Transparency is at the centre of the coalition government’s plans to transform public services. David Cameron has promised a ‘transparency revolution’. And many of the government’s ‘localist’ policies, from the Big Society to policing reform, rest on giving the public more information. What happens next depends on three things: technology, use and political support.
Technology is bringing us more information and more ways to look at it. The Freedom of Information Act is merging with Open Data, online disclosure and all sorts of experiments in e-forums and e-petitions to provide a flow of information.
It has also kick- started third party sites such as Openly Local, where you can browse and re-jig 168 local authorities spending data, or ‘where does my money go?’ which lets you visualise how your taxes are spent.
All this information needs to be used and so depends on a second factor, whether and how the public use it. FOI requests to local government have quadrupled in five years. There also seems to be growing interest in online data, mostly via third party sites.
One striking fact is that data is often used to pursue low level political or private interests. This means a parking fine, a planning application or a pothole rather than, as some politicians hope, the exposure of big spending councils.
New websites and applications deal in the everyday such as post box locators or school assessors. One of the most popular releases under FOI is for the inspection reports of local restaurants.
So the technology and interest is there. The difficulty is that they both depend on the most uncertain factor of all: political support. Transparency needs to be pushed by national and local leaders and it needs two things politicians often lack: time and resources.
Enthusiasm can also wane when politicians get caught out by published information. Perhaps the big question is what if people are more concerned with the state of their local restaurant than their local council? If the revolution is ‘personal’ and not ‘political’ will they still support it?
Ben Worthy, research associate at University College London’s Constitution Unit