An information revolution

Type: Think Pieces Written by Anton Howes | Tuesday 22 September 2009

With plans from the Conservative Party to increase the amount of government information the public can access, Anton Howes considers the value of these moves for political reform.

In hankering for wide and sweeping reforms of our public services, the smaller steps that can be taken towards meaningful change are often overlooked, dismissed as vote-catching fads or shunted off to the sidelines. A particular proposal taking form from the utterances of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet is one such specimen, and in forgetting about it, we risk jeopardising any further significant attempts at bringing greater choice and public decision-making into our public services.

In June, Cameron spoke of using information to enhance accountability, proposing that every item of government spending over £25,000 be published online, in full and for all to see. Although the reason for setting such a high figure seems odd and arbitrary, the potential for such a move is monumental. Far from simply encouraging and utilising “an army of armchair auditors" to hold government waste at bay, the information available could be used to agitate widespread public and political backing for very specific reductions in government expenditure. The largely ignorant outrage over increases or cuts in expenditure for specific departments by commentators outside government would be almost immediately replaced by calculated, precise and unequivocal suggestions from countless sources.

However, there is another aspect to reforming government transparency: as well as making spending restraint easier, there is the potential to transform the way public services are run. Governments are currently able to manipulate the choices of the public on a vast scale, often with unpredictable consequences: school league tables and hospital rankings can be manipulated to suit the political pressures of the day simply by including a new criteria, or restricting another.

The release of all government-collected data other than that pertinent to privacy or defence would do away with a system so open to abuse, as well as making it easier for the public to make fully informed choices about the services that they want. Cameron has so far cited a few possible examples, such as local crime maps emerging from the full release of crime data, allowing communities to hold the police and local council to account – to see whether politicians have really fulfilled a promise to cut crime, or where they would like to see more done.

In some ways, the prospects for accountability and the functioning of democracy are also revolutionary. Voters would be able to see exactly how much a particular administration has done for them, and hold politicians to account not only for their individual expenditure decisions in central and local government, but for changes in countless variables in their local area. Voters would be able to make more informed choices, seeing through the obfuscations and misrepresentations.

If Cameron’s vision of a “Post-Bureaucratic State" is to be fully appreciated, the potential of this reform should be looked at in far more detail – other than headline a Conservative party commitment to the NHS, the same speech in late August proposed the far more significant proposal to allow patients to control personal budgets and see their full “health records online in the same way they would their bank accounts", allowing them to make decisions about the GP they want or the hospital they would like to use.

Some of the Shadow Cabinet have started to have ideas of what they may have the chance to do in this context: Michael Gove announced in August that a Conservative government would establish a free online library of past exam papers to allow parents to track possible grade inflation. Nevertheless, Gove simultaneously fails to appreciate the larger possibilities of transparency: just a few weeks later, he proposed a reform of school league tables, arguing for a change in the way certain subjects are weighted – such a proposal is really no better than Ed Balls’ “school report cards" in that it is yet another adjustment at the edges.

In the touted dream of a “post-bureaucratic state", all data on schools would be freely available, and independent rankings would be able to emerge in the same way as a car price comparison website, or in the way universities are already compared by various newspapers. The public would then be able to choose from those lists based on the criteria they use and on their own individual merits, free from the chance that governments may use data to skew choices or steer us towards what they think is “best for us".

Rather than simply creating choice, transparency in government data allows existing choices to be informed, increasing the quality of public choice. It paves the way for further choice creation, for example breaking up the postcode lotteries associated with schools and hospitals, part of which could be remedied by current Sweden-inspired reforms. But these Scandinavian or other imported reforms can only be effective if the choices between schools and hospitals are properly informed.

A recent Google-sponsored competition on the “Young Rewired State" in late August explored the possibilities of websites based on government information, that don’t, but probably should exist. Among them was a web-based tool to show the safest school routes based on crime statistics; a phone application to show when public transport will arrive, based not on timetables but on live data London buses already send back to their controllers; or even something as mundane as collating council tax bands for every single postcode in the country, or finding your nearest NHS dentist.

If there is anything to be positively excited about from a potential Conservative government, it is this move towards transparency. Cameron has already shown a willingness to display information instantly online in the form of MPs’ expenses, but if and when they do gain control of Whitehall, it is crucial that everything is done to make them see these commitments through.