1 The objectives and scope of transparency
1. Successive Governments have promoted greater transparency
through legislation and the release of public data and other information.
This Government made a commitment to transparency in its May 2010
Programme for Government, followed by two open letters from the
Prime Minister in May 2010 and July 2011, detailing specific data
Early releases related mostly to financial transparency, while
more recent releases have been geared more towards data on key
public services such as health, education and criminal justice.
2. There has been good progress in releasing
the data outlined in the Prime Minister's letters. The Government
met 23 out of 25 of its commitments due by December 2011. The
number of datasets available on the Government's data.gov.uk portal
expanded from 2,500 in January 2010 to 7,865 in December 2011.
3. The objectives of the transparency agenda
- strengthen public accountability;
- support public service improvement by generating
more comparative data and increasing user choice; and
- stimulate economic growth by helping third parties
to develop products and services based on public sector information.
4. The transparency agenda is also aligned with
the Government's wider public service reforms. Its July 2011 Open
Public Services White Paper states that "key data about public
services, user satisfaction and the performance of all providers
from all sectors" will be made available. However, the current
position falls short of these ambitions. The scope and completeness
of information varies in each sector. For example, while the Department
for Education collects and reports information to support parents
in choosing schools there is no standard comparative information
on adult social care providers that would enable users to make
5. Maintaining consistency and comparability
in public data is a key role for the Government in getting value
from transparency. In sectors where there is otherwise good information,
we found that different provider types are subject to different
requirements. For example, academies do not report their financial
information in the same way as maintained schools in that spending
per pupil in academy schools is not available, and consequently
their value for money cannot be compared at school level.
6. In order for the public to understand what
is available, and challenge whether the available information
is relevant and useful, it is important that departments set out
clearly what information is available. The Government's draft
Public Data Principles identify the development of such 'information
inventories' as good practice. However, two years after the Public
Data Principles were first set out, only one department has published
a comprehensive list of available information. The Cabinet Office
has not developed guidance on for departments on putting together
these information inventories.
7. There are areas where the Government has yet
to decide what information it will make public. Initially the
Government viewed the transparency agenda as stretching beyond
questions of open data, and revealing how decisions had been reached.
But, for instance, the Government has not yet decided whether
assessments such as project gateway reviews which would reveal
whether major projects are being delivered on time and to budget
should be made public.
In addition, our expert witness from the Open Rights Group was
keen to make a distinction between open data and datasets made
available under licence for commercial exploitation.
The Cabinet Office accepted that there needs to be a standard
glossary defining terms such as 'open data', 'public data' and
'crowd sourcing' technical terms that are open to different
interpretations - and told us that the forthcoming White Paper
would provide some initial definitions.
8. As more detailed information about public
services is released, there is a risk that separate pieces of
information could be connected to reveal private information about
individuals without their consent.
We are encouraged that the Government commissioned a review of
how transparency can be aligned with the protection of privacy,
but we are concerned that the Government has not formally responded
to the report, which was published in September 2011. The Cabinet
Office told us that a formal response will be included within
its forthcoming White Paper.
9. This Committee has previously argued that
it is vital that we and the public can access data from private
companies who contract to provide public services. We must be
able to follow the taxpayers' pound wherever it is spent. The
way contracts are presently written does not enable us to override
rules about commercial confidentiality. Data on public contracts
delivered by private contractors must be available for scrutiny
by Parliament and the public. Examples we have previously highlighted
include the lack of transparency of financial information relating
to the Private Finance Initiative and welfare to work contractors.
The Cabinet Office acknowledged the need for consistent guidance
in this area, and told us that forthcoming departmental open data
strategies should deal with this issue.
2 C&AG's Report, para 1.1 Back
Qq 42, 49 Back
C&AG's Report, para 5 Back
C&AG's Report, para 1.1 Back
C&AG's Report, para 8, Qq 4 Back
C&AG's Report, para 3.7 Back
C&AG's Report, para 2.12 Back
Qq 54-56 and 64-67 Back
Q 41 Back
Q 104; The White Paper has since been published-Cabinet Office,
Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, CM 8353,
June 2012 Back
C&AG's Report, para 2.23 Back
Q 57 Back
Qq 70-73; Committee of Public Accounts, 85th Report
of Session 2010-12, Department for Work and Pensions: The introduction
of the work programme, HC 1814; Committee of Public Accounts,
81st Report of Session 2010-12, Equity investment
in privately financed projects, HC 1846 Back
Q 83 Back