Open Data no substitute for adequately funded public servicesPosted on 28th June 2012 by Jo Ivens
The Guardian reports this morning that the Cabinet Office will publish an Open Data White Paper later today, including:
“plans for releasing statistics from every government department over the next year” and an expectation that it will “commit government in future to a general presumption in favour of publishing public sector data, and take further steps toward extending the policy to all organisations which deliver public services, including private contractors.”
I worked extensively in Brighton last year on looking at how the Open Data agenda could benefit the voluntary sector, and how the sector could start to take advantage of this trend for increasing openness.
My conclusions at that point were that while there was much potential in the open data agenda, the sector was not taking advantage. For a range of reasons, including the most pressing daily task being survival of your organisation, dealing with increasing demand and reducing income.
However, there are three points from this work that I would highlight this morning:
* Publishing data doesn’t make it open to all – it is still very specialised and relies on high levels of data literacy. There is a genuine risk of a data divide, in the same way that we see a digital divide in terms of Internet access. In addition, there are vast amounts of public service data out there already (curated and presented by organisations such as OCSI) but the voluntary sector, at a small and local scale, tends not make great use of it.
* Publishing data doesn’t automatically lead to service improvement – it is one tool in the quest to raise standards, and some things are hard to measure in this way. For example, we should remember that local, voluntary sector or independent providers bring enormous benefits to an areas beyond the basic delivery of their public service contracts. So what would be really interesting is to look at how the Open Data White Paper could add real value to the Duty to Consider Social Value.
* Publishing more data does not automatically increase transparency – there has been an avalanche recently of stories about secret deals, backdoor conversations, influential people meeting in shady corridors (I exaggerate slightly, but you don’t see small voluntary sector providers called to the Leveson enquiry or under investigation from the Financial Services Commission). My point is that being open with your data is great, but being open about the decision-making process itself would be far more useful.
In conclusion, the Open Data White Paper has the potential to bring some public service benefits, but it’s likely to be a) a long way off, b) something rather specialised that depends on the personal interests of professional developers and c) opening data is no substitute for adequate funding of essential public services.