countculture

Open data and all that

The Audit Commission, open data and the quest for relevance

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[Note: I’m writing this post in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the Local Public Data Panel, on which I sit]

Alternative heading: Audit Commission under threat tries to divert government open data agenda. Fails to get it.

A week or so ago saw the release of a report from the Audit Commission, The Truth Is Out There, which “looks at how the public sector can improve information made available to the public”.

The timing of this is interesting, coming shortly before the Government’s landmark announcement about opening up data and using it to restructure government, and after a series of Conservative-leaning events or announcements making a similar case, albeit framed slightly differently.

Given all this, I’m guessing the Audit Commission is a tough places to be right now. Local Authorities have long complained about the burden it puts on them, the Conservatives have made it plain they see it as a problem rather than a solution so far as efficiency goes, and even the government is scaling back its desire to have targets for everything.

So, given this, perhaps this paper would see a realisation by the commission that if it doesn’t change its perspective it will become at best irrelevant and at worst a roadblock to open data, increased transparency, efficiency and genuine change.

First it’s worth pointing out some background:

In short, it’s a typical government body — all focused on process rather than delivery. And its response to the changing landscape of open data, the move from a web of documents to a web of data, and the potential to engage with data directly rather than through the medium of dry official reports?

Actually it’s what you’d expect: there’s a fair bit of social-media blah-blah-blah — Facebook, US open data initiatives, MySociety/FixMyStreet, etc; there’s a bit about transparency that doesn’t actually say much; and then there’s a lot of justification for why there needs to be an Audit-Commission type body which manages to both include jargon (RQP) and avoid talking about the real problems preventing this.

What are these?

  • Structural problems — although the net financial benefit to government as a whole will be significant, this will be achieving by stripping out existing wasteful processes, duplication, and intermediary organizations. The idea that a local authority should supply the same dataset to three different bodies in three different formats and three different ways is ludicrous. Particularly when those bodies then spend even more time reworking the data to allow a matchup to other datasets.

    This is just an unnecessary gunk that’s gumming up the work, and the truth is the Audit Commission is one of those problem bodies.

  • Technical/contractual problems — it’s not always easy for legacy systems to expose data, and even where it is, the nature of public-sector IT procurement means that it’s going to cost. Ultimately we need to change how government does IT, but in the meantime we need to make sure the money comes from the vast savings to be made be removing the gunk. This means overcoming silos, which is no easy task.
  • Identifier problems — being able to uniquely identify bodies, areas, categories, etc. Anyone who’s ever done any playing around with government data knows this is one of the central frustrations, and blockers when combing data. Is this local authority/ward/police authority/company the same as that one. What do we mean by ‘primary school’ spending and can we match it against this figure from central government. Some of these questions are hard to answer, but made much harder when organisations don’t use common, public identifiers.

Astonishingly the Audit Commission paper doesn’t really cover these issues (and doesn’t even mention the issue of identifiers, perhaps because it’s so bad at them). Is this because they haven’t really understood the issues, or is it because the paper is more about trying to make it seem relevant in a changing world? Either way, it’s got problems, and given the current attitude it doesn’t seem in a position to address them itself.

Written by countculture

March 9, 2010 at 3:59 pm

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