The Coalition Government has taken pride – rightly – in its reforms to open up access to public data. While the emphasis has fallen on spending, with the phrase ‘armchair auditor‘ floating about in the media for about two days, the release of datasets acrosss a range of subjects, including crime and senior pay (cue ‘witty’ joke about how senior pay IS a crime) demonstrates a recognition of the potential for data to help make things happen: to help highlight problems, catalyse action and inspire innovative responses. It’s too boring sounding to be cast as a populist move, and it’s one that will cause central government departments, local government and other public bodies some considerable hassle – the Government is doing it because it’s the right thing to do.
However – as per usual on this blog – this positive story masks a far more ambivalent attitude to the value of data and to central government’s role in collecting data. Budget cuts have seen evidence collection slashed across departments and at the Office for National Statistics at precisely the time when targeting public money wisely, where it will make a real difference, is paramount. And rhetoric about freeing local government from central targets, again with good reason as local government should primarily be accountable to its own electors, has become entangled with an implication that any collection of data at all, and any coordination of data collection at central government level, is burdensome and has no benefit.
Two examples of data collections which have been scrapped stand out from my own professional experience. The axing of the Place Survey on the basis that it was used to assess councils against targets ignored the often innovative uses to which councils around the country put the data in order to improve their standards and approaches in the areas that local residents cared about most, and the fact that the survey recognised the crucial importance of perceptions: how residents felt about whether they belonged to their community, what they were most concerned about locally, whether they felt they could influence local decision-making. Similarly, the removal of questions on school travel from the school census – which is still going to be conducted, meaning that the marginal savings from removing a couple of questions are likely to be minuscule – has been condemned by the very same councils supposedly ‘freed’ from this ‘oppressive’ requirement, because it removes some of the clearest data available on travel patterns in their local area, which had been useful for improving life for residents in areas ranging from infrastructure planning to congestion reduction.
Of course councils who wish to can continue collecting any data they feel will help improve outcomes for local people. But the Government’s removal, in many areas of work, of the ability for councils and communities to compare like with like across the country, in common with many elements of the much-discussed Localism Bill, is a centralist impulse disguised with localist rhetoric. If different areas are to be given genuine power – including, as we perennially discuss, financial power – to do things differently and make their own decisions without government diktat, one of the biggest things they are going to want to do is to learn from what works elsewhere: not what somebody in Whitehall has thought up, but what is demonstrably working on the ground in other parts of the country and improving the lives of local people.
Being able to see clearly what works and what doesn’t work requires hard, robust data which can only be collected at a national level. Making sure that these data are available is among the most obvious roles of a national government operating within a localist system. So why are we seeing the availability of those data steadily being eroded by the Government? Perhaps they haven’t realised its importance, but perhaps they just think it doesn’t matter much, seeing as they’re not giving councils much power to change things anyway.