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A manifesto for open government - #OpenGovTech

2019 has been a big year for us. It has given us a lot to think about as we recognise that we're no longer a small startup, and that it is time to think about our development over the coming years. We identified some core themes that we were either already implementing - such as our #RadicallyOpen working methods - or we were already working towards. One such theme was #OpenGovTech. Our founder Paul Connell introduced his initial thoughts about #OpenGovTech in two blog posts - which can be read here and here - but was keen to say from the start that we, as ODI Leeds, did not want to 'own' the concept. This was something that should be co-developed and nurtured by a wider community of passionate folk.

On 4 September 2019, the team went on tour to the postcard-pretty town of Hebden Bridge to launch #OpenGovTech as part of Wuthering Bytes. The tech festival was first started in 2013 and has since been host to coding workshops, tech demos, amazing speakers, and more. It has gone from strength to strength, and this year represented a big new milestone for us as we became a sponsor for Wuthering Bytes. In line with our thoughts about how we continue to grow as a business/organisation, we felt it was important to support Wuthering Bytes. Their ethos and aims tie in closely with ours, they regularly use local speakers, they are advocates for diverse voices, and build inclusivity and education into the festival programme. They want to encourage more folk to be engaged with tech and digital, and they find fun and playful ways to do so.

So, onto #OpenGovTech. We couldn't have picked a more interesting venue if we tried! The Birchcliffe Centre is home to a variety of voluntary organisations and was originally a base for environmental and heritage conservation projects.

Stunning surroundings at the Birchcliffe Centre
Credit: ODI Leeds

It was a small but mighty gathering of folk interested in the crossover of tech, digital, and government, and were all keen to find out more about what #OpenGovTech was going to be about. Paul Connell began with a summary of his initial thoughts about #OpenGovTech, using examples of ODI Leeds projects and outreach to demonstrate what is possible with collaboration, an open approach, and access to good quality data. The Business Rates project in particular was a star feature as it highlighted the wide-reaching impact of the work done by the local authorities involved (Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Stockport). By working together to define a data standard, they now have a set of tools that can visualise the business rates data of any local authority in the country (including their own). The process of cleaning and preparing their data has also improved the quality overall, for example fixing problematic time formats or missing values.

Discussion then moved on to the challenges faced in government tech/digital services, and what the first steps of #OpenGovTech should be. The full notes can be seen on this Google Doc and you are very welcome to add some more thoughts and suggestions. In summary, several key topics were brought up:

  • geography: a lot of projects currently become unstuck due to licensing issues

  • buying/developing services: #OpenGovTech is likely to need (or could inspire?) a different way of procuring work, or at the very least needs a shift in attitude and understanding around open source

  • culture: the underlying culture of #OpenGovTech is likely to be very different to a 'standard' government perspective

  • standards/formats: these will be important, and the above story about business rates shows that a well defined standard can help create tools anywhere in the country

  • collaboration: forced collaboration rarely works, instead opportunities to reach in and engage when folk are ready is better

It was felt that #OpenGovTech should be a set of principles rather than a suite of patterns or a library of assets. A manifesto was suggested, with attendees of the launch event making a first attempt at some core principles (seen in the Google Doc). A dedicated website (the first iteration can be seen here) will be created for #OpenGovTech that encourages easy contribution and participation - we particularly want people to be sharing their tools, resources, stories and case studies, etc.

A first draft of a manifesto to help define #OpenGovTech
Credit: ODI Leeds

The launch event was just the start for #OpenGovTech - it is one of our core themes here at ODI Leeds, so it will continue to be a part of our projects and outputs, and there will be more events or working sessions where like-minded folk can come together to collaborate, discuss, debate, and make change happen. As we said earlier, we don't want to 'own' #OpenGovTech and we also don't want to be the only voice or perspective. We are inviting everyone to get involved, to contribute as much as they feel comfortable, and to take what others have done (like all of our tools available openly) and make things better.