The Localism Bill passed the second reading stage in the UK House of Commons this week, and I had a look at the Department for Local Government and Communities’ fifteen-page guide to see what implications there could be for eParticipation.One aspect of the bill is promotion of open data whilst decentralising control over performance indicators. How does this impact on the move towards standards in open data?
Apart from the technical aspect of common standards, standards in a broader sense – i.e. ensuring that different public organisations collect the same information across the board – may not mix with localism too well. Abolishing the Comprehensive Area Assessment regime, including Local Area Agreement (an agreement between local strategic partnerships and central government, whereby they would select from a list of measurements against which to judge the performance of public services in an area) the coalition government hopes that performance information will be collected according to what the local population wants, and avoid top-down pressure that can be detrimental to performance by distorting incentives.
Ignoring the second point for now (namely, whether it makes a difference where pressure to collect data comes from), it is difficult to see how comparable data for a whole country can be collected if we adopt this principle that data should be collected according to local needs and co-ordination on a national level should be shunned. If you intend to move from one city to another and want to compare hospital waiting times, you may have trouble if one of the cities measures number of patients seen within six weeks and the other measures different waiting times for specific illnesses.
Imagine that on a European level, and you can see that open data-led transparency for citizens or businesses shopping around for the country that suits their preferences becomes difficult. Cities have long benchmarked themselves against other cities — for example, in the UK Core Cities facilitates this — and this requires standards to ensure they aren’t comparing apples with pairs.
I think this all comes down to an issue that is central to open data: what are we willing to sacrifice for it? If we want comparable open data, we have to sacrifice some local control over what is collected; if we want datasets that aren’t currently available, we have to pay to collect them or have them entered into a computer and continue collecting them regularly, or forgo some of the income that was generated by offering them commercially. As these issues start to get teased out, we see the debate moving beyond what I will term “passive open data”, whereby public authorities operate transparently in by opening up data they already have, to thinking about how much money should be invested, or local control sacrificed, in order create new tools to power citizen participation, or actively opening up data.