History is awash with examples where access to information has had led to dramatic social improvement.
The classic example is the 15th century Gutenberg Press which gave people an unprecedented access to printed works fuelling a string of revolutions, reformations as well as widespread literacy improvements.
Nowadays, the internet is undoubtedly the tool most cited as the driver of change.
Whereas in the 15th century literacy was the main outcome of this improved access to knowledge, today’s access has already revolutionised business and is likely to continue to drive a popular revolution in our access to knowledge through sites such as Wikipedia and Google and in other as yet unimagined ways.
Access to information about the work of the public sector and local government also has the potential to affect a similar revolution.
It can stimulate discussion, devolve accountability, drive economic activity and strengthen our democracy. It may even go some way to addressing falling voter turnout in local elections.
Yet the growing access to information in the private sector has not yet penetrated the public sector on any significant scale. This can be seen in polls which show that only half of residents feel their local authority keeps them well informed.
And while almost every council has their own website displaying everything from services provided to their annual accounts, people still say they don’t really know what councils do.
It is true to say that a lot of information is in the public domain, but it is often presented in ways which are not user friendly. In local government and many other areas of the public sector, the scale and type of information released is patchy.
In October, Localis produced a report called Information, Information, Information which looked into the barriers and solutions to releasing more information. As part of the report we carried out a survey of local authorities which identified the main barriers to information release.
These included a culture against sharing, extra financial burdens, a culture of risk aversion and perceived public apathy.
We suggested that the perceived public apathy could be tackled by addressing the way in which information is disseminated and displayed. Kent County Council for example began an initiative to use its own television channel to communicate with its residents, with great success.
But some of the most far reaching improvements have not been driven by government at all, they have come from public-interest organisations such as MySociety, which has created innovative sites such as TheyWorkForYou to track the history of MPs’ voting records. And in the US, organisations such as CrimeReports.com provide up-to-the-minute crime information from police data down to the street level.
Organisations such as these have undoubtedly had an effect on the political landscape, and we believe they represent interesting models for the future interaction between local residents and local government held information.
Local government has a central role to play in encouraging more widespread use of information. In our report, we make seven recommendations revolving around the need for reform and devolution of the current performance and assessment framework, releasing all information which local government is already obliged to collect by central government, standardising the release of financial information and creating incentives for individuals or organisations to use the information in new and engaging ways.
James Morris is chief executive of Localis