Open Data, Transparency, Fan-In and Fan-Out
In digital electronics, the notions of fan in and fan out describe, respectively, the number of inputs a gate (or, on a chip, a pin) can handle, or the number of output connections it can drive. I’ve been thinking about this notion quite a bit, recently, in the context of concentrating information, or data, about a particular service.
For example, suppose I want to look at the payments made by a local council, as declared under transparency regulations. I can get the data for a particular council from a particular source. If we consider each organisation that the council makes a payment to as a separate output (that is, as a connection that goes between that council and the particular organisation), the fan out of the payment data gives the number of distinct organisations that the council has made a declared payment to.
One things councils do is make payments to other public bodies who have provided them with some service or other. This may include other councils (for example, for the delivery of services relating to out of area social care).
Why might this be useful? If we aggregate the payments data from different councils, we can set up a database that allows us to look at all payments from different councils to a particular organisation, (which may also be a particular council, which is obliged to publish its transaction data, as well as a private company, which currently isn’t). (See Using Aggregated Local Council Spending Data for Reverse Spending (Payments to) Lookups for an example of this. I think startup Spend Network are aggregating this data, but they don’t seem to be offering any useful open or free services, or data collections, off the back of it. OpenSpending has some data, but it’s scattergun in what’s there and what isn’t, depending as it does on volunteer data collectors and curators.)
The payments incoming to a public body from other public bodies are therefore available as open data, but not in a generally, or conveniently, concentrated way. The fan in public payments is given by the number of public bodies that have made a payment to a particular body (which may itself be a public body or may be a private company). If the fan in is large, it can be a major chore searching through the payments data of all the other public bodies trying to track down payments to the body of interest.
Whilst I can easily discover fan out payments from a public body, I can’t easily discover the originators of fan in public payments to a body, public or otherwise. Except that I could possibly FOI a public body for this information (“please send me a list of payments you have received from these bodies…”).
As more and more public services get outsourced to private contractors, I wonder if those private contractors will start to buy services off the public providers? I may be able to FOI the public providers for their receipts data (any examples of this, successful or otherwise?), but I wouldn’t be able to find any publicly disclosed payments data from the private provider to the public provider.
The transparency matrix thus looks something like this:
- payment from public body to public body: payment disclosed as public data, receipts available from analysis of all public body payment data (and reciipts FOIable from receiver?)
- payment from public body to private body: payment disclosed as public data; total public payments to private body can be ascertained by inspecting payments data of all public bodies. Effective fan-in can be increased by setting up different companies to receive payments and make it harder to aggregate total public monies incoming to a corporate group. (Would be useful if private companied has to disclose: a) total amount of public monies received from any public source, exceeding some threshold; b) individual payments above a certain value from a public body)
- payment from private body to public body: receipt FOIable from public body? No disclosure requirement on private body? Private body can effectively reduce fan out (that is, easily identified concentration of outgoing payments) by setting up different companies through which payments are made.
- payment from private body to private body: no disclosure requirements.
I have of course already wondered Do We Need Open Receipts Data as Well as Open Spending Data?. My current take on this would perhaps argue in favour of requiring all bodies, public or private, that receive more than £25,000, for example, in total per financial year from a particular corporate group* to declare all the transactions (over £500, say) from that body. A step on the road towards that would be to require bodies that receive more than a certain amount of receipts summed from across all public bodies to be subject to FOI at least in respect of payments data received from public bodies.
* We would need to define a corporate group somehow, to get round companies setting up EvilCo Public Money Receiving Company No. 1, EvilCo Public Money Receiving Company No. 2354 Ltd, etc, each of which only ever invoices up to £24,999. There would also have to be a way of identifying payments from the same public body but made through different accounts (for example, different local council directorates).
Whilst this would place a burden on all bodies, it would also start to level out the asymmetry between public body reporting and private body reporting in the matter of publicly funded transactions. At the moment, private company overheads for delivering subcontracted public services are less than public body overheads for delivering the same services in the matter of, for example, transparency disclosures, placing the public body at a disadvantage compared to the private body when it comes to transparency disclosures. (Note that things may be changing, at least in FOI stakes… See for example the latter part of Some Notes on Extending FOI.)
One might almost think the government was promoting transparency of public services gleeful in the expectation that as there privatisation agenda moves on a decreasing proportion of service providers will actually have to make public disclosures. Again, this asymmetry would make for unfair comparisons between service providers based on publicly available data if only data from public body providers of public services, rather than private providers of tendered public services, had to be disclosed.
So the take home, which has got diluted somewhat, is the proposal that the joint notions of fan in and fan out, when it comes to payment/receipts data, may be useful when it comes to helping us think about out how easy it is to concentrate data/information about payments to, or from, a particular body, and how policy can be defined to shine light where it needs shining.