Open Data no substitute for adequately funded public services

Posted on 28th June 2012 by

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.

One response to this post.

  1. There’s open and open…..

    “But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

    “Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

    “But the plans were on display …”

    “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

    “That’s the display department.”

    “With a flashlight.”

    “Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

    “So had the stairs.”

    “But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

    “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

    Thank you Douglas Adams

    “People of Earth, your attention, please. This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system. And regrettably, your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.

    There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. …

    What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.”

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