Open government - in tune with the Zeitgeist?

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Media captionUK chancellor George Osborne: "We're going to unlock some of the more valuable data sets". Rory Cellan-Jones reports.

"What do you reckon the net worth of this room is?" my neighbour asked me as we sat waiting for the opening of Google Zeitgeist.

Some of the smartest, most powerful - and richest - people in Europe come to Google's annual retreat at a country club just off the M25, so we both agreed that we were probably in the presence of billions.

But the man who kicked off this year's event is in charge of a budget even bigger than any at the disposal of the Zeitgeist plutocrats.

And George Osborne told us that his plan was to harness the power of technology to make government work better, more efficiently - and with greater transparency for its citizens.

The chancellor promised his audience nothing less than a revolution in the way the government planned to open up public data kept private for so long.

New age

The coalition was going to "embrace the accountability revolution enabled by the internet age", "unlock some of the most economically and socially valuable datasets still locked away in government servers", with the aim that the UK would become "the world leader in open data."

We'd be able to use this data to ask who was the best GP for our family, examine the quality of teaching in individual subjects at local schools, and to find out what had happened to the bloke who was arrested after breaking into a car on the street.

There was also a commitment to shift more and more public services online - "digital by default" - in what the chancellor called a huge culture shift for government. This is a huge culture shift for government, he told us.

It all sounds great, but we've been hearing the same message about open data and online services from this and the previous government and journalists had pitched up in Hertfordshire briefed to expect some important news on the coalition's technology policy.

The only really new thing in the chancellor's speech was the recruitment of Beth Noveck, the woman who's been running the Obama administration's open data initiative.


She looks like a great catch - as George Osborne put it, "Beth literally wrote the book, Wiki Government, on how policy making needs to change in the internet age."

But the appointment raises nagging questions. If Beth Noveck did such fabulous work on opening up the processes of the world's most powerful government, why did she leave the Obama administration before the job was done?

And why would she want to come and work for a much less powerful government?

The United States initiative,, set off with similar goals to those outlined by George Osborne today, but has now hit a few roadbumps.

Last month, its funding was slashed as part of the budget settlement between the White House and the House of Representatives, and its very survival appears to be under threat.


Even worse, the traffic figures appear to show that the US government's data transparency sites have failed to attract much interest from citizens - although the data community loves them.

The UK government believes that its "accountability revolution" and its digital public services will prove popular while saving the taxpayer money. But this process has its dangers.

Provide transparency in one area and people will want it everywhere, including the details of the prime minister's home redecoration projects.

And if you're going to save money by taking services online, that will mean ending some "offline" services - so prepare for the backlash when taxpayers are told they can no longer file their returns via the post, or get a road tax disc at the Post Office.

You won't find anyone in modern politics arguing that there should be less transparency - or that moves to take public services online should be slowed down.

But translating those desires into policies sometimes proves harder and more expensive in government than in opposition - as the Obama administration is finding, and Mr Osborne's government may soon discover.