I was at an interesting symposium on Big Data hosted by Sage earlier this week where a number of participants discussed the limitations on implementation of the government’s open data initiative: data is often published in an unhelpful or even outright unusable format. A number of people suggested that there were structural reasons for this, from a lack of awareness of the data they have through to a lack of expertise in the civil service.
But reading Shadow State, by Alan White, it strikes me that these structural impediments must be read in an ideological context. Open data is bound up in the marketisation of public services under the sign of ‘transparency’. From loc 4050:
The government will tell you that this is part of an ongoing process to ‘push’ all the data out to the public: the former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said he wanted to remove the need for Freedom of Information by using open data. His successor, Matt Hancock, has argued that open data not only gives more transparency and accountability, but can be used to improve the performance of public services, citing the way that publishing contract data allowed one of his officials to spot ‘£4 million in savings in just ten minutes’.
From Infoglut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 607. The context to digital innovation in public services:
What emerges is a kind of actuarial model of crime: one that lends itself to aggregate considerations regarding how best to allocate resources under conditions of scarcity – a set of concerns that fits neatly with the conjunction of generalized threat and the constriction of public- sector funding. The algorithm promises not simply to capitalize on new information technology and the data it generates, but simultaneously to address reductions in public resources. The challenges posed by reduced manpower can be countered (allegedly) by more information. As in other realms, enhanced information processing promises to make the business of policing and security more efficient and effective. However, it does so according to new surveillance imperatives, including the guidance of targeted surveillance by comprehensive monitoring, the privileging of prediction over explanation (or causality), and new forms of informational asymmetry. The data- driven promise of prediction, in other words, relies upon significant shifts in cultures and practices of information collection.
There’s a great article on Open Democracy discussing the politics of public ownership. I couldn’t agree more emphatically with the analysis and that’s why I’m giving as much of my time as I can to We Own It despite being chronically overworked at present.
‘If a political party announced a plan to end the privatisation / contracting out of public services by default, and take more public services into public ownership, would that make you more or less likely to vote for that party, or would it have no effect?’
That was the question asked by Survation on behalf of the new campaign group “We Own It” in a new poll, released last week. And by 4:1, the answer was that such a policy would make a voter more likely to vote for a party.
Specifically, 46% of voters would be more likely to vote for a party promoting public ownership instead of outsourcing and privatisation. Only 11% would be less likely to do so, whilst 43% said it wouldn’t make a difference. Despite this, there is no major party in England with this policy. Significantly, I haven’t seen any speculation in the media that Ed Miliband – supposedly Labour’s most left wing leader in decades – is likely to adopt such a position, despite its popularity. I think that this shows us three important things about British politics.
And of all of the issues about which left leaning parties and activists might campaign, privatisation seems to me to be the clearest example of a rare phenomenon. There is potential for a major victory with the ability not just to win a specific policy change, but also a genuine change in the long term balance of power between the people and the powerful. Never again could energy company bosses threaten to bring the country to its knees because they didn’t like what a politician said.
Yet, despite this being a major issue with mass public support, who is running this campaign? Whilst unions do some work sometimes – usually in the few seconds before another national treasure is auctioned off – there was until very recently, no real campaigning infrastructure or organisations set up to work on the issue. The lack of any long term political organiser paid only to defend the public realm is astonishing given that most illnesses have someone employed to advocate on behalf of their patients (even many which are relatively obscure).
Of course, that’s not quite true any more. The poll was commissioned by the new campaign group We Own It. At the moment, this is a small group of hard working researchers and campaigners, mostly working for free in their spare time. Let’s hope that this is the start of a beautiful movement.
There’s been a pervasive tendency to confuse what was basically a function of 80s+90s electoral politics with some intrinsic characteristic of ‘public ownership’ as a concept. What was initially a fairly reasonable psephological analysis of Labour’s national position coupled with an overly cautious media strategy became something profoundly ideological over time. We need to rescue the concept of public ownership from the internal politics of the Labour party.
As has so often happened in the last year of my life, I found myself on an unpleasantly crowded train home this evening after a long day in London. I could not fail to be aware of the impending crowds as I began to board the train – the hordes of people who had ran past me as I strolled along the platform to board the train had been something of a giveaway. Naturally, this walk along the platform necessitated that I walk past a whole sequence of empty first-class coaches. I boarded the train and slowly made my way to my booked seat in coach B and finally sat down in a relatively empty carriage, having successfully negotiated the sprinting crowds who bafflingly never fail to sit down in the first carriage they come to despite having passively aggressively pushed past me on the way to the train to ensure they get a ‘good seat’. So I sit and get comfortable…. only to be interrupted by the piercing tone of an impending announcement: “we would like to remind all passengers that, in spit of the overcrowding, first class tickets are required for first class travel. Train delays do not entitle you to first class travel“. So to catalogue my sources of indignation at that moment in time:
- The seemingly endless sequence of first class carriages I’m forced to walk past before I board a service which is rendered private on the questionable basis that market competition ensures an efficient allocation of resources
- The fact that train staff are sufficiently unaware and/or uncaring as to not append a suggestion to the aforementioned warning that ‘if you walk down to coach B or coach A there are lots of seats”
- The fact that people who paid £20-£100 for a journey who might find themselves standing in crowded vestibules (because, as per the above point, the train manager either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care to inform them there are plenty of seats) after a day of 30 degree+ weather in London are now being lectured to about any incipient sense of entitlement which these unpleasant conditions might give rise to.
So I was feeling pretty indignant but then came the icing on the cake: “we’d like to remind passengers that if you choose to leave luggage on an adjacent seat you will be charged at the full standard class fare for that seat“. Suddenly my casual indignation became detached, as my frustration coalesced into a view of a complex emergent system, all levels of which baffled and angered me: the irrational profligacy encoded into an institutional system of rules (the wasted capacity which is a precondition for sustaining the first/standard class boundary), the moralism with which these rules are enforced (“don’t for a second believe that our inadequate service entitles to you first class”) and the sanctions attached to their violation (“if you sit in first class, you have to buy a new ticket. If you spread out in standard class, you have to buy a new ticket”). I saw Spirit of 45 last night and in some ways I wan’t sure what to make of it. Was it romanticising post-war Britain? Was this a lost past which can never be regained given the economic and political conditions which the post-war consensus presupposed? I don’t know but I couldn’t help but think about it this evening, as I sat on a train contemplating the casual contemptuousness which pervades nearly every aspect of how train companies relate to their customers. Perhaps I’m complaining unjustly though. After all, the wonder of free enterprise means that if I’m unhappy with Virgin Trains I can take a London Midland train instead. Oh, wait. Damn.