Implementing the transparency agenda - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Government has set public accountability, service improvement and economic growth objectives for its transparency agenda, but it is not clear that the data released will enable government to meet those objectives. We are concerned about gaps in giving relevant information in some sectors to inform choice and accountability, and about the comparability of information where data is incomplete or of poor quality. For example, the price and performance information for adult social care is incomplete and cannot be easily compared across local authority boundaries. In developing open data strategies, the Cabinet Office should ensure that Departments specify what information will be released, and that it is adequate to meet stated transparency objectives.

2.  The presentation of much government data is poor. The Cabinet Office recognises problems with the functionality and usability of its portal. Government efforts to help users access data, as in crime maps and the schools performance website, have yielded better rates of access. But simply dumping data without appropriate interpretation can be of limited use and frustrating. Four out of five people who visit the Government website leave it immediately without accessing links to data. So there is a clear benefit to the public when government data is analysed and interpreted by third parties - whether that be, for example, by think-tanks, journalists, or those developing online products and smartphone applications. Indeed, the success of the transparency agenda depends on such broader use of public data. The Cabinet Office should ensure that:

  • the publication of data is accessible and easily understood by all; and
  • where government wants to encourage user choice, there are clear criteria to determine whether government itself should repackage information to promote public use, or whether this should be done by third parties.

3.  In some sectors different provider types are subject to different transparency requirements, and this undermines the comparability of data for users. For example, spending per pupil in individual academy schools is not made available, and consequently value for money cannot be compared fully with maintained schools. Government should ensure that there is a level playing field in information requirements between different provider types, for example, academies and maintained schools, so that we can know the cost per pupil in different settings.

4.  Government does not understand the costs and benefits of its transparency agenda. Departments have not monitored the costs of releasing data, and little is known about the benefits, making it difficult to prioritise, or achieve value for money from, the Government's transparency programme. The Cabinet Office has stated that the Open Data Institute will establish a fuller evidence base on economic and public service benefits of open data. The Cabinet Office should develop a comprehensive analysis of costs, benefits and risks, to guide future decisions on what data to make available.

5.  The Government has not got a clear evidence based policy on whether or not to charge for data. Some bodies, such as the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House, operate as trading funds that depend on generating a share of their revenue from data sales. Academic estimates suggest that there would be considerable economic benefits from making that data available for free. The Government, however, has not developed a strategic approach, and has a convoluted proposal to purchase some public data from its own trading funds and other parts of the public sector, and then make the data freely available to others. It is not clear whether the established trading fund structures are compatible with the policy objective of stimulating economic growth through more open data release. The Cabinet Office should work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to establish whether the economic benefits from making traded data freely available would outweigh the revenue lost.

6.  We are concerned that 'commercial confidentiality' may be used as an inappropriate reason for non-disclosure of data. If transparency is to be meaningful and comprehensive, private organisations providing public services under contract must make available all relevant public information. The Cabinet Office should set out policies and guidance for public bodies to build full information requirements into their contractual agreements, in a consistent way. Transparency on contract pricing which is often hidden behind commercial confidentiality clauses would help to drive down costs to the taxpayer.

7.  Departments do not make it easy for users to understand the full range of information available to them. Public bodies have not generally provided full inventories of all of the information they hold, and which may be available for disclosure. The Cabinet Office should develop guidance for departments on information inventories, covering, for example, classes of information, formats, accuracy and availability; and it should mandate publication of the inventories, in an easily accessible way.

8.  There is a risk that those without internet access will not gain the full benefits of more open public data. Much of the transparency agenda, and associated benefits, depends on internet-based products and applications. However, there are still over 8 million people who do not have access to the internet and they will tend to be the very people who most rely on public services, and for whom data on public services will be most useful and most important. Where transparency supports user choice in public services, they are particularly likely to be disadvantaged. We recognise that the Government is working to improve access but further steps to ensure universal access to public data should be developed and set out.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 August 2012