Sometimes one can be too forensic in trying to analyse Government actions. We can attribute too much intrigue to a process which can also be well intentioned as well as muddled!
Such may be the Public Data Corporation – neither Machiavellian nor (as the wisecracks would have have it) the accidental addition of a rogue sentence into a Government press release.
Government faced two polarising tendencies within its own beleaguered ramparts. A Free Data movement to which it and its predecessor had fed lots of raw meat, and which mixed well with the more nutritionally acceptable diet of Transparency and Accountability. But against that two decades worth of Wider Markets and Trading Funds activities which deliver (sometimes) real surpluses to Government, and which are backed by the powerful interest (and self interest) of Treasury and the Shareholder Executive.
Government has decided ...well: we are surmising here, since all we have to go on is a press release of 12th January from Francis Maude which at the superficial level seems riddled with contradictions . But we surmise anyway that it has decided that it is darned well going to have its cake and eat it. Combining the whole Public Sector Information governance agenda with the responsibility of protecting its Trading Fund surpluses may in fact be a highly intelligent though high risk strategy. (Ironic grins all round- but please read on!). Akin perhaps to putting two ferrets in a sack and asking them to fight it out!
The way it might reconcile the two agendas which appear to contradict each other is this. Open Data is an integral part of the Coalition Government’s Transparency and Accountability diet. Free Data will be a step too far (dilute Transparency Board – you have served your purpose). We can rely on the realism of public sector information regulators to make the distinction between where Government data is charged for and where it isn't. But charging is integral under certain conditions and here to stay.
The trading activities of Government bodies will meanwhile be sustained and may indeed attract private investment (the biggest puzzle for critics of the Public Data Corporation announcement). But not by concentrating on growing revenues – which inevitably leads to too much regulatory strain - but by cutting the costs base, with which no one can argue.
No private investor would have tolerated, for example, the trading results of the Land Registry during the past decade when it was trading its monopoly in the middle of a housing boom. The dry run exercise in inviting private corporations to suggest better ways of running the Land Registry which was conducted in the latter part of 2010 was an important preliminary to the announcement in January of the Public Data Corporation. Adjusting the costs basis and underpinning future investment may be the opportunity for the private sector.
The “cunning plan” is to shift any Government emphasis which has existed from Free to Open Data and to create investment opportunity for private sector investors in the more efficient running of the Trading Funds.
And if by forcing the two agendas within Government to co-exist, it puts an end to a decade and more of argument about Government’s commercial activities then that would be a welcome outcome.
If however, it leaves unresolved the fundamental Competition Law issue of Government’s conduct in the activities of any of its Trading Funds, then the "cunning plan" will turn out to be more Baldrick than Blackadder!