Is data making local government more transparent?


These days we are always reading about how local government is becoming more ‘accessible’ and ‘transparent’. Steps are being taken, largely through Freedom of Information requests, to open up details about council spending/ cuts/ initiatives/statistics. One of the main initiatives has been to set up the government’s website data.gov.uk.

Data.gov.uk says that:

‘The Government is releasing public data to help people understand how government works and how policies are made. Some of this data is already available, but data.gov.uk brings it together in one searchable website. Making this data easily available means it will be easier for people to make decisions and suggestions about government policies based on detailed information’.

Here is Nigel Shadbolt talking about the Open Data Initiative in more detail.

This all sounds really promising, and there does seem to be a considerable amount of open data available on the site (5,400 data sets to be exact). I wanted to see who was using these data sets, and what they thought about the government’s efforts. Logging into one of the general forums it became clear that some users were less than impressed with the data sets. Comments criticised the lack of ‘hard data’:

‘The forum should be huge by now.  It isn’t.  The list of data-sets is pathetic. I can only describe it as “Yes Minister.” data.  Harmless.  Unlikely to generate controversy. Unless access is given to the raw data; this quest for knowledge is doomed.’

Someone else drew attention to the same problem saying:

‘Some of the data here is pointless. I wonder if the government are trying for quantity rather than quality.’

However there were people in the forums who seemed to be interacting effectively with the data that was supplied and in turn with the other users. There just didn’t seem to be that many of them. The enquiries that had been posted assumed a fair bit of prior knowledge about data already, which made me think that their authors were probably people who already had a vested interest in the subject. An example of this was ‘how can I build a silo for my enterprise?’ The aim should also be to get people who aren’t from a data background interested.

Another problem that seemed obvious was the fact that there are still some key public bodies which are not subject to Freedom of Information requests. They remain closed off from public investigation. Some of these included:

  • ACAS
  • Local Medical Committees (Statutory body representing GPs)
  • Local Safeguarding
  • Children Boards
  • NHS Confederation
  • Office of the Complaints Commissioner
  • Office of the Schools Adjudicator
  • UCAS

Another good site to visit for interacting with more localised government data is OpenlyLocal. Here you can gain access to information on over 140 local authorities, and more are being added every week.

They currently hold data for:

The site is a great source for finding out the details of council spending, and you can see the total amount spent across all councils on OpenlyLocal on the dashboard. One thing that really shocked me is the infographic on the UK Councils Open Data Scoreboard which you can see if you click here. The fact that only 79 out of 434 councils are considered ‘open’ is pretty shocking. That’s less than 20% of UK Councils being so called transparent with their data.

David Cameron’s speech about transparency shows admirable intentions to open up local and national government. However, the fact that less than 20% of councils are complying highlights he still has a long way to go to get this initiative off the ground.

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About Emily Lingard

Ma Broadcast Journalism student
This entry was posted in Examples of where data journalism is used, How is data journalism used?, Introduction to Data Journalism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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