Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Ed’s Real Time Revolution?


Both government and opposition are now speaking of harnessing ‘Big Data’ to create all sorts of ‘real time’ service information for the public. Last week Ed Miliband used his Hugo Young Lecture to match up access to information with wider issues of public accountability. He said:

‘…information on individuals should be owned by and accessible to the individual, not hoarded by the state. That people get access to the information unless there is a very good reason for them not to. As the government has already acknowledged, that must include the right to access your own health records, swiftly and effectively.’

There is nothing startlingly new here. This is the sort of information has been opened up over the last two or three decades by FOI and a whole range of separate pieces of access legislation. However, Ed Miliband said this could go further with new technology, using the example of education:

‘Schools collect huge amounts of information on our kids. The old assumption is that it gets shared with us once or twice a year at a parents’ evening. Many good teachers know that its better if parents shouldn’t have to wait for a parents’ evening to understand how their son or daughter is doing, where things are going well and what more they could do. And new technology makes the sharing of this information much easier.’

He spoke of using systems like the Learning Gateway ‘which provides teachers, pupils and parents real-time information on pupil attainment’.

‘…the Learning Gateway is now used by over 100 schools. And just as with the best private sector companies, we can “track our order”, so too in the public sector we should be able to “track our case”.

Looking at the FAQs on this site it seems to show how parents can track punctuality, attendance and performance virtually in ‘real time’. I can see how this ‘real time’ information could transform services.

What concerns me is which parents would use the system to “track our case”. Would it be the few who are already on the board of governors etc? Like FOI, will it be the few most active and already engaged who use it? And what sort of incentives would it create? It would all depend on what the information was and how it was interpreted, which raises all sorts of uncertainties.

I do think the ‘usual suspects’ criticism of transparency, that the few requesters use it are the same already involved in politics writing letters and attending consultations, is overplayed. As Kevin Dunion points out, the ‘usual suspects’ are also a ‘vanguard’ feeding information to the wider public.

However, in this case, I could well imagine the ‘usual suspect parents’ pushing for harder exams, more tests or earlier school opening. This could lead to all sorts of perverse incentives and nightmare scenarios for pupils themselves- the question of how and if people change if they are monitored is a fascinating one. But the evidence is not clear cut that it is always positive.

As an added thought, Ed Miliband also spoke of extending this sort of approach to every government department.

‘Whether it is an application for a parking permit or when you have been a victim of a crime. If it can be done by one local council, it should be possible in every government department’.

The big question is how this is implemented. A school is not a Council. And it is definitely not the Home Office or Department of Health. Could you imagine trying to implement and publish real time immigration information or waiting lists?

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Going Off Openness?



Tony Blair passed the FOI Act but later called it his biggest mistake. David Cameron said it can ‘occasionally fur up the arteries of government’. Obama seems to have gone from being the Transparency President to the Secrecy Chief Executive. So why do politicians go off transparency?

Here are a few reasons-some obvious, some less so.

First, politicians are often not that enthusiastic to begin with. Some adopt transparency laws because of pressure, often due to a huge ‘secrecy’ scandal. Some have the Acts forced upon them, such as US President Lyndon Johnson. His Press Secretary revealed how:

‘LBJ hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets; hated them challenging the official view of reality…only some last-minute calls to LBJ from newspaper editors overcame the President’s reluctance; he signed “the damned thing,” as he called it (only I’m paraphrasing); he signed it, and then went out to claim credit for it’.

Those that do support transparency are often inexperienced or not really thinking about it-Tony Blair called himself a ‘naïve nincompoop’ for not thing about FOI enough before it was passed (see this CFOI memo). There’s a lot of wishful thinking that FOI or Open Data will ‘revolutionise’ politics or ‘transform’ how the public see its government. Very good in theory (and in opposition) but more complex in political practice.

Second, politicians hate surprises. Transparency springs surprises and one thing politicians do not like is the unexpected. This means they have less control of the news agenda. See some of these recent national and local media stories from FOI Directory here and imagine you are a politician (please don’t be distracted by the clown related crime story).

Third, a less obvious answer concerns how senior politicians and officials meet transparency. Most people high up in an organisation only see a very small percentage of requests or a few data releases. They are often copied in to the 1 or 2 per cent of particularly troublesome requests, sensitive cases or, worst of all, the ones involving them. So they get a very selective, and very negative, view of what is being asked.

So, a typical leader first encounters transparency when they spit their coffee over the newspaper in the morning. Not the best way to meet it. In the UK the Labour Cabinet first seriously thought about the Act when a request asked for the Cabinet discussions over the legality of the invasion of Iraq.

Fourth, transparency doesn’t always do what politicians want it to do. David Cameron wants his new Transparency Agenda to bring economic growth and have us all pouring over our Council accounts before we go to bed. I’m not convinced. The convergence of openness with technology makes this optimism even stronger-the idea that computer power and information technology can suddenly solve lots of problems through transparency continues to mesmerise politicians.

But why does it matter? In one sense the moans of politicians are signs of transparency working well. But it matters because of how politicians react.

Some politicians try and make transparency be something it is not by seizing control of the definitions-transparency is what they say it is. For example, David Cameron is trying to make Open Data and transparency all about economic growth and the transparency of private companies. He claimed real freedom of information is about “the money that goes in, the results that come out”. Such criticisms of FOI also send out signals to others that openness is ‘bad’ or is being abused.

Finally, it matters because it can lead to attempts to reform or change the Act. The UK has seen numerous attempts to ‘pushback’ by Parliament and at least two governments, with a not-often-mentioned change to the Act that excluded the Monarch and heir to the throne. US leaders have swung back and forth from supportive to hostile over three decades. Perhaps the point here is that transparency is not a straight, ever improving success. It goes forwards but also backwards, as this EU study shows. Politicians’ attitudes are key.