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Open to Transparency

This commentary was first published on BL Global.

The news agenda is a funny thing sometimes. Rewind back to April time, when a pretty substantial leak of documents signaled a great deal of media hype around the beneficial ownership information of companies, both onshore and offshore.

A significant number of column inches were given over to suggesting that making this sort of data publicly available was the only way to combat money laundering and financial crime, and the public sentiment was duly influenced in the same direction.

Fast forward a few months and, almost completely under the radar and with almost no media coverage, the UK introduced its own publicly accessible register of beneficial ownership on 2 July. Admittedly it is in beta form and admittedly there were other ‘Brexit’ stories occupying journalists at that time, but it’s interesting that something that had caused such a furore weeks before came into play with such little fanfare.

It’s relevant to CI businesses, as there are some businesses based in the islands which have UK operations and which are included in the register, including personal and contact information relating to those companies’ directors.

That's interesting in itself, but there are much wider implications here for businesses in the islands than just beneficial ownership. It signals a cultural shift towards a much more open and transparent way of operating in today’s environment, and that is relevant to all businesses and our governments, not just those in the finance industry.

The theory is that deliberately making certain non-personal data available under a licence expressly for others to see, use and share is beneficial in demonstrating transparency, promoting mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics and thereby increasing trust.

This concept of ‘open data’ can also have a positive economic impact by enabling innovation and creativity in the wider community, helping businesses and entrepreneurs to improve services or create new ones. A PwC analysis of a NESTA/Open Data programme estimated that every £1 invested in making data open generated £10 of economic value.

Beneficial ownership is one specific area where transparency is manifesting itself, but open data is much wider than this and is evolving in a number of interesting ways, for instance:

  • The Open Bank Project is an open source platform that enables financial institutions to enhance their digital services

  • The UK Cabinet Office has appointed a dedicated Director of Open Data and Government Innovation and operates a ‘Government as a Platform’ initiative

  • Media platforms are increasingly employing ‘data journalists’ to investigate open data, and firms are employing dedicated ‘data scientists’ to enable firms to better manage it

Of course, there are issues with open data – it can be misused and misinterpreted, it may not be consistent or accurate, and it still needs to meet confidentiality and data protection laws, for example. However, the direction of traffic is only going one way, and that’s precisely why taking open data seriously is only going to become more important, and why experienced and qualified public relations professionals, as the facilitators of mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics, will play a central role in this development.

To paraphrase public relations commentator Dan Slee, if organisations don’t think long and hard about open data now, the avalanche of public information will simply ‘drown the unprepared’. That’s why the CIPR’s Channel Islands Group, which I have the pleasure of being Chair of this year, is including open data as a key part of its Forum this year.

In Jersey, for instance, there were 691 Freedom of Information requests in 2015, and 355 in the first half of 2016 – almost 2 a day on average. How much would a commitment to open data cut down on the need for FOI requests at all, enhance how government operates, improve trust between government and the electorate, and support innovation within the private sector?

Driven by open data, trust through transparency will become increasingly important in the modern working environment and there is a real opportunity, particularly given the islands’ focus on knowledge-based service industries like financial services and digital, for the governments and businesses in Jersey and Guernsey to take a lead in a cutting edge area, managing and harnessing open data effectively. If they don’t, however, they may well drown.

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