Does transparency of data need comparability?

The National Audit Office have released today a report on data transparency. I think they have slightly misunderstood the nature of transparency when it comes to discuss local government (see page 28 onwards). It highlights the good work authorities have done in releasing raw data, but criticises them for not releasing performance data in a standardised format. It supports the work of the LGA in developing LG inform as a vital tool for those who wish to voluntarily benchmark performance data, but hints that, in the name of transparency, they would like the voluntary aspect dropped. They argue there is a “tension between local bodies developing their own measures of performance and user satisfaction, and the demands of the public and local performance managers for comparability.”

I would personally argue that while it is important for local authorities to be transparent in showing the research evidence they have used locally to make decisions, and evaluating the impact, transparency does not mean the data has to be comparable. Research should focus on informing local decisions and draw in national benchmarks only where relevant. It is the researcher that adds the context and value to the data, and therefore the decision, not the benchmarks themselves. The risk of too rigid a set of national indicators is that they are used to explain away poor performance rather than drive service improvements, especially if they do not relate to council’s priorities and are instead a tick box to be transparent. They can take resources to gather the right data away from researchers.

The National Audit Office therefore has to be careful not to be distracted by the technical aspects and focus instead on why government and others want the sector to be more transparent. They should show how an open and transparent understanding of data can improve the decision making process of a council by responding to local needs.

Further discussion is on LGC.

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Juliet Whitworth 10 Years Ago
Thanks for drawing attention to this report, Neil. I actually agree with you, that transparency does not necessarily require comparability. However, as a member of the public as well as a local government officer, I can see that having some context to any data (like a comparison with other authorities a bit like mine) means the data my council shares with me is more meaningful. I think, therefore, there is room for comparability to be a feature as well. LG Inform has been developed first and foremost as a benchmarking tool, to offer comparability. The possibility of it being able to help councils be more transparent was also intended, but now we are able to do this in ways that weren’t thought possible 12-18 months ago. The next version of LG Inform, which is currently in development for launch in the autumn, will allow councils to embed into their own website (where their website has that functionality) any charts and reports they create, or simply direct their residents and businesses to a ‘public’ area of LG Inform that shows their authority’s data. LG Inform will then keep that data up-to-date for councils. As you say, authorities have different priorities, and LG Inform allows you to build reports that show data related to those priorities for your area. Having said that, this doesn’t stop councils from publishing non-comparable information as well – this is particularly important for those more difficult to measure outcomes or achievements and, as you say, exploring issues in more depth and understanding where service improvements might be made. By the way, you can rest assured that LG Inform has never been intended as a ‘mandatory’ tool for benchmarking, and it is highly unlikely that the voluntary nature of it will be changed! There’s an LG Inform group on the Knowledge Hub, for anyone interested in keeping up to date with LG Inform progress and, more importantly, discussing and influencing how it develops. Go here: LG Inform Knowledge Hub group .