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Report of the Digital Government Review


Building components, platforms and architecture

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As we noted above, the Government is creating a target National Information Infrastructure (NII). The National Information Infrastructure will provide common language and links between the most important datasets in the country. For example it would authoritatively link geospatial data, to census data, to public sector performance data.

Initially Government attempted to produce the NII in a top-down model with government departments being asked to list all of the datasets that they hold and those that they think should be open [148]. This was causing neglect for those areas of the NII that should not be open – for example those that may contain restricted personal data [149].

Based on feedback from the open data community the approach has now altered and the Cabinet Office have run a series of workshops to start gathering people’s needs and thoughts [150]. Attendees at these workshops have come from both other parts of the public sector and from outside the public sector. This community can now work with the Cabinet Office to gradually grow the NII.

This is a welcome change of direction. The NII is fundamentally a part of the information architecture of the nation; it is not a subset of open data. The private and voluntary sectors could be contributing new datasets or describing existing datasets within that structure [151]. It should be driven by people’s needs.

But the initial approach displays a mind-set that we can also see with technical components within the public sector. There are limited examples of reuse between central government, local government and other bodies such as the NHS. There are few examples of people’s contributions to these components from outside the public sector.

Yet just as with the NII it would be beneficial to accept such contributions.

Complex public services that are centred on people are delivered by a number of organisations. A jobless person receiving benefits and looking for a job may be interacting with: the Department for Work and Pensions both to receive benefits and to attend their local Job Centre, the local authority who are providing housing benefits, and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau who may be supporting them if they are experiencing problems with receiving those benefits.

Meanwhile, their Housing Association or other landlord will be providing tenant information and will need to receive the housing benefit. And this is just the start of the list. Similar lists can be produced for people receiving health or social care or a myriad of other complex services.

That person will benefit from those organisations working more closely together and providing integrated services. A common platform based on open standards can support this model but it needs to be gradually built whilst listening to those organisation’s needs and the needs of the people those organisations provide service to.

As the open source world has shown, such platforms can also be collaborative, with organisations working together to build common components that meet both their needs. Perhaps central government and local government can start by working together to expand GOV.UK Verify to support local authority needs?

The challenges are considerable, but there is plenty of evidence that people are keen to contribute time and skills where it contributes to societal good – and when the parameters of progress and success are clearly defined. Consider the approach that the open data community is taking by working with the Cabinet Office to develop the NII; or some of the approaches that can currently be seen developing outside of the public sector [152].

Government does need to remain the final decision-maker. It is responsible and accountable for delivering public services, but this role can still be performed alongside building open and meritocratic communities that allow others to contribute. This approach will also not work for every component, some are critical public services, but as with the NII this avenue is worth exploring.

[148] http://mapgubbins.tumblr.com/post/68876431091/evaluating-the-uk-national-information-infrastructure
[149] It also caused neglect for areas of the NII that are not owned by the government. One simple example would be the location of ‘last mile’ telecoms infrastructure that provides our homes and businesses with access to fixed and mobile broadband services
[150] http://data.gov.uk/blog/revisiting-national-information-infrastructure-workshop-1-definition-and-scope
[151] http://www.statslife.org.uk/opinion/1778-it-s-time-for-the-private-sector-to-release-some-open-data-too
[152] Two simple examples are the Wikipedia and Mozilla communities

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