Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Reporting behind closed doors

Gordon Brown and Lord Carter
Lord Carter's full report will be published later this year

Lord Carter's Digital Britain report failed to engage or talk to the British public, says Bill Thompson.

It may well be that Stephen Carter is pleased with the generally negative response to the Digital Britain report he has assembled over the last few months, with help from people like psychologist Tanya Byron, Spectator editor Matthew d'Ancona and Channel 4's deputy chairman Barry Cox.

After all, this interim report is intended to outline the policy challenges to be addressed in a final set of recommendations and proposals published later in the year, and so its primary purpose might simply be to stir things up and let all of the interested parties know that the issues that matter to them are in the frame.

In which case, hearing that universal two megabit per second broadband is pathetically slow compared to other countries, that the idea of a rights agency to negotiate online copyrights shows no understanding of the reality of current download practice, and that the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Sly Bailey, feels that the report shows a 'crushing lack of understanding of the urgency required for changes to merger regulations in the local and regional media sector' might simply reassure Lord Carter that at least everyone is taking notice.

Bill Thompson
The lack of public engagement with the Digital Britain report reflects an approach based around control and secrecy
Bill Thompson

The widespread coverage has certainly provided a rich source of suggestions, comments, ideas and critical reviews to feed into the next stage of the process.

Unfortunately for those who lack access to mainstream media outlets like newspapers and broadcasters or their associated websites, there is no easy way to respond directly to its author. The report website has no information at all on how to make a contribution, and you'll have to read through 72 pages of the report before you find a suggestion that "organisations or individuals interested in joining the discussion should register their interest at"

Apparently the Digital Britain team will follow up these expressions of interest, which is nice of them, and we must just hope that Carter and his expert panel will be carefully reviewing every blog post and online comment to ensure they don't miss anything important.

There is no Facebook page to become a fan of - when I searched for Digital Britain the nearest match seemed to be a fan group for fans of the Metallica album Death Magnetic - no associated weblog and no sign of a LordCarter on Twitter, although I have, as a public service, created a 'digitalbritain' Twitter account and will happily pass it over to the first member of the working group who gets in touch.

Managing expectations

In his defence, Lord Carter's background should not have lead us to expect much. He began his career working in marketing and advertising, areas where messages are carefully controlled. He was managing director of cable company NTL during its darkest days, before he moved to Ofcom.

And he did not have explain his views before joining the government, since he was given a peerage rather than going through the tiresome process of being elected to Parliament on our behalf.

The lack of public engagement with the Digital Britain report reflects an approach to government based around control and secrecy, one that is similar in many respects to the ways that much commercial software is written, where proprietary code uses hidden interfaces to talk to files that use locked-down formats.

Yet, as we have seen with the growing importance of free and open source software, this is not the only way to do things. The GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache web server and the Firefox browser have been written in the open, and the results are as reliable, as secure and as usable as the locked-down programs.

How to

We may soon be able to compare and contrast the two models, as the open approach is being tried by another part of government and the contrast with the Digital Britain model could not be apparent.


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Last April, Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson set up the Power of Information Task Force, chaired by the former Lib Dem MP Richard Allan. They were asked to "advise and assist the government on delivering benefit to the public from new developments in digital media and the use of citizen- and state-generated information in the UK", and they are almost ready to submit their final report.

They've consulted widely over the last few months, posting on their weblog throughout and turning up at conferences, unconferences, barcamps and all the other types of event that populate the geek calendar.

Having written a draft version of the report collaboratively over the

internet using a wiki they have put it onto a dedicated website,

called it a 'beta release', and offered anyone who is interested two

weeks to comment on the proposal.

So if you agree that "the ability to discover easily administrative boundaries is essential for democracy" you can go to the relevant section and give them examples to support the case, while if you think it's more important for Ordnance Survey to make money selling our own data back to us, you can argue your case.

And you don't need a newspaper column, television programme or major-league website in order to be heard.

This, it seems to me, is how digital Brits expect their government to do things in this networked age.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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