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Transparent Government

The Government has made no secret of its commitment to transparency.  In this InfoLaw update we will focus on the Prime Minister’s recent letter to his Cabinet Ministers setting out his commitment to publication of more public sector data, specifically on the National Health Service, schools, criminal courts and transport.  

 
Introduction

The Government has made no secret of its commitment to transparency.  In this InfoLaw update we will focus on the Prime Minister’s recent letter to his Cabinet Ministers setting out his commitment to publication of more public sector data, specifically on the National Health Service, schools, criminal courts and transport. 

The PM has described his commitments as “the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world” and in his letter re-iterated that transparency is at the heart of his agenda for Government. He believes that transparency and open data can be a powerful tool to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens, considers that transparency can be a significant driver of economic activity and, specifically, is convinced that open data will increasingly enable the creation of valuable new services and applications.


Whilst Government’s focus over the past 12 months has been to open up core central government data in areas such as spending, its priority over the next year will be the release of new data on the performance of public services with the intention that it will become “easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold Government to account for the performance of key public services”.


Open data achievements since May 2010
 

The Prime Minister’s letter sets out in detail “key” government datasets, released since May 2010 including in the areas of;


• central government spending;


• local government spending;


• crime, with data released at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets; and


• names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for the most Senior Civil Servants and NDPB officials.
 

Improving data quality
 

In order to maximise the benefits of transparency, the Prime Minister considers it vital that data released are accurate, consistent and easily navigable. Consequently his intention is, over the next 12 months, to take steps to improve the quality of data already being published, and ensure that it is updated on a regular basis.


In addition, all government spending data released will, from September 2011, include plain English descriptions explaining the scope and purpose of every transaction, and, from December 2011, unique reference indicators will be introduced by Government agencies (including HMRC) with the aim of enabling the public to track more easily the interaction between companies and government bodies.
 

Finally, every Government department, working with the Cabinet Office transparency team, will be expected to produce an action plan in November 2011 for improving the quality and comparability of its data.
 

New transparency commitments
 

The PM’s letter identifies specific categories of data, each reproduced below, which as with existing data commitments, must be published in an open standardised format so that it can be freely re-used under the Open Government Licence by third parties.  Examples, by sector, include:


Health Services


• Data on comparative clinical outcomes of GP practices in England and prescribing data by GP practice;


• Complaints data by NHS hospital;


• Clinical audit data;


• Data on staff satisfaction and engagement by NHS provider (for example by hospital and mental health trust).


Education & Skills


• Data enabling parents to see how effective their school is at teaching high, average and low attaining pupils across a range of subjects;


• School spending data, school performance data, pupil cohort data and Ofsted judgements, searchable by postcode;


• Data on attainment of students eligible for pupil premium;


• Data on apprenticeships paid for by HM Government.
 

Criminal justice
 

• Sentencing data by court. The data, anonymised, will include the age, gender and ethnicity of those sentenced, the sentence given, and the time taken at    each stage from offence to completion of the case in court;


• Data on performance of probation services and prisons including re-offending rates by offender and institution.


Transport


• Data on current and future roadworks on the Strategic Road Network;


• Real time data on the Strategic Road Network including incidents, speeds and congestion;


• Office of Rail Regulation data relating to service performance and complaints;


Government financial information

 

• Government procurement spend data for transactions above £500 in value (from end September 2011).

 

Next Steps


The Minister for the Cabinet Office will lead on this important agenda, and the Cabinet Office will publish a Transparency and Right to Data Strategy.  Government will work with Departments to revise their Information Strategies to be published in refreshed departmental business plans from April 2012, setting out the detailed steps that each Department will take to drive openness and accountability.

In addition, the second phase of the Growth Review will include a specific work strand on the economic opportunities of open data, and transparency boards will be established in each of the key delivery departments (health, education, justice, work and pensions, transport).


Comment


Tony Blair’s view, expressed in his autobiography following the end of his period of office, is that the Freedom of Information Act was one of his biggest mistakes.  Public sector organisations certainly find themselves committing significant time and resource to responding to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act and this letter confirms indications that David Cameron’s Government is committed to increasing transparency and openness.
 

Whilst the primary target of this transparency agenda is central government departments, it is not unreasonable to expect them to be the thin edge of the wedge. In the context of drastically reduced budgets and an ever increasing number of enquiries (even before authorities feel the effect of the Information Commissioner’s recent confirmation that FOI requests submitted by Twitter can be valid) authorities may be well advised to consider expanding the amount of information which is routinely published so that publication schemes are utilised by an authority as a tool for reducing both the cost and time commitment which dealing with requests on an individual basis requires.


This approach may be an anathema to many authorities but proactive organisations are considering (and in some cases, implementing) a volte face in their approach to freedom of information.  The rationale is both a prediction that before long this approach may be required and an acceptance that, with certain obvious exceptions, much of the day to day information held by authorities is discloseable anyway.
 

Burnetts will continue to monitor and report on developments in this area.  Please do not hesitate to ring Caroline Redhead (or email cabr@burnetts.co.uk) to talk through any queries you or your organisation may have in relation to your freedom of information obligations. 

About the author

Published: Thursday 1st September 2011
Categorised: Corporate Law, Education, Information Law

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