Government suppliers may be ordered to open up data

Private companies may be required to open up data and make their activities answerable to Freedom of Information law when they take on government work

Private companies may be required to open up data and make their activities answerable to Freedom of Information (FoI) law when they are contracted to work for the public sector.

A Cabinet Office Review of the proposal, a Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge, is being conducted by Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton University for the Cabinet Office transparency board and local public data panel.

Shadbolt told Computer Weekly: "The issue is something the Transparency Board is looking at."

"It's a wider concern around the whole idea of services being contracted out to the private sector, when it's public data. We will have to be clear that we can get that data on open data principles."

Shadbolt is leading the government's drive to open up its data, working with web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

The matter was raised at the last meeting of the Local Public Data Panel on 21 October, the minutes of which were published this week.

The panel, which Shadbolt chairs, referred to the example of Suffolk County Council, which announced in September its intention to outsource almost all public services.

"It was essential to avoid a situation where outsourcing of services was used as a means of avoiding scrutiny and limiting transparency," said the panel meeting minutes. The panel would draft plans and present them to ministers.

Last week the panel published its recommendations for capturing data held by 192 Quangos and government agencies being axed under the Cabinet Office's "bonfire of the Quangos".

The panel said raw data held by scrapped Quangos should be saved. But they went much further, recommending that records of decisions should also be published, along with data relating to finances, performance, people and meetings. Quangos have been reluctant in the past to publish such information.

Janet Hughes, who sits on the public data panel for the London Assembly, said Quangos left standing after the cull would also be tackled.

The FoI review had been encouraged by the Scottish Government's extension of FoI to cover private suppliers and companies contracted under private finance initiative contracts.

"The provision of data needed to be considered as a standard part of procurement, as transparency would be needed around a particular service funded by public money, not necessarily the whole company's business," said the minutes.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) was unable to confirm whether it was reviewing contracts in light of the proposed FoI and open data extensions.

The OGC revised draft public contracts and guidance in the summer to accommodate the Department for Communities and Local Government's (CLG) request that public contracts are published online in January. A CLG spokeswoman said it was meeting with the Local Government Association today to consider whether the revised contracts, which had been designed with government departments in mind, would meet the needs of local authorities.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the FoI extension was being handled by the Ministry of Justice.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said in a written statement: "We are currently looking at the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to see where we can further increase the openness and transparency of public affairs while ensuring that sensitive information is adequately protected. We will announce the next steps on this in due course."

The strongest commitment the government had made to date to review FoI had been Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude's Conservative Party conference statement that there would be a "right to data" which would require all FoI data to be released "in a reusable and machine readable format".

The Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to extend FoI "to private companies delivering monopolistic public services such as Network Rail" did not make it into the coalition agreement for government. But the coalition did promise a "right to data" and the publication of public data sets.

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