Editorial: Publish and be damned

Officials should publish more freely; the media more carefully

By Matt.Ross

15 Nov 2012

The media is having an abysmal time. Just as hacking faded from the headlines (back soon, I’m afraid), it emerged that the BBC had spiked its exposé of Jimmy Saville. Then Newsnight teamed up with the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ (BIJ), an organisation that prizes headlines above all else. CSW first came across the BIJ in 2010, observing that its report on public sector pay – trumpeted as defending taxpayers – used Freedom of Information requests costing those same taxpayers more than £600,000 (22 September 2010, p4). With an arbitrary baseline and a set of glowing quotes from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the report was plainly designed to support the government’s attack on high public sector pay.

Even with the quality bar set at such a modest height, it’s amazing that those pursuing the BIJ/Newsnight story implicating Lord McAlpine in child abuse were apparently so unprofessional – failing to check their story, or to give its subject fair warning – and appalling that the BBC broadcast it. The outcome, though, was very predictable: a feeding frenzy in which the wider media enthusiastically puts the boot into the BBC.

This sorry picture of today’s mainstream media – self-interested, angry, incompetent, corrupt – helps explain why the government’s open data agenda is making only stately progress. More than halfway into the Parliament, it should be producing juicier fruit – particularly since former transparency director Tim Kelsey published his white paper last summer, alongside a set of departmental open data plans. Officials are certainly sympathetic to the agenda: when CSW gathered the views of nearly 1400 civil servants on policymaking reforms, 65 per cent were broadly positive about the shift from centralised targets to transparency (CSW 16 May, p1).

Why then hasn’t the new Open Data Institute – whose chief, Gavin Starks, we interview on p13 – been besieged by civil servants eager to publish their data? One reason lies in the way the agenda’s being handled in departments: typically owned by a policy lead cajolling colleagues to comply, it isn’t being loudly championed by ministers or permanent secretaries. With Kelsey gone to the Department of Health, the agenda lacks a noisy champion at the centre of government. And the ODI is better equipped to catalyse businesses’ reuse of data than its release by departments: Starks is an entrepreneur, not a Whitehall operator, and the organisation hasn’t yet built up a strong government-facing operation.

Meanwhile, civil service business owners and specialist professionals – who hold much of the best data – are struggling with budgetary and policy reform targets. They may also be half-hearted about pursuing an agenda led by Maude, who’s slowly morphing from pragmatic reformer to scourge of the civil service. None of this undermines the case for publishing civil service data. But data owners know that information cuts both ways: if it can improve services’ efficiency and highlight examples of good practice, it can also point to inefficiencies and areas of poor performance. Like the media, officials are well aware of the potential of data journalism, and the potency of stories about postcode lotteries and service failures.

As Kelsey points out transparency is a crucial tool in enabling and encouraging improvements in services – yet publishing readily-reusable datasets on public sector operations is likely to create as many scandals as innovations. Given the state of the media, it’s easy to understand why people are less keen to embrace the new world of open data than they were to abandon the infinitely more controllable scrutiny of central targets. But if the public sector is to seize the opportunities here – not only to stimulate economic growth, but also to create a more efficient, effective and evidence-based public sector – then ministers and civil servants must accept the risk of hostile press coverage, make their data owners bite the bullet, and put their information out there. The fact is that, in the short term, those who publish may be damned; but in the longer term, their actions could enable many more to be saved.

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