Government data lacks transparency, says committee

Public Accounts Committee says it’s not enough to ‘dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain’

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said that too much government data is poorly presented and difficult for outsiders to interpret.

Four out of five people who visit the website leave it immediately without accessing links to data, says the parliamentary watchdog in its report on implementing the government’s transparency agenda.

In adult social care and other parts of the public sector, there are big gaps in the information provided so that people cannot use it to make informed choices, according to the committee.

The government’s objectives for transparency are to strengthen public accountability, and support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice.

It also intends to stimulate economic growth by helping third parties develop products and services, such as smartphone applications, based on public information.

The committee says it is not clear that the data released will enable the government to meet those objectives, however.

In the UK there are more than 8m adults – many who are older, have disabilities or low incomes – with no access to the internet. The committee asks whether this will result in the exclusion of many of those who need information about services most.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, said: “It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand.

“Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda.

The committee says that as increasing numbers of providers are involved in providing public services, there must be a “level playing field in terms” of transparency.

It gives the example of academies that do not make information on spending per pupil available, so that value for money can be compared fully between different types of schools.

An area of particular concern to the committee is that private providers can hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ to block the disclosure of information.

Hodge said: “We must be able to follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it is spent.”

She also called on the government to develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks.

The report says that some departments have estimated the costs of producing the standard data releases, such as spend data and organograms (departmental personnel charts), range from about £50,000 to £500,000 a year. The costs to local authorities of releasing their expenditure data can range from virtually zero to £100,000 a year.

In its recommendations, the PAC says that in developing open data strategies, the Cabinet Office should make sure that departments specify what information will be released, and that it meets stated transparency objectives.

Where the government wants to encourage user choice, the Cabinet Office should ensure 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.

The Cabinet Office should also develop a comprehensive analysis of costs, benefits and risks, to guide future decisions on what data to make available.

On the inappropriate use of ‘commercial confidentiality’ as a reason for the non-disclosure of data, the committee calls for 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,” the PAC says.

In addition, it wants guidance for departments on information inventories, covering classes of information, formats, accuracy and availability.

Chris Pennell, principal analyst at Kable, said: “If the transparency agenda is to avoid becoming simply a ‘tick box’ exercise, the government needs to do more to ensure that the data is being used by those that stand to benefit the most. This is clearly an area that suppliers can engage further in.”

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