Monday, 6 August 2012

The most transparent truth about transparency

Having been away for a week I spent some of today catching up with reports that have been published whilst the Olympics have dominated the headlines. I was particularly seized by the Public Accounts Committee's treatment of transparency which amounted to a severe mauling. A well deserved one in my view. As the PAC press release says:
It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda.
Amongst the further criticisms made by the PAC is the lack of any coherent account of the perceived benefits of transparency. In this regard, the Government has identified three main objectives for it's approach:

- to strengthen public accountability
- to support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice
- to stimulate economic growth by helping third parties to develop products and services based on public information.

At the moment, in my view, it fails on all three. But just to take the first two objectives:

- it beggars belief that public accountability is strengthened more effectively by putting raw data in inconsistent formats and with no standards about accuracy into the public domain as opposed to more carefully selected, directly comparable and contextualised information. As ever, rubbish in, rubbish out

- the fundamental distinctions between data, information and knowledge have been wilfully ignored.The former is of interest and use to a small number of people but it constitutes basic building blocks which must then be subject to interpretation in order to derive meaning. So it is information - or even better the kind of practical information that constitutes knowledge - that is potentially of interest to all. An approach that was truly interested in accountability would put information at it's heart not just data since it would be focused on  'giving an account'. But an approach that even the least cynical amongst us might see as being driven in part by a desire to govern by anecdote would of course embrace a focus on data: as many commentators have pointed out, one anecdote trumps any amount of hard information

- the silo nature of the approach. As with so many other elements of the approach to localism espoused by the Government each local body deals with it's own information. What hope for the idea that there could be merit in putting some of this together across different bodies in the locality and with some proper context in the way that had started to happen under the auspices of the now derided CAA? The increasingly fractured nature of the local public service environment exacerbates this with academies, work programme providers and other private firms delivering public services not currently subject to the full rigour of the transparency requirements

- the failure to put benefits alongside costs. The focus of transparency is always on what something costs not what has been achieved. I've blogged before about the way that local spending reports have been completely lost from view but the fundamental point is that when the focus, particularly from a local government perspective, is on any item of expenditure above £500 identified separately it is hard to see any interest in also giving an account of what that money buys as opposed to the mere fact that some cash has gone out of the door.

The most obvious conclusion to draw from all of this is that the approach is not just flawed but falling between two stools. At the risk of being highly schematic one can discern three sets of motivations for a greater emphasis on transparency.

One which owes much to those who see tax and spend as being the hallmark of any government whether local or national have found transparency in the form of large amounts of data about small items of expenditure (but only expenditure) a very good way of being able to find and then deploy specific examples of purported waste in order to damn entire organisations and policies. A related element within this kind of underpinning is the argument that making raw data available can remove the requirement for other kinds of regulation (and to some extent information in other forms).

A second is among those with a genuine interest in being able to play around with and mash up data and some people are making good use of information (although the libertarian wing among the geek community often consider that everything should just be available as a matter of course). Quite what the appetite is for this kind of activity and the real costs and benefits of it remain moot.

The third is among those who are more genuinely interested in the performance of organisations and a more developed form of accountability to citizens. In this guise transparency could be a powerful way of helping organisations improve by understanding how they compare to others (which hopefully the LG Inform project will be able to demonstrate although the struggle to really understand unit costs across many services remains a major problem) and providing citizens with a better understanding of the way that things work in their locality and what is being achieved with public resources.

Under such a dispensation transparency would be driven by:

- comparable standards which allowed consistent interpretation and as a result genuine information and knowledge to be generated

- a focus on outcomes reflecting some greater sense of multi-organisational responsibilities all of which are subject to the same standards and requirements

- an emphasis on benefits not just spending.

Currently, however, the fundamental truth about transparency in a local government context is that the abiding focus on penny packets of expenditure means that transparency is falling well short of what it could achieve and is still largely focused on the kind of approaches advocated in small state, possessive individualists play book.

[This is a revised version of the piece originally uploaded on 6 August]