Government must measure benefits of transparency, says NAO

The government needs a better understanding of the costs benefits of its transparency agenda

The government needs a better understanding of the costs benefits of its transparency agenda in order to assess whether it is increasing accountability and economic growth, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

Since the government began its commitment to open data, it has significantly increased the amount of public sector information released and fulfilled most of its initial commitments, said the report.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Opening up access to public information has the potential to improve accountability and support public service improvement and economic growth. What the government is lacking at the moment is a firm grasp of whether that potential is being realised. If transparency initiatives are to be more than aspirations, then government needs to measure and monitor both their costs and benefits. This is vital for tracking success and learning what works.”

The 2011 Autumn Statement announced new transparency commitments to stimulate additional economic growth, including releases of data not previously available, and opening access to data previously traded.

However, its ability to maximise economic growth from traded data is constrained by current arrangements to charge for data, and limited understanding of potential benefits, said the NAO.

Moving from charged-for to an open data regime in the UK of between £1.6bn and £6n a year, according to an academic report. The most economically ‘core reference data’ includes maps, address databases, land records and weather data, which provide opportunities for linking to other data sets to enhance their value.

According to the report, the police crime map website had an estimated 47m visits between February and December 2011, while the Department for Education reported an 84% increase in the use of its comparative schools data, since the site has been made more accessible.

But departments reported less interest in information released on spending over £25,000 on the site. More than four-fifths of the site’s 1.75 visitors left immediately without accessing any further link since it went live in January 2010.

The report said the website costs the Cabinet Office £2m in annual running costs, an increase from £1.2m per year when the Central Office of Information ran it. This is due to the scope of the site being increased, said the report.

In some sectors, data that would better inform accountability or choice is either not held or not yet made available, such as the failure to collect information on comparative costs and performance of providers of home care for adults.

Additional staff costs of providing standard disclosures of pre-existing data range from £53,000 to £500,000 annually by department. The police crime map, for example, cost £300,000 to set up with annual running costs of £150,000. However, there are also cases such as the releases of public weather service data where the costs are minimal.

The Department for International Development said it incurred more than £400,000 in deliver the commitment to provide full information on international development projects with a value of more than £500 by January 2011, and ongoing annual running costs of £64,000.

In a review of council requirements to publish expenditure above £500, the report found a variation in the quality of information provided. Although 88% of councils have published senior pay information, more than half of these releases do not describe the numbers of staff reporting to them or the budgets that they control, for example.

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