Government data must be “accessible and relevant” says PAC
The vast swathes of data published by the government are only relevant to one out of five Britons, the cross party Public Accounts Committee has said.
Although critical of the government dumping loads of raw data in the public domain, the MPs in their latest report on government transparency, acknowledged that “accessible and relevant” data can be very useful in improving public services.
On taking office, the Prime Minister David Cameron had pledged to lead the most “open government ever”. The Government’s objectives for transparency are to strengthen public accountability, to support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice, and to stimulate economic growth by helping third parties develop products and services based on public information. The Government announced a programme of information release in two open Prime Minister’s letters in May 2010 and July 2011, and made further commitments as part of the Autumn Statement in November 2011.
In their report the cross party MPs agreed that the Cameron government has met the majority of commitments set out in the Prime Minister’s letters. Public bodies in both local and central government have significantly increased the volume and range of information released, linking many datasets to the Government’s data.gov.uk portal. However, they concluded much more work needs to be done.
However, some of the data released in the public domain are hard to understand such as the local government spending data, Poor or incomplete data hinders the ability of users to exercise effective choice, for example on care providers. It also undermines the ability of service deliverers and policy makers to focus on improving quality.
The Government has not yet developed a full understanding of costs and benefits of making information transparent, and so decisions on what data to make available and in what form are not yet guided by value for money considerations. The Cabinet Office told us that the Open Data Institute will establish a fuller evidence base on the economic and public service benefits of open data. It is important that Government evaluates progress against the full range of objectives it has set for transparency, looking for unintended as well as planned effects.
“At the moment too much data is poorly presented and difficult to interpret. In some sectors, such as adult social care, there are big gaps in the information provided so users cannot use it to make informed choices,” the committee chair said. “As more and more different providers are involved in providing our public services, there must be a level playing field in terms of transparency.”
Ms. Hodge went on to express her concerns about private providers hiding behind commercially sensitive clauses. “We must be able to follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it is spent,” she added as she urged the government to develop a comprehensive strategy for effective data transparency.