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

6  A strategic approach to open data?

Government plans for open data

120. Some of our witnesses were encouraged by progress on Government open data. The ODI for instance said that "the UK has a justifiable reputation as a world leader in open data."[166] ODUG noted with approval the number of datasets that are now available on, calling them "positive results."[167]

121. But what of the future? In October 2013 the Government published a National Action Plan on Open Government which included actions intended to promote further progress on open data.[168] Among the main open data elements of the Plan were:

·  moves to improve data quality standards in healthcare to, among other things, help comparisons between healthcare providers, "to support engagement in the design and quality of healthcare";

·  publication of a revised Local Authorities Data Transparency Code, requiring local authorities to publish key information and data;

·  the creation of "a comprehensive, accessible and timely paper and digital record of UK government available to the citizen."[169]

122. At the same time the Government published the first iteration of a National Information Infrastructure, setting out "the datasets which are likely to have the broadest and most significant economic and social impact if made available".[170] The ODI concluded that this represented "a reasonable first attempt" at creating such a structure.[171]

123. Several witnesses felt that recent documents had failed to set out a convincing strategy for open data. While recognising that the Cabinet Office Open Data White paper and the subsequent Shakespeare Review made "cogent and compelling cases for Open Data", ODUG concluded that "neither can be regarded as a strategy."[172] In particular, the release of government data sets had not been carried out "according to any discernible strategic framework."[173] The Group concluded that "In order for the country to gain the maximum utility and economic advantage from Open Data a more strategic response is needed."[174]

124. There are many things to consider. The UK Data Service, a resource for social science researchers, indicated that a strategy was needed to "deal with some of the [...] more complex requirements about providing access to data." [175]In particular the UKDS believed that the strategy was required "to ensure that the best use is made of the data which are provided", calling for "reasonable and pragmatic solutions" so that released data are "as fine-grained as possible and that the rights of persons or businesses who may be included within the data are guaranteed."[176]

125. The ODI believed that the National Information Infrastructure as published in October 2013 was "too broad and too rooted in the status-quo, rather than based on an assessment of what's now needed."[177] They saw a risk that the focus was "too diffuse", and called for "a more thorough analysis" of what a National Information Infrastructure needs to contain. The ODI describe the UK's National Action Plan as "a collection of loosely related initiatives and commitments," each individually "laudable", especially the use of legislation to provide a guaranteed supply of local government data.[178] However, ODI said that, as a set of commitments, the National Action Plan "does not come together to give the UK the truly coherent Open Data Strategy the country needs."[179]

Taking tough decisions on open data

126. The ODI attempted to trace some of the complexities of the road ahead for open data. The country, it told us, "has attained its leading position by doing several relatively easy things for Government. The challenge is now to start to do some of the harder things".[180] These included publishing currently closed data as open data, increasing the quality of publication of important datasets and investing in training civil servants "to support that publication and to understand how to use open data for policy benefit".[181]

127. One fundamental problem, a lack of clear strategic focus, was summarised by Professor Helen Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who said that

    'Open data' is an interesting term and it gets many terms bundled into it. In some ways, open data is a bit like the little white bunny of government. It means something nice, warm and good that will aid democracy. It is a confused term, though, because it implies that it is just opening data up for public use.[182]

128. We heard a number of suggestions aimed at giving greater focus and impetus to the Government's open data work. The ODI for example set out the key elements it would look for in a coherent open data strategy, which would:

·  cover open data as part of a wider strategy on sharing and using data

·  ensure that government collects the data that it and wider society needs

·  develop business models that can support the publication of open data

·  commit the Government Digital Service (GDS) to develop a world-class data publishing platform for the public sector to use, as part of GOV.UK

·  ensure that government itself benefits from open data publication, by equipping civil servants with the skills they need to make best use of available open data

·  reach beyond the government's own publication of data, including embedding open data into government's procurement process, to encourage a growing capability around the use of open data within the UK.[183]

Who is responsible for making the Government's open data plans work?

129. We sought throughout this inquiry to understand who in Government was responsible for progress on open data. Mr Hurd told us that "under the leadership of the Prime Minister and with the rigour of the leadership shown by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, what we are trying to establish—and I think we have succeeded—is an open-by-default culture".[184]

130. Stephan Shakespeare welcomed what he called the "good understanding [of open data] across Government" and an "obvious palpable desire to do the right things." He said "You do not come across any significant defensiveness or obstruction to try to stop this agenda."[185]

131. However, ODUG were among those who felt that overall direction was lacking, telling us that the mechanisms available to hold departments and other public sector bodies to account for progress on open data were "weak, hampered by a disparate legislative framework with responsibilities spread across multiple bodies and the pace of delivery is relatively slow."[186] Jacqui Taylor of FlyingBinary believed that "the delivery of this [open data] agenda is still dependent on Cabinet Office being adequately supported by both the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury."[187]

132. On the same topic, Tom Steinberg suggested that there was a lack of support within Government for the principle of open data: "the enthusiasm that has been shown has come from a pretty small part of the Government—basically one or two Ministers" with "resistance from all the other Ministers".[188] This had meant that there had been little or no "meaningful legislative change" on the open data front.[189]

133. Owen Boswarva said that there was "a disconnect between the Cabinet Office's rhetoric on open data and practical implementation by key delivery departments."[190] As an example, he cited the Ministry of Justice as having "successfully fought off European proposals to strengthen the PSI [Public Sector Information] Directive."[191] Mr Boswarva also told us that BIS had so far protected most of the "crown jewels" of public data from open data release.

134. According to a number of our witnesses, the influence of the Treasury could be seen behind some of the Whitehall reluctance to embrace open data and its potential to disrupt established markets and build new economic opportunities. Sir Nigel Shadbolt told us that

    the Treasury has, in the past, simply not been convinced or persuaded or had enough instruction in the fact that this is a new opportunity. I do not think they get much of the opportunity of the digitally disruptive economic abundances that can flow from data.[192]

Dr Pollock agreed, referring to the Treasury as "a blocker."[193]

135. As well as the Ministers and their officials, there are a number of public bodies, some created recently to help the Government to promote open data or act as consultative forums. Asked which body is responsible for increasing access to public sector information, Stephan Shakespeare told us:

    There is no single body that does that. We did have the Data Strategy Board that was sort of doing some of that and looking at it from the accountability side but much more the economic case—the business case. We have lots of people across Government all committed to the agenda and adding to it really well, but we do not have one author, one body, that is driving this in a joined-up way.[194]

136. Heather Savory listed the bodies which have some responsibility for open data:

    you have the Cabinet Office Public Sector Transparency Board and you have BIS, with information economy, growth and the Public Data Group, which is the four trading funds. Then you have the MOJ and National Archives, which are doing all the legislative side, and then you have the Information Commissioner's Office.

She asked rhetorically "Do they work together? Yes. Do they work together well? Most of the time."[195] Stephan Shakespeare called for "a single authority" to ensure that open data becomes a reality more quickly.[196]

137. The Information Commissioner's Office drew an interesting parallel between the performance of public services in relation to the open data agenda and the experience of the Office with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), suggesting that interest in open data might soon fade:

    The Commissioner has previously monitored FOIA publication scheme compliance across the public sector. He recognises the trend of early, enthusiastic work on publication which then starts to slip back. This often happens when job responsibilities are not passed on or re-assigned from an early champion of openness.[197]

138. There is much to be gained from open data, but the Government's direction of travel is not clear. The ODI has set out some important elements of a more considered and coherent approach, and it is a foundation for the Government to use as the basis for further work towards a strategy. The National Action Plan provides little incentive for the wider public to get involved in open data.

139. There has been a lack of coordination on open data at Ministerial and official level, though this is improving. No clearer indication of the lack of strategy on open data is required than the inconsistency of the decision to sell the Postcode Address File with the Royal Mail. The Cabinet Office leads on the policy, but its mechanisms to hold Departments to account are weak. The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail demonstrates that important Departments such as the Treasury and BIS do not appreciate the value of open data. Despite the enthusiastic rhetoric emanating from the Cabinet Office, our evidence indeed indicated something more serious - a lack of understanding of open data among most Ministers and apparently most officials.

140. The Information Commissioner described how the public sector's commitment to the Freedom of Information Act slackened over time. Under present arrangements, it is all too possible to foresee a repeat of this experience in the case of open data, with the issue slipping gradually down the list of public sector priorities as apparently more pressing matters come to the fore. The stakes on open data are arguably higher than those on freedom of information, and the UK has great opportunities if it gets it right - but Government needs to take a determined lead or the opportunities will slip away.

141. There is an unwieldy plethora of open data bodies which tends to slow both decision-making and consultation. The structure of the government web sites also make it very difficult to see what government policy is towards open data, and to identify the progress being made

142. To overcome departmental apathy and resistance, open data needs to be treated as a major government programme in its own right, which will only bring substantial benefits if it is subject to active leadership and management by Ministers and officials. The Minister for the Cabinet Office should be given explicit responsibility for all aspects of open data policy, including the commercial aspects. We believe that Civil Service accountability for progress needs to be much clearer, and that the Cabinet Secretary should be given the overall responsibility for pushing open data through Whitehall and beyond. A single Senior Responsible Owner should be appointed at Deputy Secretary level in the Cabinet Office, to be directly and personally responsible for delivering the benefits of the open data strategy. The Public Sector Transparency Board is too large to be effective in driving progress. A small group from that Board should work as a Programme Implementation Board.

143. The Government should, by the end of June 2014, submit to the Committee a detailed report on progress on the actions related to open data. This should include a list of all plans and actions from recent relevant documents, reports and committees on open data, including but not limited to the Open Government Partnership Action Plan and the National Information Infrastructure. The Cabinet Office should report to Parliament at least every six months on progress made with a consolidated list of actions.


144. Today there are unparalleled opportunities to harvest unused knowledge that otherwise goes to waste, which can be used to empower citizens, to improve public services and to benefit the economy and society as a whole.

166   Open Data Institute (OD 09) Back

167   Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 9.1 Back

168   Cabinet Office, Open Government Partnership UK National Action Plan 2013 to 2015, October 2013,pages 11-17 Back

169   As above Back

170   Cabinet Office, National Information Infrastructure, October 2013 p 3 Back

171   Open Data Institute (OD 25) para 3 Back

172   Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 2.9 Back

173   As above Back

174   As above para 2.10 Back

175   UK Data Service (OD 08) para 9 Back

176   As above para 10 Back

177   Open Data Institute (OD 25) para 4 Back

178   As above para 7 Back

179   As above  Back

180   As above  Back

181   As above para 9 Back

182   Q1 Back

183   Open Data Institute (OD 09) para 7 Back

184   Q167 Back

185   Q81 Back

186   Open Data User Group (OD 14) para 9.1 Back

187   FlyingBinary Ltd (OD 18) para 3 Back

188   Q40 Back

189   Q41 Back

190   Owen Boswarva (OD 06) para 17 Back

191   As above Back

192   Q93 Back

193   Q61 Back

194   Q85 Back

195   Q54 Back

196   Q166 Back

197   Information Commissioner's Office (OD 12) para 29 Back

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Prepared 17 March 2014