The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"This Committee fully supports the principle of greater openness and its potential to strengthen accountability and drive improvements in public services. But the Government has a lot more work to do before that potential is realised.
It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda.
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.
As more and more different providers are involved in providing our public services, there must be a level playing field in terms of transparency. At the moment individual academies do not make available information on spending per pupil that allows value for money to be compared fully between different types of school.
One area of particular concern to this Committee is that private providers can hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ to block the disclosure of relevant information. We must be able to follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it is spent.
Data is also being issued by government and other public bodies without any clear idea of the costs, benefits and risks of doing so. The Government should develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks.
Those without access to the internet must not be forgotten. They are often the very people who rely most on public services and could benefit most from access to better information. Further steps to ensure universal access to public data should be developed and set out."
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 10th Report of this Session which examined how the transparency agenda is being implemented across Government. This was on the basis of evidence from four expert witnesses representing users of data and information released under the transparency agenda; and from the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The transparency agenda is a pledge by the Coalition Government to make government more open. 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.
The 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. We recognise the progress made and that the case for transparency is inherently strong. There are, however, areas where further work needs to be done to realise the full benefits of transparency.
It does not help government to meet the objectives of the transparency agenda when large quantities of raw data are released without ensuring that the data are fit for purpose. Some data are very difficult to interpret, such as on local government spending, and there are important gaps in information, such as incomplete price and performance information on adult social care. We are also concerned about some information not being presented on a consistent basis, again for example in local government.
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.
The push for release of more data has also thrown up new challenges which departments need to meet, facilitated by strong leadership from the Cabinet Office. These include questions on how to sustain interest in data after the initial launch (for example crime maps), how to ensure sufficient disclosure of information by private firms delivering government contracts, vigilance over protecting personal privacy, and how the benefits of data disclosure can be realised by those without internet access. How departments respond to these challenges will go a long way to supporting the success of the transparency agenda. On the risk to personal privacy, the Cabinet Office assured us that it would set out policies and controls adequate to protect privacy in its White Paper.