Implementing the transparency agenda - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Understanding costs and benefits

10.  Public bodies have not focused on securing value for money from transparency. They know little about the costs of various types of data release. While costs are not high relative to overall public spending, they are incurred even for the most straightforward data releases. Some departments have estimated the costs of producing the standard releases required of all departments, such as spend data and organograms, which range from approximately £50,000 to £500,000 per annum.[16] We also heard that costs for local authorities of releasing their expenditure data can range from virtually zero to £100,000 per annum.[17] Greater costs are incurred where government itself is responsible for repackaging data to aid accessibility and interpretation; for example set-up costs of £300,000 and annual running costs of more than £150,000 in the case of police crime maps.[18]

11.  Government witnesses provided examples of service improvement resulting from making public data transparent. For example, we were told that the fall in death rates attributed to publishing more information on heart surgery by hospitals and surgeons, yielded benefits to all members of society.[19] However, there is little specific information on the benefits of the Government's current transparency initiatives. We heard that more than 90% of the 47 million visits there have been to the crime map website were within two weeks of the launch following high levels of press coverage, suggesting that initial high levels of interest have not been sustained.[20] There is potential for the crime map website to help taxpayers hold the police and the Home Office to account, but simple metrics like the number of website visits are not enough. More needs to be done to establish how visitors use the information, and whether it is genuinely contributing to better accountability.[21]

12.  Some Government bodies—trading funds in particular—currently sell some of the data they produce. For example, the Ordnance Survey produces mapping information; the Met Office, meteorological information; the Land Registry, information on land use; and Companies House, information on registered companies. Although estimates are imprecise, academics have suggested that the value to the economy of releasing data for free rather than charging for it may be in the region of £1.6 billion to £6.0 billion per year.[22] However, the Government has not yet carried out its own assessment of the potential future benefits of making data held by trading funds freely available, against the revenue that would be lost.[23]

13.  At present, trading funds have limited freedom to offset the revenue loss that would result from free release, though the significance of this issue varies by trading fund.[24] The Government has recently established new governance arrangements for the four main trading funds, which are forming a Public Data Group and are continuing their trading functions. Separately, a Data Strategy Board is being established to promote the release of open data and will receive £7 million in the current spending review period to buy data for free release. In the absence of a wider evaluative model of costs and benefits, it is unclear whether these arrangements optimise value for money.[25]

14.  We heard from the Cabinet Office that the new Open Data Institute will have a role in assessing the economic and public service benefits of making data freely available, although the details are not yet clear. In addition, the Cabinet Office will challenge departments to articulate how they are improving accountability and choice through their transparency releases.[26]

16   C&AG's Report, para 2.17 Back

17   Qq 13, 21 Back

18   C&AG's Report, para 2.19 Back

19   Q 119 Back

20   Q 26 Back

21   Q 33 Back

22   C&AG's Report, para 4.9 Back

23   Q 24 Back

24   Q 25 Back

25   Q 25, C&AG's Report, para 4.12 Back

26   Qq 93, 100-101 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 August 2012