Open data has been hailed by (some) officials as a glorious saviour that can make Freedom of Information requests “redundant”.
There’s no question that proactively publishing open data – free to reuse, machine readable, information – can bring transparency, sociological and economic benefits. Evidence of this is easily seen with the publishing of food hygiene ratings, locations of public toilets, and at least 270 UK businesses are involved in the open schemes.
But open data has one standout flaw: there is no legal mandate requiring it to be published. Therefore if it stops getting published who is to say it should be re-started.
As much many central government departments don’t publish what they have been told to.
The Cabinet Office, for example, hasn’t published data on what it has spent more than £25,000 for more than a year. It is supposed to publish this data every month. The Cabinet Office is also the department responsible for transparency and open data policy – an unknowing level of hypocrisy.
It has also refused FOI requests for the reasons why it failed to publish the data, stating it would harm the publishing of the long-delayed spending data.
But the Cabinet Office isn’t the only government department to be failing on publishing its large spends, something that could be considered a staple of a department’s activities.
Civil servant and big-time transparency advocate James Arthur Cattell has collated a spreadsheet showing the publication (and non-publication) of the data.
It doesn’t make for the prettiest of reading.
In fact, three government departments haven’t published any of the £25,000+ spending data since 2014. In the spirit of naming and shaming the Scotland Office and Wales Office are the other two.
Only the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a perfect record for 2015’s financial year.
While it would be disingenuous to say the failure to publish one type of open data (and putting aside the thorny issue of FOI response times) means a department isn’t fulfilling its transparency obligations it does highlight the need for both Freedom of Information and open data.
Open data doesn’t have a legal scheme where members of the public can chase-up failure to provide information. Public authorities are not obliged by law to publish this information and if they stop there is no recourse to make the publish it. FOI allows dogged requesters to pursue cases through the legal system and as high as the European Court. If an authority doesn’t comply it can be told to publish the information – theoretically being in contempt of court if it does not obey. The two regimes can complement each other.
As the Cabinet Office oversees the work of the ‘independent’ review on Freedom of Information comparisons between the two transparency schemes will be drawn.
Unless the government gets its house in order with publishing the information it wants to it make proactively public it shouldn’t be trusted to even consider how rewriting what the public can ask for – unless it is making more available, of course.