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Mar 06, 2023

Public goods for the public good

The UK should be taking the idea of digital public goods more seriously if it wants to re-capture it's former creativity

I think a lot about public goods. I asked ChatGPT to summarise the idea for me and it did a pretty solid job (although the reference to lighthouses seems a bit obscure):

Public goods are goods or services that are available to all citizens and their consumption by one person does not diminish their availability for others. Examples of public goods include clean air, national defence, and lighthouses. Current thinking on public goods emphasises their importance for the well-being of society. The provision of public goods is often seen as a role of government, as private individuals and businesses have little incentive to provide them on their own.

I’m the son of an immigrant and like most second generation nationals I’m intensely proud of my country. I’m half-Indian so I had very mixed feelings about the UK losing fifth place in the global GDP rankings to India last year. Inevitable or not (India is the next super-power by dint of sheer population and natural resources) it felt like a tectonic shift in our place in the world. 

Recent political events aside, I can’t shake the belief that our slow tumble down the rankings on all the important economic indices is largely because we’re not being as creative as we used to be. Public goods are essential building blocks of that creativity and yet so many of the public services that we’ve relied on to support our productivity in the post-war era (the education system, the NHS, public broadcasting) all seem beleaguered. Just a few years ago the UK government topped the United Nations E-Government Survey but we’re now down to 7th place.

Inevitably, because of the work Create/Change does, I’m very interested in digital public goods (DPGs). I’m currently working a bit with Richard Pope who’s written a very good series of essays on this topic which are worth a read.

DPGs come in a variety of flavours. Cue more chatbot summarising:

  • Data and Information: DPGs in this category include open data platforms, data analytics tools, and information management systems that can help to support evidence-based decision-making.
  • Software and Applications: DPGs in this category include software applications, mobile apps, and other digital tools that can be used to improve access to education, healthcare, and other essential services.
  • Infrastructure and Connectivity: DPGs in this category include digital infrastructure, such as broadband networks, satellite systems, and cloud computing, that can help to improve connectivity and access to digital services.
  • Content and Media: DPGs in this category include digital content, such as educational resources, news, and entertainment, that can be used to promote awareness and engagement around social issues.
  • Standards and Interoperability: DPGs in this category include technical standards and interoperability frameworks that can help to ensure that digital services and products are accessible, secure, and interoperable across different platforms and systems.

We’re working with CDEI on AI safety and GDS on cross-government data exchange – both examples of where the UK can be world-leading, so open data and standards seem particularly relevant to me at the moment. A lot of the people reading this will be working with data and in a position to influence how it gets used. 

There are 3 common objections to getting anything done on open data in UK government

  1. the (legacy) systems won’t allow it
  2. the bureacracy/governance is too hard
  3. citizens don’t trust government with their data

Returning to India, what they are doing in this space bears comparison because if you want examples of bureaucracy (they learnt this from us so it’s no wonder they’re so good at it) and distrust of government, India has both in spades.

India has the NDSAP – a National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy that provides a legal and regulatory framework for DPGs and lays down the principles of data sharing, transparency, and accountability. The government has launched two interesting initiatives aimed at increasing access to data and digital health services for citizens.

The Open Government Data Platform (OGD) is a repository of datasets generated by various government departments and agencies, with access to more than 30,000 datasets across various sectors including agriculture, health, education, finance, and transportation. The datasets are available in machine-readable formats and are freely available. The objective of OGD is to promote transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in governance as well as promoting new private sector applications and services.

The website of India's Open Government Data Platform

The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) is a flagship program aimed at creating a digital health ecosystem in the country and providing a backbone for health services like telemedicine, e-pharmacies, and digital health records, among others. The objective of NDHM is to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of healthcare services in the country, especially in rural and remote areas. Citizens will – in theory – be able to access their health records from anywhere in the country sharing records between different healthcare providers.

The idea is that every citizen will be given a unique health ID linked to their health records. The sheer ambition of this is inspiring to me – bear in mind that we’re talking about 1.4 billion people.

So what are some things the UK can do to be more successful in developing DPG? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Promote Data Literacy: I’ve been consistently shocked by the lack of data literacy in government, particularly among policy people. Government should promote data literacy and build the capacity of public officials to work with data.
  2. Prioritise Open Data: We should prioritise the opening up of public sector data as a strategic goal. 
  3. Improve Data Standards: we need to do a much better job on this – current standards and guidance are a ragtag of different documents and formats without an overarching strategic narrative. 
  4. Invest in Data Infrastructure: More money and better strategic thinking around cloud computing, storage, and data analytics tools.
  5. Encourage collaboration and foster Innovation: Government should encourage collaboration between government agencies, academia, and the private sector and look seriously at funding, tax incentives, or other forms of support to develop new applications and services using government data.

Thanks for reading,


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