Letter to Lord Haskins, Chairman, The
Better Regulation Task Force, from Henry Manisty, Head of Government
and Regulatory Affairs, Reuters|
Inefficiencies in the Management of Content originating
I refer to the new Report of the Better Regulation
Task Force and, in particular, to its conclusion that government
departments are failing to meet the requirements of small firms
for usable government originated content.
Section 4.5.1 of your Report contains the following
"In discussions with stakeholders, we were
amazed at the number of times government officials told us that
it would be just too difficult to provide co-ordinated sector
specific information. Not surprisingly therefore, many entrepreneurs
feel that no effort has been made to encourage them to grow their
businesses within the legal framework.
"From their viewpoint, SMEs want to know
what regulations apply to them, and what they have to do to comply.
They do not want to have to read information about regulations
that may, or may not, apply to them . . ."
Private sector publishers do not share this
amazement. Over many years they have drawn attention to the poor
overall standards of government publishing and to the limited
informational choice available to business and private citizens.
They have pointed to the harmful consequences for business efficiency,
for the relationship between government and governed and for the
image of government itself that result from the poor standards
of published government information. They have highlighted missed
opportunities for raising UK IT skills, since the ready availability
of government information on-line should be a powerful catalyst
for encouraging businesses and private citizens to use the internet
more actively. They have also, of course, drawn attention to the
missed opportunities for the UK's publishing sector from not having
efficient access to government data, the largest content "raw
material" in the UK, with which to create new innovative
products and, in turn, generate new employment opportunities.
Finally, publishers have suggested that even the taxman would
benefit from liberalisation, by taking his percentage of the profits
earned from exploiting the new commercial publishing opportunities.
Recommendation 10 of your Report begins as follows:
"The Government should deliver easily digestible
and tailored (sector and size specific) information on regulations
in a variety of media . . ."
Publishers would not oppose this Recommendation.
They might, however, wonder why anyone should realistically expect
such skills of government departments. The most obvious and direct
means of raising the quality and diversity of published government
information is to open this activity to those that already possess
these skillsthe commercial publishers. The USA has always
done this, and the institutions of the European Union have recently
begun to do so with the information they originate. Reuters would
be pleased, for example, to demonstrate to you information products
that it has developed around content originating from EU institutions.
We supply these services to businesses, lawyers, diplomats and
others. Most tellingly, however, we supply them to thousands of
officials working for these EU institutions who are pleased, and
even grateful, that someone has at last been able to organise
their data efficiently so that they can do their jobs better!
Exhorting UK government departments to acquire
and apply best publishing skills to the data they originate is
perhaps as unrealistic as asking civil servants to acquire the
skills needed to paint their offices or to attend to the electricity,
plumbing or catering needs of their departments. If government
departments wish any of these tasks to be carried out efficiently,
they use the services of experts. The same logic would also seem
to hold good for the activity of publishing government information.
Nevertheless, if your Report has provided official
confirmation of the poor quality of much government publishing
it will have served a very useful purpose. The solution is not,
we suggest, to attempt to turn civil servants into leading-edge
publishers. It is rather for HMG to make it as easy as the US
Federal Government and EU institutions already make it for commercial
publishers to access the official content they need to create
the range of attractive and easy-to-use informational products
that your Report confirms business and private citizens require.
We would, therefore, have welcomed a recommendation
in your Report for government departments to facilitate the greater
involvement of the private sector in the business of government
publishing. At the present time, private sector publishers are
all too often confronted by incoherence, red tape and, on occasion,
refusal when seeking access to the government information that
they need to create the products that their customers needs.
Modernisation has, however, been held back by
some in Government who view the issue in narrow terms of maximising
departmental publishing revenues, rather than in terms of the
broad social, democratic and economic benefits to the UK as a
whole that would result from the creation of modern information
products in a liberalised and competitive information market place.
We are, however, encouraged that the issue of the management of
government information is under discussion as part of the present
crosscutting Government review.
We should be very pleased to discuss this further
with you or your officials if it is of interest.
2 May 2000