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Assembly of European Regions (AER) to the EC

The Assembly of European Regions (AER) welcomes the opportunity for its members to comment on the EC Green Paper. Public Information is indeed a key resource for Europe. It empowers as it informs. Without easily-accessible public information, citizens are disadvantaged members of the Information Society. This was a general theme at the recent AER conference, where the accessibility of public information and services was a recurring concern. The AER welcomes the importance which the Green Paper attaches to this concern and sets out below its response to the questions posed, as invited. It should be noted that, wherever the term "exploitation" has been used in the Green Paper, it has been inferred to mean "economic or financial exploitation".

Q1 Which definition of public sector is the most appropriate in your view? 
What categories of public sector information should be used in the debate?

The functional approach would seem the most appropriate, because it includes those organisations with a quasi-governmental responsibility, or those organisations which act as the proxy for a statutory body.

The key categories for public sector information are: whether the information is administrative or non-administrative; whether the information is aimed to instruct the public (i.e. legislation) or merely to guide or inform them; whether the information is related to service delivery or whether it is itself the service being delivered; whether the information is suitable for a wide audience or a particular one; whether the information has any fee-generative potential (i.e. economic value); whether the information is accessible or whether it is protected.

Q2 Do different conditions for access to public sector information in the Member States create barriers at European level?

If so, what elements are concerned: requirement of an interest, exemptions, time, format, quantity?

What solutions can be envisaged?

It is self-evident that any limit on the accessibility of public sector information will have some impact on the widespread use of that information.

There are many different elements involved. Exemptions in the interest of the State should be for national security reasons only. All other details should be open in a democratic environment.

Exemptions in the interest of third parties has to be carefully managed - it could easily become an excuse to obscure inconvenient public information. Conversely, the citizen's rights to public information should be preserved, but not if it infringes the civil liberties of another citizen or group.

Exemptions merely to protect the decision-making process are dubious - this serves only to preserve an information elite and is incompatible with a democratic society. It is the responsibility of public sector workers to ensure that their preliminary work uses public information effectively and correctly (i.e. without prejudice or malicious intent). If this is the case, there is no need to be protective about public sector information in the "draft" stage. If this was to be introduced, consultations such as this on the Green Paper could be nullified.

Timely responses should be encouraged. Certainly, a maximum response time should be set, for requests for access. Stipulations such as "a prompt response", however well-meaning, have no little relevance. Time restrictions should be explicit - the 90/313/EEC Directive's two-month minimum is a good basis for further work, to encourage Member States to act even more promptly.

The onus is on all Member States to ensure that their public sector information is available in a range of formats. Failure to observe modern telecommunications standards is unacceptable. There should be a common standard devised and this should be shared by Member States to ensure widespread access to the information which citizens need.

The onus is similarly on all Member States to ensure that they compile statistics which are valid, accurate, up-to-date and in sufficient quantity to have meaning. This means that datasets have to be complete and, if information standards alter, this is explained and guidance is given to the citizen attempting to use the information.

Solutions? Pilot projects looking at: establishing a Europe-wide communications protocol for public sector information; establishing a uniform standard for information provision, in terms of accuracy and quantity - the ELADIS programme is conducting useful work in this area; establishing a uniform standard for classifying information, so that it may be easily retrieved by information professionals and the public alike; establishing robust telecommunications links between Member States, so that information may be shared on a secure Extranet.

Q3 Could the establishment of European metadata help the European citizens and businesses in finding their way in the public sector information throughout Europe? 
If so, how could this best be realised? 
What categories of content should directories of public sector information resources contain? 
The establishment of Europe-wide metadata would be of immeasurable help to citizens and businesses alike.

This could best be realised through the establishment of metadata projects in each Member State (probably in academic institutions already experienced in the exchange of meta-data). However, it is vital that these projects are in fact sub-projects of a pan-European project which supplies the standards for communication, classification, organisation, accuracy, language, telecommunications media etc.

The directories should contain the following categories as a bare minimum: national and regional legislation; European legislation and its implementation at Member State level; national economic details; the identity of the bodies providing public sector information; information broken down into state-run, quasi-governmental, government agency etc etc for the information producer.

Q4 What impact do different pricing policies have on the access to and exploitation of public sector information? 
Does this create differences in opportunities for citizens and businesses at European level?

The higher the price of access to information, the more citizens that are disenfranchised from their legal right to access that information. Therefore, prices should be kept as low as possible for all that information which relates to the essentials of living in a democratic society (i.e. access to legal, economic and health information, plus information relating to citizen's social obligations). This is not to say that some information should not be exploited for its economic potential. However, this should not be of a scale where it disadvantages either citizens or businesses, particularly in light of the differences across the Atlantic. The guidance in the Green Paper is seen to be fair on this point.

Q5 To what extent and under what conditions, could activities of public sector bodies on the information market create unfair competition at European level?

Typical actions by a public sector body, which would create unfair competition by acting against the interests of the citizens and/or businesses of another Member State, would include: giving preference to their own nationals; creating technical barriers which inhibit access; and differential pricing of access between different Member States.

The use of state aid could further exacerbate the actions listed above and could also affect the balance between public and private sector bodies.

Q6 Do different copyright regimes within Europe represent barriers for the exploitation of public sector information?

If exploitation is taken to mean exploitation of its economic potential, then of course, any moves to differ the accessibility or publication of public sector information would create significant barriers. It is also certain, that varying copyright legislation and its equally varied application, serves to block the ability of citizens to access information within a given time period. This restriction should not be exploited for reasons other than national security or the protection of citizen's civil rights, as outlined above.

Q7 Do privacy considerations deserve specific attention in relation to the exploitation of public sector information?

In what way could commercial interests justify access to t service - it standardises methods of access and also makes it simple to access a whole tranche of information through a standard portal. Active dissemination is key to the accessibility of public sector information - that information also has to be up-to-date, accurate and relevant (i.e. be pertinent to the area into which it has been classified). Openness is similarly vital - a standardised approach to accessibility is crucial to the citizen's ability to reach the date that they need.

The EU's policies demonstrate a positive approach to the difficulties inherent within the market of public sector information. The initiatives demonstrate a commitment to openness and accessibility which is genuinely welcomed. There is, however, a long way to go. Only when all Member States conform to a series of basic standards for the accessibility of their public sector information will the EU's policies have been shown to work. This is not intended as a critique in any way - it merely acknowledges that there are many different variances in the market at present.

Q10 Which actions should be given priority at European level?

The first need is for there to be a series of standards for the provision and presentation of public sector information. It is only via an agreed framework that Member States will be able to monitor their information provision effectively. There has to be a power of sanction accompanying this framework - a toothless tiger would be a waste of excellent work thus far.

Once the Member States have a common standard to which to adhere, the exchange and exploitation of public sector information may begin. Best practice analysis should then continue to inform the development and the constant improvement of standards which may be shared between all the Member States.

Pilot project should be encouraged (and funded) by the EU, to enhance the opportunity for Member States, Regions and Local Authorities to assume ownership of this issue at their level. In practice, this will need to be demonstrated by a number of pilot projects within each Member State, co-ordinated centrally and in accordance with EU requirements involving in particular local and regional authorities and providing for interregional exchange on good practice. Particular emphasis should be given to the accessibility of public sector information to the citizen (as addressed partially by the current Framework V work programme).

Awareness-raising and educative programmes may well be worthwhile, but they are unlikely to have the same impact as those listed above.


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