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Local data releases 'not comparable', complains NAO

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Local government performance may mislead users and fail to give meaningful public accountability because it is not comparable across the sector, the National Audit Office has said in a report on transparency.

In a report on how well the government was doing on implementing its drive for transparency and open data, Parliament’s spending watchdog urged ministers to take the need to measure and assess such initiatives seriously.

It said the government’s decision to scrap performance reports with comparable data – such as the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Area Assessment and the Place Survey – had left the sector to create its own measures.

LG Inform, which the LGA hopes to have running in the autumn, might fill this gap but “it is not currently clear whether this approach will yield sufficient comparable performance information to support meaningful public accountability,” the NAO said.

Specific recommendations in the report included urging the government to come up with an evaluative framework for measuring the success and value for money of its transparency initiatives as well as being stricter on quality and reliability.

It warned that across the public sector “many data releases have no accompanying statement as to their quality or reliability – running the risk of misleading potential users.

“Public service users cannot exercise their choice and hold service providers to account if the government fails to align transparency with choice and accountability.

For local government services, there was “tension” between the development of councils’ own measures of performance and satisfaction, and “the demands of the public and local performance managers for comparable benchmarked information”.

Local government minister Bob Neill (Con) supported this approach. He said: “In place of expensive and ineffective top-down inspection, this government is radically increasing local accountability, making local government more open, transparent and responsive to local residents.”

Neil Wholey, chair of Local Area Research and Intelligence Association, also defended local metrics.

He said the NAO had “slightly misunderstood transparency in local government”.

The NAO supported the formation of LG inform for voluntary benchmarking of performance data, “but hints that, in the name of transparency, they would like the voluntary aspect dropped,” Mr Wholey noted.

He said the requirements of transparency did not mean that the data released by differed bodies had to be comparable.

“Research should focus on informing local decisions and draw in national benchmarks only where relevant,” Mr Wholey said. “The risk of too rigid a set of national indicators is that they are used to explain away poor performance rather than drive service improvements.”

Tim Cheetham, the LGA’s lead member for transparency, said: “The NAO report acknowledges that councils are working towards the DCLG proposed target to publish data on spending, contracts, salaries, performance, democracy and assets.

“While recent research indicates a boost to the economy from the opening up of data, councils would welcome further analysis,particularly research into the cost of publishing local data, and the benefits it brings to local public services, the local economy and charities who work with councils.”

Auditors were also critical of the wide variation in information about local performance published by Whitehall.

The Department for Education’s data on schools was well used but the Department of Health did not publish information on the comparative costs and performance of providers of community-based adult care services, which “could help to support user sin choosing how to spend personalised budgets”.

The NAO called for a protocol to give a standard rating for the quality and reliability of government data and for transparency obligations to form part of public contracts.

Its head Amyas Morse questioned whether the government knew if transparency was working effectively.

He said transparency could improve accountability and support public service improvement and economic growth, but “the government is lacking a firm grasp of whether that potential is being realised”.

But the report said the government could not maximise the benefits of transparency while it lacked “a structured, objective evaluation of the emerging effects of transparent public data, so that efforts are focused on high-value activities, with unintended consequences mitigated”.

Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge (Lab) said: “The government needs to do much more before we can be satisfied that greater transparency is capable of supporting proper accountability and helping the public to hold local bodies to account in a meaningful way.”

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