7.1 Transparency (an older term than ‘Open Data’) has often been focused on accountability. The expectation is that modern, democratic government shares information with the society it governs to demonstrate freedom from corruption and appropriate use of public funds. Accountability is an important strand of the Open Data agenda and much of the focus of policy over the past few years has continued to be on holding politicians and public bodies better to account. The MPs’ expenses scandal demonstrated what can go wrong when systems and processes operate outside the glare of effective public scrutiny. It also revealed the strength of public appetite to hold politicians and public bodies to account. However, critical to the current Open Data agenda is the recognition that there are wider benefits to releasing data created with public funds, beyond demonstrating accountability.
7.2 Evidence suggests that choice matters to citizens, particularly around how users engage with public services. While many of the public do not associate choice with an ability to drive up quality standards, the evidence shows that – where it exists – choice can be an effective mechanism for improving standards. The Open Public Services White Paper sets out a vision for putting people in control, either through direct payments, personal budgets, entitlements or choice. Providing comparative information enables offering meaningful choice to become a reality in public services. Equipped with an understanding of variation in service quality, we can make more informed choices about which services are most appropriate to us or our family members. At present, it is not easy to compare the quality of public services. As personal and community budgets extend across a greater number of public services, individuals and communities will rely upon Open Data and information to make shared decisions.
7.3 Public reporting of costs and comparative outcomes can be a driver of efficiency. The first conclusion drawn in Phillip Green’s Review as to why government conducts business inefficiently was that: “Data is very poor and often inaccurate.” HM Treasury’s Operational Efficiency Review noted the need for “consistent, comparable data” for organisations to know whether the services they deliver constitute good value for money. Internal collection and monitoring of management information is critical for driving efficiency improvements, and for making informed strategic decisions.
7.4 At present, where data is not open outside government, it may often not be available inside government as well. Public sector bodies are not easily able to benchmark their costs and the quality of their services against their peers and may have falsely high – or low – understandings of their performance. Healthy competition between service providers should develop, driving further improvement and minimising duplication and waste.
Quality and Outcomes
7.5 Benchmarking data on comparative costs and quality of services helps to drive up quality of outputs and outcomes, especially when peer-based competition is sharpened by public scrutiny. Additionally, the publication of meaningful data can improve user engagement and even input. For example, access to personal health records could encourage some to take a more proactive approach to their own health, while access to records can enable parents and students to engage more closely with the education process. It has already been argued that making data open incentivises improvements in the quality of that data. High quality data is a pre-requisite of outcomes-based commissioning, something that is being considered across a wide range of public services, from welfare-to-work to drug rehabilitation.
7.6 Open Data presents opportunities for public service transformation by giving users more power to self-serve. Just as the financial services industry has been revolutionised by the introduction of online banking, so providing wider online access to medical and educational records will enable service design and delivery to be changed radically, reducing cost and improving quality.
7.7 Open Data can also create a platform for more informed public debate. This in turn means the public is better equipped to hold local, and central, government to account. Open Data tools such as Miami 311, police.uk and OpenlyLocal enable citizens to be more informed about public services in their area.
7.8 Finally, Open Data can be a driver of economic growth. A new market for public service information will thrive if data is freely available in a standardised format for use and re-use, particularly in the life sciences; population data mining and risk profiling; consumer technologies; and media sectors. At present the market for information on public services is highly underdeveloped. Open Data across government and public services would allow a market in comparative analytics, information presentation and service improvement to flourish. This new market will attract talented entrepreneurs and skilled employees, creating high value-added services for citizens, communities, third sector organisations and public service providers, developing auxiliary jobs and driving demand for skills.
7.9 For a more detailed exploration of the opportunities and benefits created by Open Data, please refer to Annex 1, which sets out some of the emerging evidence and best practice behind Open Data.