Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

The open data flood begins here: Cameron writes to central and local government

OK – stand by: the data flood is about to get started.

David Cameron has declared his intention to make a lot more data open. First there was the podcast (with, helpfully, transcript), and then a letter to government departments.

Remember that this is following on from the Government Transparency page of the Coalition programme. (We added our own comment there, as you’ll see.)

The podcast first – which was recorded on the Saturday as David Laws was caught in the web of expenses:

“If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since doing this job, it’s how all the information about government – the money it spends, where it spends it, the results it achieves – how so much of it is locked away in a vault marked sort of private for the eyes of ministers and officials only.

“I think this is ridiculous. It’s your money, your government, you should know what’s going on.

“So we’re going to rip off that cloak of secrecy and extend transparency as far and as wide as possible. By bringing information out into the open, you’ll be able to hold government and public services to account. You’ll be able to see how your taxes are being spent. Judge standards in your local schools and hospitals. Find out just how effective the police are at fighting crime in your community.

“Now I think that’s going to do great things. It’s certainly going to save us money.”

That’s just an extract – it’s quite forceful, though of course there’s a big gap between speaking forcefully and actually getting a result. (It’s called politics.)

Then there’s his letter that he wrote to government departments:

Central government spending transparency

  • Historic COINS spending data to be published online in June 2010.
  • All new central government ICT contracts to be published online from July 2010.
  • All new central government lender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • New items of central government spending over £25,000 to be published online from November 2010.
  • All new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011.
  • Full information on all DFID international development projects over £500 to be published online from January 2011, including financial information and project documentation.

    Local government spending transparency

    • New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.
    • New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011.

    Other key government datasets

    • Crime data to be published at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets from January 2011.
    • Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants with salaries above £150,000 to be published in June 2010.
    • Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants and NDPB officials with salaries higher than the lowest permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale to be published from September 2010.
    • Organograms for central government departments and agencies that include all staff positions to be published in a common format from October 2010.

    Can’t wait, personally. COINS will be an amazing resource – see what the Guardian’s Datablog has to say on that.

    An interesting side note of the sort of that needs to be done can be found among the comments on that Government Transparency page, from “Algernon Arry”:

    “Has the policy of forcing councils to publish details of their spends over £500 been thoroughly thought through. A Government committed to reducing waste and here it is proposing that local councils add to their bureaucratic processes. If this is forced onto local councils I forecast that they will need an army of bureaucrats to carry it out.”

    “Logistically, think of all the times when a payment greater than £500 will be made. A couple come immediately to mind. What about everytime a child or a vulnerable person is taken into care, we all know the cost of nursing/care homes do you expect their details to be given out? (Probably covered by Data Protection legislation, so that will have to be changed.) Or everytime an order is placed to repair an piece of defective tarmac on a road surface. And in both cases what added value does it provide, and honestly how many residents are actually ineterested [sic]. Most councils have scrutiny and audit committees where these issues can be debated.

    “I don’t want to pay a penny more in Council-tax, so the Government can make an instant saving by dropping this stupid idea.”

    The idea that it will take extra human effort to make this happen, and that it will have to be done by hand – rather than being a question of adding an output stream between the existing accounting system and the web – may also have some traction among some of the more hidebound councils, one suspects. Data wranglers beware; it may require some concrete examples.

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