Councils should stop ‘dumping’ raw data on residents, says PAC
An influential Commons committee has lambasted local government for ‘dumping’ onto residents huge amounts of spending data which is difficult to interpret, inconsistent and patchy.
A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the Government’s transparency agenda, issued on 1 August, found that local and central government had met most of their commitments for greater demanded by prime minister David Cameron.
MPs reported that progress has been made in significantly increasing the volume and range of information published in support of Coalition objectives for greater public accountability, public service improvements, user-choice and repackaging public sector information.
But Margaret Hodge, PAC chair, warned some organisations were simply putting information into the public realm without helping citizens to understand it.
‘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,’ she said.
Concerns were also raised that government suppliers are too often able to hide behind the traditional ‘commercial confidentiality’ exemption to avoid disclosing relevant information.
MPs also warned an estimated eight million people without access to the internet - who could most benefit from access to better information – risked being overlooked.
Local ‘crime maps’ – identifying where incidents take place – received the qualified approval of MPs as an area where transparency has benefited residents. But some public bodies, including academy schools, are criticised for failing to publish relevant information.
The Local Government Association (LGA) agreed with the PAC’s call for a cost-benefits analysis into the costs and risks of releasing data. A spokesman added: ‘Without context, raw figures are difficult to decipher and there is a danger of becoming data rich and knowledge poor’.
‘The LGA is making it easier for council staff and residents to view the performance of their council and better understand their area by presenting a range of information through our data service, LG Inform,’ explained the spokesman. ‘We are well advanced in that project and expect to be helping councils to provide even more accessible information to their residents in 2013.’
Local Government Minister Bob Neill said the Government had opened up a new era of local transparency where councils now routinely publish their spending over £500 online. ‘The next stage of transparency needs to focus on making this data easier to access, compare and re-use to help armchair auditors help save money, and allow the information to be used in innovative ways to improve public services,’ said Mr Neill.
Local authorities should retain flexibility on how they report to residents, advised Dr Jonathan Carr-West, from think-tank the Local Government Information Unit. ‘We should not be seduced by a one size fits all approach or a centrally determined template.’
What a joke this sort of artificial outrage is. Ask any elected member for one area of local government that remains almost unintelligible to them and they will say, local government finance. Whitehall has been asked time and time again to simplify it and make it more understandable, but to no avail. Instead they continue to make the whole thing an unfathomable black hole of 18 decimal point equations and obscure calculations. Let he without guilt, cast the first stone gentlemen.Roger Gambba-Jones, elected member, Lincolnshire, Added: Wednesday, 1 August 2012 03:10 PM
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