Statistics and Open Data: Harvesting unused knowledge, empowering citizens and improving public services - Public Administration Committee Contents

4  Improving Government through open data

Openness and government efficiency

98. Some witnesses urged Government to seize the opportunities offered by open data to improve its own performance and its understanding of public service issues. The Institute for Government pressed a wide-ranging case for openness as an aid to efficiency, telling us that "When data is presented clearly to the public in a way that makes comparisons possible, it also encourages better use of data and enables better decisions inside government."[134] The ODI said that the benefits of open data to government itself included "enabling external collaboration to increase data quality, efficiencies in reducing duplication of effort and savings through not having to pay the private sector for information that government holds".[135] ODI observed that starting to estimate the potential savings "would provide the basis of the business case [within Government] for more decisive action towards more open data."[136]

99. Stephan Shakespeare said that "One of the reasons for making data available [...] is that the expertise that comes to bear on it when you open up data is vastly increased."[137] Sir Nigel Shadbolt cited as an example of good practice a site run by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) that is "comparing and interlinking data statistics from across all local authorities."[138] He said that this was "sufficiently well done that the Department is starting to consume its own representation of this data in lots of other reporting that it is doing."[139] Sir Nigel also mentioned the Public Health England site "Longer Lives", which assembles information about mortality and disease rates in a way that is "very accessible to the public".[140] He said that on this site "open data has been brought to life and begun a very interesting debate around variations in disease rates, death rates, mortality rates, up and down the country."[141]

100. Ministers told us that "Increasingly we are seeing Departments consume their own and other Departments' data to drive their policies and programmes."[142] They gave the example of the Department for Transport which "uses a mixture of its own data and private data to support projects such as Transport Direct and an initiative to understand the impact of better information about incidents on the A4."[143] Another example was the Department for Communities and Local Government's Whole Place Community Budgets and Troubled Families programmes which, Ministers told us "have shown that information sharing is key to designing and delivering services and achieving better outcomes for vulnerable people."[144]

Missing opportunities to improve effectiveness

101. Yet we heard evidence that Government was missing some significant opportunities to make use of open data in this way. Jacqui Taylor of FlyingBinary described the difficulties encountered by a Tech City company she mentored, which had requested the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs data via ODUG to enable them to "challenge" the CAP levy paid by the UK which is due to be renegotiated in 2014. Ms Taylor said that the analysis they produce "could be of huge benefit to UK PLC." However, "This data has not yet been released by DEFRA although ODUG are attempting to get this data released as soon as possible."[145]

102. Another barrier to improved Government was said to be the licensing arrangements for some datasets. ODUG believed that the flow of useful data around Government was discouraged by the fact that important core datasets such as addressing and geospatial data are "essentially re-purchased from the data holders exclusively for the Public Sector".[146] In such cases "public funds are used to repurchase data which was originally funded from the public purse for the delivery of a public task."[147] This data has been "paid for twice by the taxpayer", but access to it is still restricted.[148]

103. There is little evidence to suggest that the Government is consistently making the most of the opportunities to improve policy and performance via the use of its own data. Departments need to make full use of the records and information they possess to ensure they are running effectively. Opening up that data to other departments will boost the Government's evidence base and can improve policy making. The benefits of making data open include not just an increase in openness and accountability, but also the opportunity for outside experts to verify, and suggest improvements in the quality and accuracy of, the data itself.

104. The Cabinet Office should be much more active in ensuring Departments maximise the social and economic potential of open data, not least in increasing their own efficiency and effectiveness. To this end, it should:

a)  require Departments to produce, by the end of 2014, a detailed and timetabled plan for using data to enhance their performance,

b)  ensure that the data which is used to underpin policy work in all public announcements is published alongside the policy statements, and

c)  bring an end, by January 2015, to the outdated and wasteful practice whereby Departments have to pay for access to data that has been produced by Government itself.

105. The Office for National Statistics, directed by the UK Statistics Authority Board, should also be at the forefront of this movement and show the way forward by example.

134   Institute for Government (OD 17)  Back

135   ODI (OD 09) Back

136   As above Back

137   Q94 Back

138   Q113 Back

139   As above Back

140   As above Back

141   As above Back

142   Nick Hurd MP and Rt Hon Michael Fallon (OD 28) Back

143   As above Back

144   As above Back

145   FlyingBinary Ltd (OD 18) para 6 (c) Back

146   Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 9.4 Back

147   As above Back

148   As above Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 17 March 2014