Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Letter to Lord Haskins, Chairman, The Better Regulation Task Force, from Henry Manisty, Head of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Reuters

"HELPING SMALL FIRMS COPE WITH REGULATION"

Inefficiencies in the Management of Content originating within Government

  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 passages:

    "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 skills—the 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


 
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