Refreshing our approach to government transparency

After the efforts of the 2010 government to open up government data, commitment to transparency has steadily declined. Does a new government offer the opportunity to revise this?

The public sector doesn’t always release the data it should, there’s a lack of consistency, and when they do invite time and people it may not then end up getting used. There’s an opportunity now to decide what data should be shared, what shouldn’t — and to improve transparency in government. It’s a problem with open data across the board that we don’t know how it’s being used. Data isn’t considered a product of central or local government, and there’s no direct monitoring of use.

Is there a burden on local authorities in doing this? Usually, there’s very little extra burden. There’s a balance to strike between the burden of producing it and the usability. It can be difficult to figure out what money has been spent on based on the data available. There are some codes that are penetrable if you know the organisation, and some you have no chance. However, trying to apply standardisation might just lead to a complete shutdown.

Standardised data capture

It might be better to standardise how expenditure is logged across government, and then it becomes easier to make the information available in a more transparent way. Currently, people aim for three star, machine-readable data because it’s not too burdensome to get that out.

How often have we had this conversation? There was a consultation on transparency that didn’t really go anywhere. What action could central government take?

There are more basic things, like skills and data literacy that need to be tackled in local government first before you could standardise. At the moment local government producer their own systems, and people can’t see any central effort to standardise systems and vendors. But you could apply some technical standards — your system must be able to output data in this format with this schema attached to it.

Procurement problems

A chief planner won’t understand the database issues involved in choosing a new planning system, of the export formats needed. Setting those technical standards centrally gives them something they can use when buying a new system.

Central government could also send stronger messaging about transparency. This could be a straightforward way for them to rebuild trust in politicians and civil servants. We need to look all the way back to education, looking at how data fits into the landscape, and aim to have people as comfortable using data as they are using Windows.

Digital isn’t working well in government right now. The problem is less that it’s burdensome, although machines can do a lot of work, it’s that we need to improve the quality of what’s being published.

Right now, really uncontroversial data standards are just bouncing off the procurement systems. Unless they can prove cost savings in the next few years, they just bounce off. We have a five to 10 year replacement cycle, and everyone’s scared of having a big IT disaster. Labour aren’t going to magically change all that. We need to have a different sort of conversation; open data for open data’s sake is going to win nothing. We’re nice people and they lice us, so they’ll give us some time. Not only that, but we have a window of opportunity, but we have to find a way of using it.

Tying open data to the government agenda

We need to tie open data to some of the major agenda items for the new government, like economic growth. Or if local government can argue that it will improve delivery of services. The last Labour government dropped the ball in this — we can remind them of this. This government is a bit more open to ideas around this. But we need to use their language and reflect their ideas back to them. There’s nothing wrong with writing lobbying letters, and we really want some of the community brought on board as experts. This is our opportunity to really crack it, and we should be leading with hopefulness and a spring in our step.

The National Action Plan process is worth looking at — the 7th one is coming up, and it will be Labour’s first. We’re in the very early stages of thinking about it now. Can we get it in this new cycle and then hold politicians to account?

There is interest in central government in just surfacing what is going on. Devolved administrations have data that is useful at a national level, like ticket purchases. It would be useful to have some of that data standardised, so that if one area takes over another, the data matches. Right now, data gets sent to central government, cleaned, aggregated and sent back out. And it takes 18 months, so the data is always out of data.

More legal obligation?

What if local authorities were legally obliged to be transparent about their data collecting infrastructure? Then they will be competing against each other to look better. Local government people are trying their best, though, and they already feel like the poor cousins of central government. And it’s difficult when you acquire a new system that claims to be standards-compliant, and then proves not to be. You’re in the contract then.

There’s a danger that if you mandate a complex system that publishes to open standers that some important dat just won’t get collected because it’s too hard. For example, there was some really useful data generated about homelessness because governments anted to measure its impact, and they could only do so by literally having people counting the homeless son the streets.

One area that would be really useful would be money flow information, and not just from local governments, but NHS trusts, and the fire service, and so on. When money comes from the treasury, where does it go? We also need to reduce the dependence on consultants, and get the skills needed for this dats work within government.

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