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Three picks from the Open Data sweet-shop Part 2

September 18th, 2011

The Head of IT at Brighton & Hove Council recently weighed-in with a big offer to the Open Data Brighton & Hove group – “tell us what data you need, and we’ll open it up”. Having worked with government data one way or another for about 20 years, that sounds like opening up the sweet shop and inviting us to help ourselves. In other words, count me in.

In the first of a multi-parter on the Open Data Sweet Shop, I looked at data for school admissions to help parents make choices – http://www.ocsi.co.uk/news/2011/09/01/three-picks-from-the-open-data-sweet-shop-%E2%80%93-part-1/. In this second post, I cover ‘how good are services’.

Open Data Pick 2. How good are services?

From a non-random and non-scientific sample of friends who don’t work in public services, most people take government talk about transparency and open data to mean spending data. The Guardian’s lovely data visualisation of public spending in the UK has ended up on people’s walls, and it’s difficult to avoid the constant media snippets on how councils or other public sector organisations are allegedly pouring money down the drain on things like days out at the races (somehow the actual facts of using Newmarket’s reasonable conference facilities on non-race days didn’t seem to get as much press).

But I don’t just want to feel the quantity, I want to feel the quality too. Simply knowing how much something costs doesn’t help us decide how good that thing is.  And simply publishing how much something costs is just fuel for media articles about how much is being wasted – articles that don’t want to go into all that boring detail about whether it was money well spent or not.

If the public sector is real about using open data to improve quality of services, then it needs to be publishing how good services are. A “scores on the doors” rating for services.  Useful to local voters, users of services, media and indeed councillors/ MPs and officers in local and national organisations. Next time I’m voting, or talking to my councillor, or hearing someone moan about the bleedin’ council and how much money they are wasting, this is the sort of information I’d want at my fingertips.

Surely there’s something out there already, I hear you cry. Well, kind of. The Audit Commission, set up by Michael Heseltine in the 80s “to protect the public purse“, carried out evaluations of local authorities and services including a “Use of Resources” element (how effectively was money spent). The previous government also set out a series of National Indicators (and earlier Best Value Performance Indicators – love the jargon) by which local services and agencies were assessed. (And of course, there is already information on quality for some services such as schools, where pupil exam results and value-added measures are routinely published. But this isn’t the case for most local services.)

But both the Audit Commission and National Indicators are on their way out. Although many won’t mourn their passing, it does leave a gap in knowing how good local services are – and how they compare with services in other areas. And that makes it harder for us (and councillors and senior managers and local media and …) to understand where our council is doing really well, and where it could do better. And that’s a bad thing.

So here’s the suggestion. Local councils and other agencies to open-up the information which they use to decide how good services are. Whether services are run internally or commissioned externally, there should be measures of performance.  These measures tell us both the yardstick by which local services are judged by the council, and how well they are doing against that yardstick.

Publishing this information would be a powerful way of moving the debate on from simply “how much”, to “how good”. And understanding the yardstick by which services are currently evaluated is an important step in widening the debate on how to improve services – and even perhaps involving us all in agreeing the yardstick to judge services.

These sound like topics for next month’s Brighton CityForum. Come along and get involved.

Tom Smith, OCSI.