believe its possible – and perhaps even advantageous – to build innovative and useful projects that are sold and then co-created between public and private sector organisations. I also think that discussing value exchange – money – upfront in a project is one way to ensure that you keep the attention of all the project participants. In my experience doing stuff for free doesn’t really convince anyone that they need to take what you are doing very seriously – though on the other hand you do need to be sure that the value exchange is fair and defensible. I don’t want to public sector wasting money and I don’t want to be part of helping it waste money.  This point of view has taken me a while to come to which is perhaps another story.

Its possible that the only way that we will substantively shift government practice is with these kinds of co-created projects and relationships. If this is the case then we need to learn how to work together – systemically – and the kind of cultural exchange that we are starting with Carl could form a valuable part of this learning. As we are both avid bloggers I am imagining you will hear more about this whether you want to or not.

There is a lot of challenge in the idea of opening up your organisation to have a client working with you as part of the team – not just on one specific project where they can be contained. Any organisation will have a degree of paddling below the water going on and it takes confidence in what you do to open this up to scrutiny. One of the reasons we are doing this, apart from the fact that you can’t learn without risk, is because we think that any business that works closely with the public sector needs to be setting itself at least the standard of openness that we demand of our government organisations. Projects like Chris Taggert’s Open Corporate is part of this but I think the blurring of organisational boundaries to create the most effective project teams is another. We have all worked closely with other organisations but this blurring of boundaries is something else.

I also think these qualities of confidence and openness are essential in a networked organisation but I will come back to that thought another time.

The second reason I have been mulling organisational culture was as a result of a twitter conversation discussing whether or not context is significant in terms of defining and understanding innovation. The consensus was a strongly felt ‘yes’ – you can’t describe something as innovative without understanding the context in which the work is done and projects which are innovative in one context may be fairly mundane in others. @Pubstrat has excellent things to say on this subject.

This got me thinking about how you might more actively set the context for a future project. We are I hope – subject to various practicalities – about to kick off another Citizenscape pilot in the fairly near future. How can we set the right context for this project? The first and obvious point will be creating the right project team and relationships but I think the critical element of this is in creating a shared context between ourselves and the client. Creating this initial shared understanding and actively discussing the fact that project which is focused on ‘doing things differently’ means that the project itself needs to…well….do things differently.

I am trying to put together a more organised set of thoughts around the question of ‘agile project management‘ which I keep coming back to. I think this idea of setting the new, shared, context for a project – or an organisation – is part of that but I also think its part of what it means to participate in a ‘networked’ project which takes place across organisational boundaries. It is more and more frequently the case that we are working in loose coalitions or temporary teams and partnerships and that our different work contexts are colliding. This is happening across internal and external organisational. I think we probably need to be thinking about what this means and trying to capture some of the approaches that make it all work more smoothly – capturing the context is one part of this.

The final reason I am thinking about organisational culture is because I find that so many of the conversations that I have with clients that start of talking about social media, engagement and democracy end up really being about organisational change. I increasingly come to the conclusion that we – practitioners – can’t continue to make incremental progress to unlock the real potential of the social web if we don’t start to actively discuss the way in which our organisations will change as a result. This is not saying anything new – we all know this to be true – but how many people are just below the parapet in terms of really talking about this fact within their organisations? How many senior teams are thinking in these terms? Time for a more public discussion and a lot more mulling I think.