LA Code on Data Transparency

The Communities department have today published their Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency. It’s intended to drive greater publication by local authorities of a swathe of data from spending, to contracts, to performance. Currently ‘expected’, Ministers are ‘minded to make it legally binding’.

The political narrative behind this is that greater transparency = greater accountability, and that having abolished ‘top down inspection’ government is now leading the way in being open about it’s spend and decisions, and that local government should be doing the same.

A lot of LAs are publishing much of this information already (apart, we are told again, from Naughty Nottingham who are resisting Uncle Eric), but having a clear idea of what your data LA has published in a consolidated Inventory of Public Data will potentially be useful. I’m not too sure how different this is to what exists already, so it may just be a window dressing exercise on the part of Government.

So my initial take on this (caveat – this may change with further consideration and discussion with knowledgable folks) is:

Transparency is important and useful, but is not analogous to accountability. “An army of armchair auditors” are no replacement for high quality, consistent and independent analysis such as that has been provided by the shortly to be defunct Audit Commission.

Focussing the comms on data on spending and salaries are political devices to maintain in the forefront of the public’s mind the Government’s claim that public services are uniformly wasteful.

What’s actually more interesting and useful is data on delivery, performance, outcomes, decision-making. In particular, thinking about publication of contracts, this could be useful if it also includes publication of the process, the PQQ, the ITT, decision discussions etc.

Questions that need more consideration:

Publication of data will not in and of itself provide transparency or accountability, so how to use data to engage with communities (the DataBridge project has some ideas on this).

Pickles says “we shouldn’t have to be data experts to see and understand it”. This is a good point, but there is a lot of work required to turn a raw spreadsheet into something that the majority of people can easily understand and use. Who’s actually going to do this? What will their interest be? Doesn’t interpretation automatically mean that someone’s applied their values to information? 

The stated aim of ‘publication of data to open new markets for local businesses and voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors’ is, perhaps, laudable, but more will be required to ensure that local organisations are able to play in this game and that local communities really benefit (see blog on Best Value Duty to consider social value)

Being expected to publish ‘objective, factual data on which policy decisions are based and on which public services are assessed…’ could mean a wider involvement for external partners in providing data and information and contextual understanding to, for example, needs assessments. If LAs are making decisions on poor or incomplete or skewed data, being require to publish their ‘workings’ could expose that, but it will require detailed engagement of those willing to wallow in data and who also understand the local context.

It may indeed push local government to open up not only the needs assessment processes, but also the scoping of commissions, the commissioning decisions themselves including all non-data based factors that influence spending decisions.

So, overall, this could be useful if it is set in a context of a local commitment to:

  • improving quality not just cutting costs
  • considering social value
  • developing local business and voluntary sector access to public service markets

But we cannot assume that opening more data automatically means:

  • transparency
  • accountability
  • intrinsic value
  • equality of access & use
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