Open data on council spending is largely unread by voters
Here’s my Guardian article on Open Data (you can see it here)
Open data is sweeping the world as government after government seeks to publish data and reap the hoped-for benefits: increased transparency, accountability and efficiency.
One of the former coalition government’s flagship policies was to request all English local authorities publish all their spending over £500. This, the government argued, would bring all sorts of good things. Councils would experience a revolution in openness and accountability, and citizens would become auditors from the comfort of their own armchairs. As well as unleashing a new roving public eye over council accounts, it would also encourage developers to create all sorts of clever spending apps.
However, there has been less interest in the data than many hoped. Council finance data is viewed around 200 times each month. The person on the street has not been desperate for data. No army of armchair auditors has sprung up. There are some enthusiasts here and there; a concerted campaign in Barnet used open data to build its case against the Conservative council. But few people have the time and, most importantly, the motivation to scroll through complicated pdf documents of raw council spending data. Data needs a narrative, and pdf documents and spreadsheets don’t yet tell a good enough story.
This links to a further problem. If you do find a smoking gun among the spreadsheets, who do you send it to? The council itself, the opposition or the local press? It’s notclear what the next step would be and how it would fit in with the processes by which councils are accountable to citizens.
The better news is that something is being done with the data. Users include businesses, pressure groups and journalists as well as a handful of members of the public. While they haven’t unleashed a wave of accountability, there have been sudden bursts of data-driven questioning of local authorities.
Most interestingly, new apps and websites have actually appeared to help us make sense of it all. There are comparison sites where you can track spending on contracts, such as Openly Local or appgov.org, and the Local Government Association’s LG Inform tool, where you can generate benchmarks to measure your own council’s spending or performance against the national average. The data could become even more meaningful when linked up, for example, to newly released council tax details.
So the precise effects of all this spending data are complicated. It also raises the bigger question of how citizens take in information and whether they really behave as rationally as they should with it. Studies have found that voters at the local level have a heavy negative bias (remember the bad and ignore the good) and rarely get involved, even when it’s made very easy for them to do so.
Some local councils saw all the new data as a pointless distraction. Others saw it as a method for curbing freedom of information requests, giving out data while cutting back on pesky questions from the public. A few saw it as a Machiavellian scheme from national government to hand potentially lucrative financial information to private companies . In times of sharp austerity, others saw the new spending transparency as a way to make local councils look like reckless wasters of public money.
The real impact is more complex and political than it looks, which is important to bear in mind as the new government rolls out local devolution. There has been no data revolution yet, and few armchair auditors, but as new apps appear, things may start to get interesting very soon.