Usefulness of transparency

It is so often claimed by opponents of transparency that it does not have a purpose, that it is meaningless to the average man on the street or that it puts an additional burden on already stretched departments or councils. This is all nonsense. An overused cliché issued by proponents of transparency is that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, but it is an overused cliché for a reason: it’s true. Councils across the UK have been dragged kicking and screaming into complying with publishing all spending over £500 online. And one – Nottingham City council – still arrogantly refuses to budge.

There are others that have released documents in an unreadable format but transparency has to be useful, too. This week, data analysis companies Rosslyn Analytics and QlikTech have offered assistance to HM Treasury in “obtaining an accurate view of UK Government Department Spending Data.” And this is precisely why public data should be useful. It’s true that Government data releases can often overwhelm in their volume and complexity, however with companies like this stepping into the fold – and there’s many more out there too, see here, here and here for example – the figures can be crunched down into simple statistics and interesting graphics. In partnership, these companies propose to “aggregate public sector expenditure data from all major departments in April for free within a record-breaking two week period.” So at no cost to the taxpayer either.

This will not just be of benefit to taxpayers but also departments as they look for savings. Take this parliamentary question for example:

Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover & Deal, “how much government departments budgeted for expenditure on IT in 2010-11, and what changes to forecast expenditure there have been as a result of his policy on IT procurement since May 2010,” Francis Maude responded by stating: “We don’t collect total spend on IT.”

No doubt a third party could have knocked this together into handy graphs at no cost to the taxpayer if usable data was out there, in the open. Data transparency is not just for the benefit of taxpayers but also the entire public sector, right from central to local government.

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