Implementing the transparency agenda - Public Accounts Committee Contents

1  The objectives and scope of transparency

1. Successive Governments have promoted greater transparency through legislation and the release of public data and other information. This Government made a commitment to transparency in its May 2010 Programme for Government, followed by two open letters from the Prime Minister in May 2010 and July 2011, detailing specific data release commitments.[2] Early releases related mostly to financial transparency, while more recent releases have been geared more towards data on key public services such as health, education and criminal justice.[3]

2.  There has been good progress in releasing the data outlined in the Prime Minister's letters. The Government met 23 out of 25 of its commitments due by December 2011. The number of datasets available on the Government's portal expanded from 2,500 in January 2010 to 7,865 in December 2011.[4]

3.  The objectives of the transparency agenda are to:

  • strengthen public accountability;
  • support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice; and
  • stimulate economic growth by helping third parties to develop products and services based on public sector information.[5]

4.  The transparency agenda is also aligned with the Government's wider public service reforms. Its July 2011 Open Public Services White Paper states that "key data about public services, user satisfaction and the performance of all providers from all sectors" will be made available. However, the current position falls short of these ambitions. The scope and completeness of information varies in each sector. For example, while the Department for Education collects and reports information to support parents in choosing schools there is no standard comparative information on adult social care providers that would enable users to make informed choices.[6]

5.  Maintaining consistency and comparability in public data is a key role for the Government in getting value from transparency. In sectors where there is otherwise good information, we found that different provider types are subject to different requirements. For example, academies do not report their financial information in the same way as maintained schools in that spending per pupil in academy schools is not available, and consequently their value for money cannot be compared at school level.[7]

6.  In order for the public to understand what is available, and challenge whether the available information is relevant and useful, it is important that departments set out clearly what information is available. The Government's draft Public Data Principles identify the development of such 'information inventories' as good practice. However, two years after the Public Data Principles were first set out, only one department has published a comprehensive list of available information. The Cabinet Office has not developed guidance on for departments on putting together these information inventories.[8]

7.  There are areas where the Government has yet to decide what information it will make public. Initially the Government viewed the transparency agenda as stretching beyond questions of open data, and revealing how decisions had been reached. But, for instance, the Government has not yet decided whether assessments such as project gateway reviews which would reveal whether major projects are being delivered on time and to budget should be made public.[9] In addition, our expert witness from the Open Rights Group was keen to make a distinction between open data and datasets made available under licence for commercial exploitation.[10] The Cabinet Office accepted that there needs to be a standard glossary defining terms such as 'open data', 'public data' and 'crowd sourcing'— technical terms that are open to different interpretations - and told us that the forthcoming White Paper would provide some initial definitions.[11]

8.  As more detailed information about public services is released, there is a risk that separate pieces of information could be connected to reveal private information about individuals without their consent.[12] We are encouraged that the Government commissioned a review of how transparency can be aligned with the protection of privacy, but we are concerned that the Government has not formally responded to the report, which was published in September 2011. The Cabinet Office told us that a formal response will be included within its forthcoming White Paper.[13]

9.  This Committee has previously argued that it is vital that we and the public can access data from private companies who contract to provide public services. We must be able to follow the taxpayers' pound wherever it is spent. The way contracts are presently written does not enable us to override rules about commercial confidentiality. Data on public contracts delivered by private contractors must be available for scrutiny by Parliament and the public. Examples we have previously highlighted include the lack of transparency of financial information relating to the Private Finance Initiative and welfare to work contractors.[14] The Cabinet Office acknowledged the need for consistent guidance in this area, and told us that forthcoming departmental open data strategies should deal with this issue.[15]

2   C&AG's Report, para 1.1 Back

3   Qq 42, 49 Back

4   C&AG's Report, para 5 Back

5   C&AG's Report, para 1.1 Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 8, Qq 4 Back

7   C&AG's Report, para 3.7  Back

8   C&AG's Report, para 2.12 Back

9   Qq 54-56 and 64-67 Back

10   Q 41 Back

11   Q 104; The White Paper has since been published-Cabinet Office, Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, CM 8353, June 2012 Back

12   C&AG's Report, para 2.23 Back

13   Q 57 Back

14   Qq 70-73; Committee of Public Accounts, 85th Report of Session 2010-12, Department for Work and Pensions: The introduction of the work programme, HC 1814; Committee of Public Accounts, 81st Report of Session 2010-12, Equity investment in privately financed projects, HC 1846 Back

15   Q 83 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 August 2012