opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency

The Tax Transparency Letter: Three Quick Questions

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George Osborne has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ by offering to every house a detailed breakdown of where our tax goes-a kind of annual Where Does My Money Go[1] through our letter box. You can see some examples on the Treasury Flickr site here.

The Chancellor called it ‘a revolution in transparency and it will show how hardworking taxpayers have to pay for what governments spend’. It has been criticised as biased and self-serving and, of course, is just one of many ways of presenting how money is spent.

I just wanted to ask a few quick questions about the wider hopes for what the policy may do.

1.What Will the Public Think?

How people take in information is rather nuanced and complicated-more so that the rather simple ‘information=understanding’ chain that is presumed. Voters often display a negativity bias-as this paper explains they often punish poor performance but do not ‘reward good’. There are also delay effects as people think about things afterwards. How information is processed relates to our expectations and pre-dispositions-there was not a huge loss in trust in MPs during the expenses scandal because few trusted them beforehand.

2.Will They Trust What They Read?

There is low trust in politics, as we know (the headline here says it all). We may be rather cynical about leaflets and other political literature. There is also a lack of faith in statistics-interestingly, one of the key issues around the 2015 General Election is the public simply not feeling the economic growth they are told is taking place. The Treasury and HMRC may also not be the most popular or trusted of organisations-see these recent headlines here.

3. Will it Change Behaviour?

Finally, will this information change behaviour, particularly how an individual votes? Voting is a black box. One thing we do know is that information does not always play the role it could-again the MPs’ expenses is a good example. Despite clear evidence, voters did not or could not act on poor behaviour. This great paper explains how the public like having the opportunity to know more but may prefer others to do the research or accountability for them.

So the idea that we will read, judge and act is over-simplifying considerably what actually goes on. And this is all dependent on whether people actually read it.

[1] Enter your salary to see where your tax goes

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