This is a copy of a piece I’ve written for the December 2011 issue of Service Contractor [PDF page 14], the magazine of Professional Services Council in the United States. All links are at the end of the article.

On May 16, 2011, Jeremy Hunt, U.K. secretary of state for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, asked
citizens and those who work in fixed or mobile communications, television, radio, online publishing, video games, and other digital and creative content industries for responses to an open letter reviewing communications in the digital age. The open letter contained a series of questions aimed at gathering business and citizen ideas “to help frame the Government’s initial approach to deregulation and maximize the communications industry’s contribution to economic growth.”

Hunt invited responses and ideas via a YouTube video (the department has had its own channel since 2006), and the department’s dedicated webpage encouraged visitors to have their say using the Twitter hashtag #commsreview. The open letter responses would be used to form a green paper, the U.K. equivalent of a proposed rule, to be published later in the parliamentary term for further consultation, followed by a final policy directive, known as a white paper, to be put before government.

Hunt describes the aim of the communication review as to “strip away unnecessary red tape and remove barriers to growth. The wider public interest will underpin the way we address these issues.”
And therein lies the key, “wider public interest”,not just to how this review is being conducted but the significant shift in how policy creation and government are now operating, which is essential for businesses to understand.

On both sides of the Atlantic transparency, open government, open data and social media have been increasingly discussed. Going hand-in-hand with freedom of information, they have been part of policy and communications development for a number of years.

In the U.K. we have seen the development of No. 10’s transparency Web pages, which include lists of which corporations government ministers are meeting with and the energy usage by departments communicate consistently every government department building. The Public Sector Transparency Board set up by Prime Minister David Cameron has the agenda of ensuring the release of key public datasets, setting open data standards across the whole public sector and “listening to what the public wants and then driving through the opening up of the most needed data sets.”

To make sense of this raw government data, new services are beginning to appear. Initially using U.K. data, this year saw the launch of Open Corporates. They aim to create a URL for every company in the world on their website (think of it as a corporate Wikipedia but with financial data) and import government transactional data relating to those companies where possible. So far they have 26 million companies listed across 31 jurisdictions, including the United States. Put this service together with another data driven U.K. site, Who’s Lobbying?, and you have the beginnings of a new accessible set of transparency tools.

This is a significant cultural shift. The U.K. civil service has been long renowned for its closed, conservative, cautious nature, doing the bidding of ministers and senior civil servants quietly. It is now being asked to work openly, publicly and collaboratively, of which using social media for public two-way communication with citizens and businesses is just a part. For some, this is terrifying. And it is already challenging how departments communicate consistently to everyone, rather than exclusively to press or favored business partners.

The economic climate and global down turn has also made citizens more aware of how their tax dollars are being spent. Yet unlike the past, citizens are now not only more easily able to access government spending data but to share their thoughts via social networks, forums and blogs. Obvious results are the “Occupy” protests in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere.

Catherine Howe, chief executive of the company Public-i, thinks this social media, transparency and open data shift has both a positive and negative impact for companies doing business with the public sector. She considers the upside to be access and connecting to the right people quickly. However, “You have to assume that every contact you have with government will end up in public. Not just contracts, but taking someone out to dinner,” she says. “This is fine if you share values as a business with the ministers or councillors you are dealing with but it will cause problems if the dealings are inconsistent with your (or their) brand.” And just like civil servants, this is something she believes that businesses will have to adjust to.

Welcome to Open Business.



With kind thanks to Service Contractor magazine for permitting the re-publishing of this article.