Implementing the transparency agenda - Public Accounts Committee Contents

3  Interpretation and accessibility

15.  The Government's website was launched in January 2010 to index public data releases in a single place. While there has been significant growth in the number of datasets linked to, the functionality of the website is poor. It is difficult to navigate the website and data are not categorised in a standard way. More than four-fifths of visitors leave the website immediately without accessing any of the links provided. The Cabinet Office told us that the website is about to be re-launched, at a cost of £140,000, with better functionality to make it easier to access data.[27]

16.  The Government has focused on releasing raw data online, and expects that benefits will arise from the development of online products and services such as smartphone applications. We questioned whether this may result in the exclusion of many of those who need information about services most. The most recent data on internet use show that over 8 million adults have no access to the internet. Older people, people with disabilities, and people on lower incomes are over-represented within this group.[28] We can accept the point made to us by witnesses that, for example in the health sector, consultants and GPs themselves use newly available data to drive improvements which can benefit all patients, regardless of whether individual patients have access to the internet themselves.[29] Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how online presentation of information to support choice, for example the school performance tables, does not create an advantage for those more able to access it directly. The Cabinet Office told us that the focus should be on improving access to the internet, for example in libraries, or by improving broadband access—on which there is still some way to go—rather than running multiple systems to provide access to information.[30]

17.  For datasets intended to enhance accountability, expert witnesses told us that more could be done to assist interpretation and to build on emerging interest. The Local Government Association told us that the spending datasets published by local authorities can be difficult to interpret without better explanation of context.[31] Our expert witness from University College London told us that the police crime map on its own does not drive better accountability, and that the ambition would only be achieved if complemented by additional activity, for example by neighbourhood police teams better engaging and communicating with local residents.[32] We heard that police forces vary in the extent to which they provide basic information so that residents can follow up issues shown on crime maps. The Home Office suggested that it was for residents to put pressure on local forces to address this issue.[33]

18.  We heard that local authorities' compliance with releasing information specified in the Department for Communities and Local Government's Code of Recommended Practice is generally high, with Nottingham City Council the only council refusing to publish its spending data.[34]

19.  For local government performance reporting, the Department for Communities and Local Government has actively sought to reduce demands on local authorities from central government. The Local Government Association is developing a tool, LG Inform, which is expected to be the most significant product that aggregates and reports on local government finance and performance information when it launches later this year. [35]

20.  Although standardisation of information is important to enable meaningful comparisons, the Local Government Association noted the importance of local bodies being able to reflect local circumstances and priorities. Although most councils are involved in the development of LG Inform, we also heard that there are approximately 40 councils that are not yet participating.[36] The degree to which councils adopt standardised measures, and participate in LG Inform, will clearly affect the comparability of data, and hence the contribution of published data to accountability and service improvement objectives. The Department for Communities and Local Government told us that they will take stock of how effectively LG Inform meets transparency objectives once it is operational.[37]

27   Qq 106-107 Back

28   Q 111 Back

29   Q 119 Back

30   Qq 111-115 Back

31   Qq 1-2 Back

32   Qq 26-29 Back

33   Q 108-110 Back

34   Qq 1, 14-16 Back

35   Q 2 Back

36   Q 3 Back

37   Q 88 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 August 2012