Some years ago the Environment Agency brought public disapprobation on itself for the fast and loose way it played with Public Sector Information regulations – not to mention inferences of State Aid – when it launched its controversial Property Search business.
Mercifully Property Search choked primarily on its own contradictions but also helped by the incompetency of its management. Many, not least in the Agency itself, will have been relieved at its demise.
But now Phoenix reborn and emergent from the experience, the Environment Agency has established a Commercial Services operation which is in many ways the model of what a public sector organisation should be doing. A model, with some differences (e.g. we would characterise it more properly as a Licencing Services operation) we highly recommend and describe in Intangible Assets and other publications.
The Agency has patiently done much of the fundamental work of first identifying its asset base – a miscellaneous collection of software inventions, processes, data, and skillsets which together make up that elusive Intangible Assets base which Government tells us it so wants to leverage for the public good (see the Operational Efficiency review 's emphasis on asset utilisation and the value of our Intangibles).
Next the EA has established what exactly it holds rights to, and where there are ambiguities, gone some way to negotiating their way into agreements and clarity, especially with other public sector bodies.
Thirdly, it has begun the process of exposing these assets to public view through their admirable Gordon Brown and Tim Berners Lee ought to be excited at the prospect of marrying this up with a company ownership file so that the entire pollutions record of a corporate entity might be fairly laid at the shareholders’ doors.register. Anyone examining that could, for example, discover the list of companies prosecuted for polluting the environment. Data mash-ups of the type extolled by
Finally, it has – imaginatively and sensitively – put some genuine commercial expertise at the interface with the private sector so that discreet conversations may be had about how these assets might be used by UK PLC to create products and services. An expertise which, unlike the ill fated Property Search venture, is wholly sensitised to the regulatory and cultural responsibilities of a public sector body.
It would be a shame if legitimate and compliant licencing activities are to be discouraged by a wholesale culture of “free data” and a perception of what public sector bodies “ought” to be doing.
Identifying what has been developed in the public sector, easing the thicket of issues which prevent these being exposed to further exploitation, and negotiating their easeful entry into private commerce is exactly what should be done to realise value from the taxpayers’ investment.
The Environment Agency is treading an interesting and delicate path. It deserves our plaudits.