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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Blogging against the clock

Can I do a blog in 13 minutes about the recent Best Value Guidance? If so, will it be coherent? Let’s see…

The best Best Value image I could come up with at short notice

CLG published new, ultra short Best Value Guidance on 2 Sept, NCVO published a useful report from their legal folks a couple of days ago. I’ve been mulling it over, in particular the Duty to consider social value.

For me, this is an important addition to the Best Value guidance, because of the possibilities it opens up within the context of Open Data, openness and Transparency (I always feel a little bit like I’m writing a Regency novel when I capitalise in the middle of sentences, but that’s possibly just my Georgette Heyer complex coming out…).

You can see a situation where greater access to open data, about not just spend, but service delivery, service quality, outcomes and so on provide a great deal more information for those interested in providing public services. And for the larger organisations, possibly predominantly private sector organisations with the R&D capacity to invest, this will provide significant advantages in terms of how you pitch your bids, what your service design is and who you partner with.

However, there is the risk, discussed at length by many commentators that the private sector providers (who we must note are by no means all evil and after world domination at the expense of communities) will force out smaller local providers, whether SME or local voluntary sector or social enterprise sector organisations. This would be bad for a number of reasons, local jobs, community cohesion, building big society, Tescoisation of public services etc etc.

In this situation, the commissioning context becomes critical and the Duty to consider social value especially important. It will be important for all partners in local areas to have a proper discussion and agreement about what they consider social value. To agree how they will measure it, and how these definitions and (hopefully) commitment to social value will be reflected in the everyday practice of commissioners, procurement officers and strategic staff across local government. There is value in this, monetary as well as social, for local authorities, as well as the more obvious benefits for SMEs and VCS providers, and ultimately, the community.

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A little bit of politics, Denmark style

I happened to be in Denmark on election day last week, and was lucky enough to have some Danish friends to both show us around and talk politics. A few things struck me strongly from dipping my toe into Danish politics.

Danish elections - queuing to vote

Firstly, turnout – Deep in conversation about what polling day is like in Denmark (much like here), how long polling stations are open (much shorter than here) and how long it takes to count votes (about 4-5 hours) and how people feel about politics (strongly, in most cases) we got to turnout. My friend was fall-on-the-floor shocked that turn out in UK elections is so low.

Turnout there was 88% this time around, slightly higher than in 2007. In the 2010 UK elections it was 65%. Denmark has very high turnout, even though it doesn’t have mandatory voting. A quick glance at turnout in the UK for the last 66 years shows that we’ve not been anywhere near that high since the 1950s. Turnout was at least over 70% between 1945 and 1997 – what happened after that? It can’t be simply a reflection of who’s in power can it? And the litany of political and economic scandals and crises are of course depressing, but not really anything new. Obviously there are whole careers and branches of social science devoted to psephology, but I wonder if the explosion of the web, latterly, social media has actually had a negative effect on actual, physical voting?

Second thing: Young people are engaged in politics, both in terms of voting, being informed and discussing it with their friends, but also being involved politics itself. Much has been written about ‘the new Queen of Red-Green politics’ (or ‘the Communist Princess’ as my friend called her) Joanne Schmidt-Nielsen. Impressive leader among the Red-Green Alliance of left wing parties at only 27, she’s well respected for her intellect and her debating skills. (In 2007 she participated in a debate for party leaders on TV 2 on the evening before the election as the youngest candidate ever to participate in a nationally televised debate for Danish party leaders.[14] It’s not all laudatory though, according to Wikipedia, prior to the debate, the leader of the Conservative People’s PartyBendt Bendtsen, mistook her for an office girl and asked her to fetch him coffee).[14] Stella Creasy experienced a similar reaction from the Male, Pale & Stale oldguard in Parliament here when she was ticked off for using a MPs Only lift.

However, Schmidt-Nielsen is just one of a host of younger people who are a part of political and civic life in Denmark. In the UK young people in politics are something of an anomaly, seen as a bit square perhaps, although politicians are constantly trying to seem relevant, young and vital. [Insert your own favourite cringe inducing politician-wears-baseball-cap moment here]. The youngest person in the House of Commons is called the Baby of the House, currently the baby is Pamela Nash, who at 27 is the same age as Joanne Schmidt-Nielson. Former luminaries of this quaint and rather patronising title include Tony Benn, John Profumo (twice), and Davids Steel and Lammy, who perhaps don’t have much else in common.

Thirdly, Coalitions are normal – Denmark has coalition politics as a matter of course, so the fact of a coalition is not unusual. There was excitement among those we met about a change of government, and in particular, pleasure that the extremist Danish People’s Party would finally lose influence. In terms of process, it was interesting to learn that the parties are required so say who they would prefer as Prime Minister, so voters know who they’d get as a leader, while still being able to vote with their convictions for the party that best matches their beliefs.

Two theories abounded about how things will pan out, one that new Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (coincidentally married to Stephen Kinnock) would find it very hard to build an effective coalition with such a slim majority of the Left Bloc which is not so much a bloc as a loose and prickly bundle. And that this would be exacerbated because she is given a very hard time in the media for being ‘hard’ and ‘icy’, not characteristics that are approved of in a woman, whether or not she’s leading a country. Secondly, that the previous government have succeeded in shifting national beliefs to the right, as reflected by the loss of overall seats in the Left Bloc, and that this will undermine the new coalitions attempts to roll back some of the less liberal policies of the last ten years as well as their chances of agreeing on policy. Both groups were glad to have change, but were not optimistic that they wouldn’t be voting again in a couple of years.

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Give Local!

I went to the launch of CityForum Brighton last night, and have just posted this very quick summary of an idea I had the other day. It’s a project based around making connections: 

  • Enabling people to give small monthly amounts to local organisations (supporting local giving) and
  • Enabling businesses to give in-kind or cash support to local organisation (supporting local CSR)

by providing for charities and givers:

  • the mechanism for setting up monthly giving (local organisations are usually not set up to solicit small regular donations and don’t have chuggers)
  • a way of identifying local organisations for your support (post code or key word searchable database)
  • a way for local organisations to mount a campaign (charity profile page managed by them, front page featuring specific charity or campaign each month)
  • data about the issues in brighton and about the organisations (based on public, charity and open data – focusing on factually provable trends, issues, etc and giving detailed information about charities to reassure givers that they are kosher, this would be both in terms of registration and accountability, but also ‘you gave us £500 and we did X with it’ type feedback)

by providing for businesses as givers:

  • use the same back end to provide a way of linking up local businesses with organisations that ‘fit’ them – in terms of age, profile, geography, lifestyle
  • enable charities to search for businesses that may ‘fit’ them in terms of support for specific awareness or fundraising campaigns
  • provide a more human ‘matching service’ as part of a programme encouraging CSR among local businesses


I know there has been talk about things like this in the past by the Directory of Social Change who were looking to use GuideStar data for this, that the Community Foundation Network run something similar where donations go direct to Sussex Giving who then distribute the funds, and some work on linking local traders to local organisations, but do not know how far any of these got.

It seems to me that Brighton people really relate to Brighton as a place, however much they are or are not involved directly in their community and that this is a very good basis on which to build a Brighton Giving project.

Back end tech could be provided by e.g. Virgin Money Giving or Just Giving or similar. 

Development in conjunction with both the Community & Voluntary Sector, the Business sector and potential givers would been needed to make sure it serves all people well.



If there is any mileage in this suggestion we could bid into the new £10m Innovation in Giving fund being managed by NESTA but would need firm commitments from partners on design, their contribution, support and ideas on long term sustainability.

Who would like to work on this with me? Who else should we talk to? What could this idea look like when finished? What other examples of this kind of thing exist? Does the whole thing already exist?! What are the pitfalls? How can we design it so it is effective and cost-effective?

All comments welcome!

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Open Data consultation – first impressions

Last Thursday Government published Making Open Data Real – A Consultation, alongside a Public Data Corporation consultation.

My overall impression after one read:

  • it is extremely light on Local – while I understand that the Localism agenda means that central government is wary of dictating how local areas should respond to this, strong facilitative leadership is needed to make this of any use at a local level. Where is CLG in this paper? Where is the Local Data Panel?
  • there will be a need for the voluntary and public sectors to focus on the ‘Social Growth’ element of this consultation, otherwise we’re opening public data for commercial growth at the expense of social growth. The next iteration of this policy needs more from Government on their role in stimulating social benefit from Open Data
  • there are opportunities here for VCS, with high quality data being used (and seen to be used) as the basis for more innovative and open commissioning and funding decisions – this should be driven by demand from the providers as well as service users. Accountability working in several directions.
  • a Right to Data is worth exploring, but equal thought needs to be given to access and useability of data – there is a very real risk of creating a Data Divide
  • a Right to Data applying to all public service providing organisations will need careful consideration of the unintended consequences and perverse incentives this might create. This means especially thinking about how the costs of this Right will be resourced and the impact on commissioning of public services from VCS providers

I will be thinking more about these points in the next few weeks and will draw on experience with DataBridge to respond to the consultation in the Autumn. 

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RT @gdnlocalgov: Councils, listen up! To

RT @gdnlocalgov: Councils, listen up! Top tips on how making data and info accessible online for your community: #localgov

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How can Scrutiny promote Transparency and Open Data?

I’ve just been invited to participate in LB Hackney’s Scrutiny Review of Transparency early next year. My first engagement for 2012 to date! So what is, or what could be, the role of local authority’s Overview & Scrutiny Panels in promoting transparency and publication and use of Open Data?

I’ve long thought that Overview and Scrutiny Panels are a really important part of local democracy, although they’re often not exactly the most riveting things in the world. In the Executive system, which has a Cabinet of councillors leading on specific themes, ‘backbench’ councillors have a critical role in holding cabinet to account.

The Scrutiny panel is one way this can happen. Its role is to review performance and examine the decisions of the Executive from a non party-political perspective, and to conduct in–depth investigations into key issues for their area. They usually do a few planned investigations and, importantly, usually have the flexibility to respond to issues and concerns of local people.

I had the opportunity to take part in a Scrutiny panel hearing in Gateshead in 2009 on the role of the third sector in public service delivery. Actually a really enjoyable experience and a very impressive bunch of officers and committed members.

But what is, or what could be, the role of scrutiny in driving transparency? Some suggestions:

  • Co-provision of the Scrutiny role with citizens?

With transparency a fundamental part of how Government hopes to deliver choice and accountability in local public services, how could local authorities go further in gathering views from local people? And in collectively holding the Executive to account?  Many Scrutiny committees take evidence from ‘experts’ and go on information gathering visits locally, but how could Open Data add to this? Could much more information be published, but in a much shorter and more accessible format to help start conversations and support evidence gathering?

  • Could Open Data make the role of the Scrutiny panel more effective?

While we assume that Scrutiny panels have access to all internal information about service provision and analysis of impact, we could ask whether this is the fullest picture available?  How could Open Data published by other service providing organisations feed in, and how can this happen as a matter of course?  What about contextual information and softer intelligence, especially about emerging needs or newer communities?

  • Could Scrutiny panels make their work more accessible and interesting to a wider range of people using Open Data?

By which I do not mean simply publishing a swathe of spreadsheets, although publishing raw data is important, but thinking about how communities might want to access and use this information.  What data visualisations would help communities understand the tough issues that councils are grappling with? What works with different communities? What are the key pieces of information that really engage people?  The killer facts?

Transparency is not just about publishing information. We all know that our local authorities publish detail of their plans coming up and minutes of meetings, but who *really* examines these? And Open Data is not just about getting raw data out there. After all, most of us don’t have the skills to make any use of it.

It’d be really interesting to test some of this out. What key issues are the Scrutiny Panel looking at that people care about? Schools? Leisure? Environment? Equalities? How about we publish open data stats on these themes in accessible visual formats? The comparative cost of various service delivery options in accessible visual format, either retrospectively or as part of a consultation? Publish what data you have about impact and outcomes in accessible visual formats? I’d be really interested in examples of where this kind of thing is happening already, or where authorities like Hackney are explicitly using Scrutiny functions to drive transparency.

Originally posted over at DataBridge.

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