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]


  1. Kevin - I've just come across your blog. Some really interesting points in there. Particularly regarding the difference between data, information and knowledge.

    I suspect that the biggest motivation for increasing transparency, coming at roughly the same time as scrapping targets for LAs (and thereby a means of comparison - even if some of the targets might not have always been apposite), was to get organisations like the Tax Payers Alliance frothing at the mouth.

    With enough froth staining the debate, the hope, I suspect, was to shift public opinion towards supporting leaner and much meaner provision of services.

    Granted, you don't need to be a municipal philosopher to work that out, but you might need one to consider the consequences...

    1. Thanks Stephen. I think that was entirely the motivation - at the most cynical level through a stream of stories that provide incidental reasons for making big cuts because they suggest widespread waste and at the more philosophical level (!) that there really is effective public pressure out there that can be brought to bear to constrain spending. The problem with the latter is that it is hard to see that being properly informed by the approach on transparency that is currently being pursued.

      There may just be some expert arm chair auditors out there but a few years back we were actually starting to have some much more helpful contextualised information and knowledge to help the public to understand what use was being made of their money. Provided by an organisation called the Audit Commission I seem to recall!

    2. I agree. A couple of things strike me about this debate (although not well defined in my mind yet).

      Done properly transparency could be a means of increasing accountability and increased accountability could be a means of refreshing the democratic process. However, transparency in its current incarnation, as you point out, won’t do that.

      In order for transparency in local government to be more meaningful, as you suggest, there needs to be greater clarity about what local government is for and how success is measured. In theory, it should be possible to use data to provide meaningful information and build knowledge. Being clearer about types of expenditure would be a helpful start.

      In the area of non-discretionary expenditure, statute sets out what local government is required to do. Local politicians when standing for election (in principal at least) propose their plan for implementing this requirement. In this area, proper dialogue is needed between local and central government, with support from the Audit Commission to agree on how success is measured. This would allow for comparison across authorities, but at the same time recognise that there are certain things that LAs have to do.

      In the area of discretionary expenditure, there is much more scope for local politicians to direct expenditure to policy areas that are of specific relevance to that locality. Increased transparency, linked to accountability – did the Conservative/Labour/Lib Dem council really protect local youth services budgets? – could be a means to hold democratically elected members and local administrations (and why not third-party contractors) to account.

      The important thing in both examples, however, is context. The provision of data should be made along with information. In either of the examples above, the information needed to make sense of the data is the electoral manifesto, the local authority plan and associated budget. To derive knowledge from the information, it is necessary to establish whether what was promised was delivered on time and to cost. If it were not, local government politicians, officers and contractors, should be made to give their account of why not.

      However, this approach is fundamentally different to the one currently under discussion and I fear that dubious attempts to create government markets where there’s market failure may actually make transparency more difficult by veiling public expenditure behind the cloak of commercial confidence – hence my point about third-party contractors. Local authorities will suffer the ire of more reactionary commentators for e.g. spending money on diversity training, but I suspect it will be more difficult to get a clear picture of wasteful expenditure by third-party contractors.

      For transparency to work, it should be applied equally to all those delivering services paid for by the taxpayer and in each case examined within the proper context.

      I have other bugs to bear on whether it’s appropriate to link transparency to choice in public services, and indeed whether people actually prefer choice of services, or would just rather have excellent service provision from a single source. There’s quite a lot of evidence from the spheres of behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology that humans are not great at choice (here’s a link – not directly related, but underlines some of the principles ).

      I fear the current government is some way behind the curve in this regard and is still wedded to the concept of voters as rational utility maximisers – but, I guess that’s an easier intellectual proposition to deal with. It’s certainly an simpler message to sell.

    3. Thank you. In essence I agree! I'm beginning to muse about a 'municipal philosopher does transparency' piece which would pick up the 'why are we doing this and hence how should be we do it' argument.

      The issue of commercial confidentiality and indeed the quite different treatment of different providers more generally is clearly unconscionable in any sensible approach. If we as citizens are supposed to be unconcerned about who provides services then the providers should be unconcerned about giving an account of themselves. Of course neither of these things are actually true but the emphasis should be on serving accountability and if providers will not be accountable they shouldn't be providing the service.

      Any further reflections would be very welcome.