If you were to read between the lines of the Public Accounts Committee’s report on Government transparency (“Implementing the transparency agenda”) you will see a Government which has been chucking out tonnes of data that very few people look at and without a strategy to guide it. But the Government has done most of what it said it would do, in the way it said it would do it. It has been, in the words of their policy gurus, an act of ‘creative destruction’; the idea that if we shake everything up reform will happen. Having a strategy and waiting around for the evidence is an anathema to that approach.
It is frustrating that the Committee chose to conduct their examination just before the publication of the Open Data White Paper, as it was too late to influence it and unable to comment upon it. The White Paper is a belated attempt to put some order into the transparency agenda. But while it has been welcomed in its acknowledgement of the need to engage developers on the quality and availability of open government data, it has not resolved some of the key policy issues holding back the use of data in driving economic growth and in particular on data charges. It also fails to make the fundamental distinction between “data”, “information” and “knowledge” and so passing up the opportunity for a stronger and more rational foundation to tackle this agenda.
The Government has lost two years proceeding on the basis of putting ‘speed’ ahead of ‘haste’ by focusing on getting as much raw data as it can published, rather than focusing on need, quality and impact. Unless the new structures such as the Open Data Institute, created to belatedly put the evidence base in place, can catch up and make an early impact this may continue for some time; thereby losing opportunities which apparently can be worth between, £1.6 to £6 billion a year to our economy.
Some of the ‘quick wins’ put in place by the Coalition Government were welcome. For example no one could argue against departments publishing business plans with meaningful information on their priorities and key milestones. True, not many members of the public read such information. However, this is not just about public accountability but also good governance. Therefore it doesn’t matter how many or who reads this material, it is the production and how it is used within Whitehall that counts.
This argument somewhat breaks down when we look at the way in which expenditure data has been used by Government Ministers to embarrass individual Ministers from the previous administration and as a means to conduct a public relations offensive against certain local authorities. Now we learn that DCLG have yet again lowered its threshold for its own data releases to £250 with local authorities expected to follow suit. The original threshold was £25,000 then it was lowered to £500. This is now turning into a Monty Python sketch where thresholds for data disclosure are beaten down in an after dinner act of bravado culminating with a promise to publish expenditure before it has even been thought of.
As the ex-DCLG senior civil servant, Kevin Lloyd, advocates, an approach which is truly interested in accountability will place more emphasis on information rather than data providing as it does the basis for ‘giving an account’ by the state of itself to taxpayers and citizens. It would focus not only on expenditure or indeed the costs of policies, programmes and services but more importantly on the results they are achieving. This does not mean that data should not also be published to aid further external scrutiny. But the focus on ‘penny packets’ of expenditure means that transparency is, as Kevin says, falling short of what it could achieve in helping organisations improve by understanding how they compare to others and by providing citizens with a better understanding of their localities and what is being achieved with public resources.
In contrast, and as local government consultant John Tizard reminds us, so much of public procurement accounting for about a third of overall public expenditure is hidden from view and scrutiny in the name of ‘commercial confidentiality’. The Public Accounts Committee have longed argued that Parliament and taxpayers “must be able to follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it is spent”. But the initial response from the Cabinet Office “that the forthcoming [departmental] open data strategies should deal with this issue” is not very hopeful, particularly as it does not appear to have been reflected in the strategies published shortly after this statement was made. With the Government already passing up the recent legislative opportunity to extend the FOI Act to all contracted public service providers (and not just to the public sector as client and provider) it is probably time for some private member legislation to raise the profile and force the pace on this longed overlooked issue.
Francis Maude said he hopes to make ‘Freedom of Information redundant’ by publishing so much information online; a worthy aim but one which is unlikely to be achieved as it misreads how FOI has been used up to now - focused on specific and often local issues connected with uncovering how decisions have been reached. This is where we run into another obstacle to transparency - that advice provided to Ministers by civil servants are exempted from FOI; a subject on which there has been considerable, but, unproductive debate for a number of years. No one wants to prevent ‘full and frank’ advice to be given to Ministers, but much more could be done to explain how they reach their decisions, rather than leaving this to the ‘hit and miss’ of select committee scrutiny.
But the signs of movement do not look too good as the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, has suffered a defeat in his ambition to see greater transparency of decision making with the publication of gateway reviews (the short independent audits on the state of big projects that are conducted internally). This was dropped from the Civil Service reform plan published in June. Sir Bob is in good company as a previous pledge from Francis Maude, reflected in the Cabinet Office’s published Structural Reform Plan, was also quietly dropped without explanation back in 2010.
Overall, both the Open Data White Paper and the Civil Service reform plan take us no further forward, leaving these areas of government decision making and major expenditure hidden from public view, making it difficult to believe the claim often made by David Cameron to “shine the light of transparency on everything we do”.
This post is written by Mark Upton, Consultant at Public Policy Strategies (www.publicpolicystrategies.co.uk) and LGIU Associate, and is based on his Local Government Information Unit member briefing on the Public Accounts Committee report and the transparency agenda. For more information about LGIU membership and briefings see www.lgiu.org.uk or contact firstname.lastname@example.org