There’s no accounting for… accountability

19th August 2014 Blog

Hopping about on the Internet as one does last week, I took in a few things including this, the UK government’s white paper on open data. From reading it I take away, amongst other things, something like:

  1. Transparency and openness are good
  2. There are a couple of different ways to do these good things
  3. Doing them will lead to accountability and scrutiny of government by citizens
  4. Hurray!

This isn’t a new argument. It appears earlier than this white paper here, for example, in a review of Foundation Trusts talking up trust membership and volunteer governors as a new form of citizen accountability.

The idea that openness leads to greater accountability is an attractive one, no question, and intuitively somehow right. It’s a kind of know more, do more thing. Even so it seems a bit surprising that it’s so often presented as a simple kind of if then equation. Because, after all, when you stop to think about it, why should the availability of data in itself make people want to scrutinise it?

If you’d like to dip into some and see how it takes you, take a look here at the xls files of statutory duties placed on local government. Oh and then write a short analysis holding local authorities to account and get it posted to an influential blog. Or don’t, because Bake Off is on iPlayer and fuller than ever of cake-based innuendo.

The fact is that citizen accountability just isn’t for everyone, and might really be for the few rather than the many.

In this article Toby Blume sort of points out that great rafts of data aren’t in and of themselves necessarily catnip to the masses. The data Blume is referring to concerns charitable grants rather than government, and he notes that gleaning information from it is a specialist rather than an amateur job.

This article gives a neat insight into what Big Data is and points out that messing about with it takes expertise. Government departments already do it quite badly, its author argues, doing it well takes skill.
Which is all to say what, exactly? Well maybe only this: that scrutiny, monitoring and holding public services, charities, governments and corporates to account is important, and perhaps we ought to be a little more questioning about the real effects of giving access to large amounts of data, because the evidence is by no means clear on this one.

That said you can, and we do, believe in the importance of data transparency whilst being more equivocal about its consequences. For that reason we’ll be making the outcomes of our coming workshop on the trans-pennine franchise available through the DfT data room. Who knows, perhaps some curious citizens will seek it out. Let’s hope so.

The monkeys were provided by John Snape and can be found here.