Whitehall needs to better understand the costs and benefits of publishing data about public services, the National Audit Office said today.It was assessing the government’s policy of increasing the amount and type of public sector information released to the public. The aim is to strengthen accountability and support improvement of services.
The auditors found that departments had made progress towards the open-data commitment, meeting 23 of 25 promises by the December 2011 deadline.
However, they needed a better understanding of the benefits and uses of the information, alongside the costs, to assess whether transparency is meeting its objectives, the NAO said.
Its Implementing transparency report concluded that Whitehall departments had not monitored the additional costs of the open data scheme, and had been able only to provide estimates. Staff costs had gone up by as much as £500,000 in some departments to provide standard disclosure of existing information.
Examples where departments repackaged information to make it more accessible, such as producing crime maps, had also increased costs. In that case, set-up costs were around £300,000, with annual running costs likely to be £150,000. A further pursuit of transparency objectives could increase cost pressures on departments, auditors concluded.
It has been estimated that the public data already contributes £16bn annually to the UK economy, but the NAO said the government’s assessment of value for money was ‘underdeveloped’. While the Cabinet Office, the government department leading the initiative, had identified six types of potential benefits from open data, it was not yet using this framework to evaluate success.
Auditor general Amyas Morse said: ‘Opening up access to public information has the potential to improve accountability and support public service improvement and economic growth.
‘What the government is lacking at the moment is a firm grasp of whether that potential is being realised. If transparency initiatives are to be more than aspirations, then government needs to measure and monitor both their costs and benefits. This is vital for tracking success and learning what works.’
Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge said the government ‘needs to do much more before we can be satisfied that greater transparency is capable of supporting proper accountability’.
She added: ‘[The PAC] will want to know what steps the government is taking to identify and fix gaps in the data it publishes, and how it will evaluate the costs and benefits of greater transparency so that we can judge whether it is providing value for money.’
Responding to the report, Cabinet Office minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said: ‘Since we are doing things which have never been done before there are challenges to address, and in the coming months cost-analysis will be a central focus for us.
‘We are leaders in the global transparency movement and, as we take over the co-chairmanship of the Open Government Partnership this week, we will share with other countries our lessons about the transformational power of openness.’