Spending & Receipts Transparency as a Consequence of Accepting Public Money?

One of the things I’ve been pondering lately is the asymmetry that exists between the information disclosures that public bodies are obliged to make compared to private ones. My gut feeling is that the public bodies may be placed at a disadvantage by these obligations compared to the private companies, though I guess I need to find some specific examples of this. (Cost may be one; having to release data that can be used by competitors in a procurement exercise may be another; if you have any good examples, please post them in the comments…)

To start with, let’s see how the field is currently set in the area of “transparency” (at least, in a spending sense).

Central government spend over £25k
The obligation on NHS bodies to publish spending data on transactions over £25,000 appears to come via HM Treasury reporting guidance on Transparency – Publication of spend over £25,000 (9th September, 2010), which was released in support of a Prime Ministerial letter of 31st May 2010 to Secretaries of State:

2.1 Scope
2.1.1 This guidance applies to all parts of central government as defined by the Office for National Statistics, including departments, non‐ministerial departments, agencies, NDPBs, Trading Funds and NHS bodies. There are a limited number of exceptions to the requirement to publish. The Intelligence Agencies are completely exempt from this requirement. The following are also not subject to this requirement:
• Financial and non‐financial public corporations
• Parliamentary bodies
• Devolved Administrations
2.1.2 However it is recommended that these bodies adopt this guidance as best practice. Separate guidance is being prepared for local authorities.
2.1.3 Where an organisation comprises both a central government body and a public corporation (e.g. the BBC), this requirement applies to the part of the organisation that is classed as part of central government. The requirement does not apply to that part of the organisation that is a public corporation.

I’m not sure what power obliges these parts of government to conform to this guidance, or the requirement to publish spending data for transactions of £25,000?

A further letter – published on 7 July 2011 – added further obligations across a range of central government departments, as well as on the NHS.

(For information on Transparency in Procurement and Contracting see this supplier factsheet.)

Local authority spend over £500
By contrast, local authorities seem to be obliged to release spending data as a result of the publication of a Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency (29 September 2011) (via) which was “issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in exercise of his powers under section 2 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 to issue a Code of Recommended Practice (The Code) as to the publication of information by local authorities about the discharge of their functions and other matters which he considers to be related”, where “local authority” means:

– a county council
– a district council
– a parish council which has gross annual income or expenditure (whichever
is the higher) of at least £200,000
– a London borough council
– the Common Council of the City of London in its capacity as a local authority
or police authority
– the Council of the Isles of Scilly
– a National Park authority for a National Park in England
– the Broads Authority 5
– the Greater London Authority so far as it exercises its functions through the
– the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority
– Transport for London
– the London Development Agency
– a fire and rescue authority (constituted by a scheme under section 2 of the
Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 or a scheme to which section 4 of that
Act applies, and a metropolitan county fire and rescue authority)
– a police authority, meaning:
(a) a police authority established under section 3 of the Police Act 1996
(b) the Metropolitan Police Authority
– a joint authority established by Part IV of the Local Government Act 1985
(fire and rescue services and transport)
– joint waste authorities, i.e. an authority established for an area in England by
an order under section 207 of the Local Government and Public Involvement
in Health Act 2007
– an economic prosperity board established under section 88 of the Local
Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009
– a combined authority established under section 103 of that Act
– waste disposal authorities, i.e. an authority established under section 10 of
the Local Government Act 1985
– an Integrated Transport Authority for an integrated transport area in England

The policy area associated with releasing local spending data is this one: Policy – Making local councils more transparent and accountable to local people

UPDATE: an amendment to the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 extends the code of practice relating to local government publication schemes to include “information about any expenditure incurred by authorities” and “information about any legally enforceable agreement entered into by authorities and any invitations to tender for such agreements”.

So What?

Writing in the Observer (“Open government? Don’t make me laugh”, September 29th, 2013), columnist Nick Cohen wrote:

Public services have always moved from daylight into darkness when private managers take them over. Ever since Labour passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, MPs, journalists, bloggers, academics, campaign groups and concerned citizens have been able to examine a prison, say, or medical service up to the moment of privatisation when the possibility of scrutiny vanished.

Sadiq Khan, Labour’s justice spokesman, grasped the need to extend freedom of information to cover the private recipients of public money…

As it is the job of parliament to hold the executive to account, Khan set a test for G4S. He asked for details of its restraint techniques. The company replied that it could not respond to freedom of information requests. The Ministry of Justice would, even though G4S trained the guards and knew what they did while the ministry did not,

The cloak of secrecy may soon be draped over the public sector as well. The Campaign for Freedom of Information is alarmed – to put it mildly – that ministers are talking about making it all too easy for civil servants to refuse to disclose information that the public needs to know – and once had a right to know.

The keenness with which the coalition is protecting commercial interests explains a ministerial manoeuvre that baffled me at the time. When libel reform came before parliament, I, along with everyone else, assumed that the private contractors moving into the NHS, prison service and just about every other service would not be allowed to sue their critics for libel. Under the far-from-liberal existing law, public authorities could not sue because in a democracy voters were free to speak their minds about the providers of public services even if what they said was not in the best possible taste. Indeed, as taxpayers and as the recipients of services, we had a dual justification for saying what we wanted without the threat that crushing financial penalties would bully us into silence.

In the new market-orientated order the coalition was so keen to embrace, any restriction on robust debate would be unfair as well as undemocratic. A failure to allow free speech would mean that businesses and charities could say what they liked about a local authority bidding for a service, but the local authority could not respond in kind for fear of a writ. The Conservatives would not give an inch. In the name of libel reform, they insisted that the freedom to argue in the public square must be restricted and gave private interests an exemption from criticism they denied to public services.

Whatever your feelings about public services and the extent to which private companies could or should be able to deliver them, it seems to me that the different transparency regulations are simply not fair. Public bodies receive public money, so you may argue that it is only right that they should disclose how they spend it. But when the spend with another organisation is so large that it is essentially devolving a significant part of a public body’s budget for spending by a private company, then that private body should be transparent about the way in which it further spends or otherwise allocates the money.

At the moment, transparency in the UK tries to make it possible for use to see who public bodies give money to. If one public body, A, spends with another public body, B, we can also derive information about the receipts that body B has from other public bodies, such as A. If A spends with private company C, we know that A has spent with C but not how C further disburses the funds. If C purchases a service from public body B (which could be a police authority, for example), we don’t know that C spent the public money with B, nor do we know (from the non-existent recipient column of C’s non-existent transparency spending data) that public body B received public money from public body A via private company C.

There is an asymmetry in the way we have sight of public spend when it passes through private hands.

The solution? How about we require private companies that obtain substantial receipts from public bodies (say, over £25k in a single payment) to account for their spend associated with contract in the matter of payments over £500. If the £25k/£500 limits are too onerous (government inflicting red tape on private enterprise, then how about £250k/£10k breakdown. As to the red tape: the public bodies have to dal with it and they are increasingly competing for the same pot of money with the private companies. Come on, chaps, play fair…

The Other Problem – Centralised Receipts

As well as the loss of oversight into how public money is being spent, there is a secondary problem when it comes to tracking the extent to which bodies both public and private receive public money: how do we find how much public money in total a particular private company has received?

On the one hand, we can easily generate reports that show the total amount of public money spent by public body A with private company C by looking at their spending data. (This may be complicated that different companies within a larger group (eg separate recipients C Services Ltd and C Operations Ltd may both be part of C Ltd) all receive separate payments from the body, but as we get more information about beneficial corporate interests we can start to piece together that piece of the jigsaw.)

On the other, to see all public money receipts by a particular company, we need to collate spend data from every public body and then aggregate all the spend with a particular company to get an idea of how much public money it has received, and in what spending areas, from the public sector. (For an early example of this, see Sketching Substantial Council Spending Flows to Serco Using OpenlyLocal Aggregated Spending Data.)

The solution? How about we require private corporate recipients to disclose all public money they have received as part of the deal associated with receiving that public money (a deal that public bodies have to accede to). Again, we may wish to put a threshold on this, even one that has some sort of symmetry associated with it compared to the spending requirements: say, disclosure of £500+ receipts from local government and £25k+ receipts from government departments and other associated bodies.

PS I note a recent Open Letter to the PM from UK civil society organisations that makes a related request:


by opening up public sector contracts and extending transparency standards and legislation. Endorse and implement a system of ‘Open Contracting’, ensuring public disclosure and monitoring of contracting from procurement to the close of projects, and amend the Freedom of Information Act so that all information held by a contractor in connection with a public service contract is brought within its scope.

Ah, yes… Information asymmetry around FOI requests. Do you know of any companies who operate parking meters on behalf of a local council? I’d like to see if I could get this sort of data from them…

PPS see also the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, who took evidence on Statistics and open data on October 8th, 2013.

Opening Research Data on Your Behalf…

I note a pre-announced intention from the Justice Data Lab that they will publish “[t]ailored reports pertaining to the re-offending outcomes of services or interventions delivered by organisations who have requested information through the Justice Data Lab. Each report will be an Official Statistic.

If you haven’t been keeping up, the Justice data lab is a currently free, one year pilot scheme (started April 2013) in which “a small team from Analytical Services within the Ministry of Justice (the Justice Data Lab team) will support organisations that provide offender services by allowing them easy access to aggregate re-offending data specific to the group of people they have worked with” [User Journey].

Here’s how the user journey doc describes the process…

data lab process

…and the methodology:

datalab methodology

which is also described in the pre-announcement doc as follows:

Participating organisations supply the Justice Data Lab with details of the offenders who they have worked with, and information about the services they have provided. As standard the Justice Data Lab will supply aggregate one year proven re-offending rates for that group, and that of a matched control group of similar offenders. The re-offending rates for the organisation’s group and the matched control group will be compared using statistical testing to assess the impact of the organisation’s work on reducing re-offending. The results will then be returned to the organisation in a clear and easy to understand format, with explanations of the key metrics, and any caveats and limitations necessary for interpretation of the results.

The pre-announcement suggests that participating organisations will not only receive a copy of the report, but so will the public… The rationale:

The Justice Data Lab pilot is free at the point of service, paid for through the Ministry of Justice budget. The Ministry of Justice therefore has a duty to act transparently and openly about the outcomes of this initiative. It is anticipated that by making this information available in the public domain, organisations that work with offenders will have a greater evidence base about what works to rehabilitate offenders, and ultimately cut crime.

(Nice to see the MoJ believes in transparency. Shame that doesn’t go as far as timely spending data transparency, but I guess we can’t have it all…)

I think it’s worth taking notice of this pre-announcement for few reasons:

– are such data release mechanisms the result of lobbying pressure? Other government departments have datalabs, such as the HMRC datalab. HMRC recently ran a consultation on the release of VAT registration information as opendata, although concerns have been raised that this may just be a shortcut way of releasing company VAT registration data to credit rating agencies and their ilk…?, so it seems as if they are looking at what data they may be able to open up, and how, maybe in response to lobbying requests from corporate players who don’t want to have to (pay to) collect the data themselves…? Who might have lobbied the MoJ for the results of MoJ datalab requests to be opened up as public data, I wonder?

– are the results gameable, or might they be used as a tool to “attack” a group that is the basis of a research request? For example, can third parties request that the MoJ datalab runs an analysis on the effectiveness of a programme carried out by another party, such as, I dunno, G4S?

– the ESRC is in the process of a multi-stage funding round that will establish a range of research data centres. The first round, to establish a series of Administrative Data Research Centres has now closed (who won?!) and the second – for Business and Local Government Data Research Centres – is currently open. (Phase three will focus on “Third Sector data and social media data”…wtf?!) To what extent might any of the funded research data centres require that summaries of analyses run using datasets they control access to are released as public open data?

Just by the by, I note here the RCUK Common Principles on Data Policy:

Publicly funded research data are a public good, produced in the public interest, which should be made openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner that does not harm intellectual property.

Institutional and project specific data management policies and plans should be in accordance with relevant standards and community best practice. Data with acknowledged long-term value should be preserved and remain accessible and usable for future research.

To enable research data to be discoverable and effectively re-used by others, sufficient metadata should be recorded and made openly available to enable other researchers to understand the research and re-use potential of the data. Published results should always include information on how to access the supporting data.

RCUK recognises that there are legal, ethical and commercial constraints on release of research data. To ensure that the research process is not damaged by inappropriate release of data, research organisation policies and practices should ensure that these are considered at all stages in the research process.

To ensure that research teams get appropriate recognition for the effort involved in collecting and analysing data, those who undertake Research Council funded work may be entitled to a limited period of privileged use of the data they have collected to enable them to publish the results of their research. The length of this period varies by research discipline and, where appropriate, is discussed further in the published policies of individual Research Councils.

In order to recognise the intellectual contributions of researchers who generate, preserve and share key research datasets, all users of research data should acknowledge the sources of their data and abide by the terms and conditions under which they are accessed.

It is appropriate to use public funds to support the management and sharing of publicly-funded research data. To maximise the research benefit which can be gained from limited budgets, the mechanisms for these activities should be both efficient and cost-effective in the use of public funds.

See also: Some Sketchnotes on a Few of My Concerns About #opendata

The Business of Open Public Data Rolls On…

A few more bits and pieces around the possible distribution and application of open public data (that is, openly licensed data released by public bodies):

  • Bills before Parliament – Education (Information Sharing) Bill 2013-14: although this is a private member’s bill, explanatory notes have been prepared by prepared by the Department for Education. The bill allows for “student information of a prescribed description” to be made available to a “prescribed person” or “a person falling within a prescribed category”. If the bill goes through, keeping tabs on these prescriptions will be key to seeing how this might play out.

    As mentioned in my Rambling Round-Up of Some Recent #OpenData Notices from August, the HMRC is consulting on opening up access to VAT records. And through the post this week, I received a letter from the NHS regarding the sharing of data within the NHS via Summary Care Records, although this appears to be more to do with data sharing within the NHS on a case-by-case basis, rather than sharing of bulk datasets for analysis/research and/or business development. So outbreaks of planned sharing are appearing all over the place. I’m not sure what the best way of tracking such initiatives is though?

    I haven’t really been tracking private members’ bills either (except the Supermarket Pricing Information Bill 2012-13 that never went anywhere!), and I’m not really sure what they signal, but some of them do make me a bit twitchy. Like the currently proposed Collection of Nationality Data Bill that will “require the collection and publication of information relating to the nationality of those in receipt of benefits and of those to whom national insurance numbers are issued.” Or the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill 2013-14, whereby “a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.” As discussions regarding privacy and anonymity on the web ebb and flow, it’s interesting to see how they’re tracked “IRL”. If a space is public, do you have any right to privacy or anonymity?

  • ESRC Pre-call: Business and Local Government Data Research Centres – Big Data Network Phase 2:

    The ESRCs Big Data Network will support the development of a network of innovative investments which will strengthen the UKs competitive advantage in Big Data. The core aim of this network is to facilitate access to different types of data and thereby stimulate innovative research and develop new methods to undertake that research. This network has been divided into three phases.

    • Phase 1 of the Big Data Network the ESRC has invested in the development of the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) which will provide access to de-identified administrative data collected by government departments for research use
    • Phase 2, which is the focus of this pre-announcement, will focus primarily on business data and local government data
    • Phase 3, further details of which will be released in the Autumn, will focus primarily on third sector data and social media data
  • Progress continues on the smart meter roll out program, with huge chunks of money being lined up for a few lucky companies (Government Selects Favourites For The Smart Meter Roll-Out). See also the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee inquiry – “Smart meter roll-out” and their Smart meter roll out report. Whilst the drivers are presumably supposedly related more efficient energy management, there are plenty of surveillance opportunities arising! Whilst not public data, as such, the availability (and sharing with data aggregators) of smart meter data does form part of the government’s #midata programme (around which the current strategy appears to be “the less said the better”…)
  • Maybe of interest to hardcore openspending data geeks, Local Audit and Accountability Bill 2013-14 has made its way from the Lords into the Commons. Schedule 9 introduces regulations around data matching, described as “an exercise involving the comparison of sets of data to determine how far they match (including the identification of any patterns and trends)”, although “data matching exercise[s] may not be used to identify patterns and trends in an individual’s characteristics or behaviour which suggest nothing more than the individual’s potential to commit fraud in the future”. A code of practice is also required. The power “is exercisable for the purpose of assisting in the prevention and detection of fraud” although the schedule may be amended in order to assist: “a) in the prevention and detection of crime (other than fraud), (b) in the apprehension and prosecution of offenders, and (c) in the recovery of debt owing to public bodies”.

    Schedule 11 covers the Disclosure of Information. Where an auditor obtains information from a public body “[a] local auditor, or a person acting on the auditor’s behalf, may also disclose information to which this Schedule applies except where the disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the effective performance of a function imposed or conferred on the auditor by or under an enactment”. I’m not sure to what extent such information might be requestable from the local auditor though?

I have to admit, I’m losing track of all these data and information related laws. And I guess I should also admit that I don’t really understand what any of them actually mean, either…!;-)

Nudging Up the Price of Parking

When faced with a car parking charge of £1.90 and a “no change” ticket machine, how much do we actually end up paying?

A recent report on English Local Authority Parking Finances by the RAC Foundation reviews the surpluses made by local councils when comparing the revenue they generate from local parking and traffic enforcement notice charges and the costs associated with providing those services. Across all the English councils, it seems to amount to £412 million for the most recently reported on period, the financial year 2011-2012. From the reported figures, income of £1,371 million is generated with costs of £806 million and a surplus of £565 million, a gross margin of 41.2%.

The gross margin is calculated by dividing the difference between income and costs – that is, the surplus – by the total income. The gross margin is essentially the percentage of the income that we can consider to be “profit”. In this case,gross margin = (1371-806)/1371 * 100% = 41.2%

Presumably in an attempt to make a better story for unwary journalists making back of the envelope percentage calculations, the report describes how councils “collect around £1.4 billion [rounding up from £1,371 million] from parking tickets, permits and penalties, spend around £0.8 billion [rounding down, slightly, from £806 million] and make a surplus of £0.6 billion [rounding up from £565 million]”. The gross margin calculation using these numbers is 0.6/1.4 * 100% = 42.86%, which we might typically round up to 43%, compared to the proper rounding of the original amount, which would be 41%.

41% is still a great rate of return, of course! But is it fair? In written evidence to the current House of Commons Transport Select Committee on local authority parking enforcement, the RAC Foundation noted that “There is evidence that official guidance to TMA 2004 [Operational Guidance to Local Authorities: Parking Policy and Enforcement] on parking charges is not strictly adhered to, and that councils set parking charges with the likelihood of them realising a surplus. It should be clear to all local authorities that they have no legal powers to set parking charges at a higher level than that needed to achieve the objective of relieving or preventing congestion of traffic.”

Referring to the guidance itself, we see that setting the price of parking is something of a dark art that can use consumer psychology to influence behaviour in support of a particular transport policy.

4.8 When setting charges, authorities should consider the following factors:

  • parking charges can help to curb unnecessary car use where there is adequate public transport or walking or cycling are realistic alternatives, for example, in town centres;
  • charges can reflect the value of kerb-space, encouraging all but short-term parking to take place in nearby off-street car parks where available. This implies a hierarchy of charges within a local authority area, so that charges at a prime parking space in a busy town centre would normally be higher than those either at nearby off-street car parks or at designated places in more distant residential areas. Such hierarchies should be as simple as practicable and applied consistently so that charge levels are readily understandable and acceptable to both regular and occasional users;
  • charges should be set at levels that encourage compliance with parking restrictions. If charges are set too high they could encourage drivers to risk non-compliance or to park in unsuitable areas, possibly in contravention of parking restrictions. In certain cases they could encourage motorists to park in a neighbouring local authority area which may not have the capacity to handle
    the extra vehicles. In commercial districts this may have a negative impact on business in the area; and
  • if on-street charges are set too low, they could attract higher levels of traffic than are desirable. They could discourage the use of off-street car parks and cause the demand for parking spaces to exceed supply, so that drivers have to spend longer finding a vacant space.

Balancing these policy objectives against claims that the level of surplus being generated is unfair is something that each council needs to justify to its own constituents. When making such a justification, it would seem likely that representation could be made on several different levels – by considering overall revenues, costs and surpluses; by looking at the occupancy volumes or rates for different car parking spaces; or at the level of actual car parking tariffs (that is, how much it costs to park for an hour in a particular location).

Most of us feel the pain at the everyday level, of course, when it actually comes to actually finding and paying for car parking. But are we paying more than we need to, nudged into contributing to additional surpluses over and above what a quick calculation based on parking volumes and tariffs (that is, charges for parking) might suggest is the “planned” surplus? I thought I’d put my data sleuth hat on to try and find out how much extra money could be made by not providing change…

Take my local council, for example, on the Isle of Wight. The main civic car park in the charming harbour town of Yarmouth has a range of ticket prices, including a £1.90 rate for stays between one and two hours, and a £3.40 rate for durations between two and four hours. The two ticket machines are both cash based and don’t offer change. Many retailers know that pricing goods at £something.99 helps encourage sales, although how psychological pricing tricks like this actually work is still open to debate. (For more on the psychology of pricing, see the OFT commissioned report on Pricing Practices: Their Effects on Consumer Behaviour and Welfare.) In a “no change” payment setting, might we use related psychological tricks in association with the value of our coinage (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1) to apparently set one price, which we must defend, whilst on average expecting the payment of a larger amount? That is, might we choose a £1.90 price point in the expectation that we might actually make £2 on many of the transactions?

Using data acquired via a Freedom of Information request, I asked the Isle of Wight council for the number of tickets issued within each price band for the Yarmouth town car park during 2012/13, along with the revenue generated by each of the two ticket machines. Using this information, we can calculate how much additional revenue is generated for each price band based on overpayments:


In the grander scheme of things, this doesn’t amount to a huge sum of money (the total overpayments come to £2272.15, or 1.7% of the total revenue), though it must be remembered that this refers to just a single car park in a single local council area.

If we look at the raw data that details the actual payment made for each ticket issued by the ticket machines at the £1.90 tariff level, we can see how many people actually overpay:

Actual Payment (£)	Count
1.9			10237
1.95			19
2			7734
2.05			6
2.1			16
2.15			1
2.2			16
2.3			7
2.35			1
2.4			22
2.5			39
2.55			1
2.6			7
2.7			7
2.75			1
2.8			2
2.9			11
2.95			1
3			134
3.05			2
3.1			3
3.2			18
3.3			10
3.35			3

Of the 18,298 tickets issued at the £1.90 level for the Yarmouth town car park during financial year 2012/13, it would appear that over 40% of the tickets issued generated £2 in revenue, presumably because drivers didn’t have the exact change to hand.

Whilst it would be easy enough to exclaim “We can only guess at how much money extra money English councils raise in this way”, that’s not strictly true. We could find out exactly by making FOI requests to them all…

Investigations such as this often raise more questions than they answer. For example: what parking tariff bands does your local council use? How much overpayment are you “happy” to make for your car parking ticket? If there were increases in charges from an amount such as £1.40 to £1.60, what might that have done for actual revenues raised within that price band? If you start exploring this topic in your local area, please let me know via the comments:-)

PS see also this Telegraph article on Academic finds link between parking tickets and wardens’ overtime.

Some Sketchnotes on a Few of My Concerns About #opendata

With my growing unease about just what the agenda driving open government/public data is, I think I’m going to have to find some time away to walk the dog lots, and mull over what pieces might be part of the jigsaw, as well as having a go at trying to put some of them together…

Near the top of the list is a concern about information asymmetry and how open data may be used by private concerns to provide a one-off advantage for them when it comes to poaching services from the public sector. How so? My gut reaction thinking is this: if, as part of the procurement process, the private sector can use open public data to help it secure a contract in competition with a public sector provider, then when contracts come to renewal the public sector may know less when it comes to bid than the private sector company was able to learn when it first tendered. The question here is: does open public data put private sector companies in an advantage when it comes to bidding for public service contracts against an encumbent public provider compared to a public body bidding to recapture a service from an encumbent private provider, given that the private provider may not be required to open up information (for example, through FOI requests, transparency or public reporting obligations) in the same way that a public body is.

Another take on a similar theme is the extent to which there may be a loss of transparency when a service goes from a public to a private provider. If we think there is some benefit to be had from transparency in general terms, then private providers of public services should have the same openness requirements placed on them as the public body. If private companies can claim revealing information is against their commercial interest, can public bodies make the same claims on exactly the same terms under FOI exemption rules, for example (eg MoJ Freedom of information guidance: Exemptions guidance – Section 43: Commercial interests).

Taking the NHS as a case example, here are a few things on my reading list:

  • Monitor report from March 2013 on A fair playing field for the benefit of NHS patients [actual report]. For example, the report identified the following distortions:

    1. Participation distortions. Some providers are directly or indirectly excluded from offering their services to NHS patients for reasons other than quality or efficiency. Restrictions on participation disadvantage providers seeking to expand into new services or new areas, regardless of whether the providers are public, charitable or private. Participation distortions disadvantage nonincumbent providers of every type.
    2. Cost distortions. Some types of provider face externally imposed costs that do not fall on other providers. On balance, cost distortions mostly disadvantage charitable and private health care providers compared to public providers.
    3. Flexibility distortions. Some providers’ ability to adapt their services to the changing needs of patients and commissioners is constrained by factors outside their control. These flexibility distortions mostly disadvantage public sector providers compared to other types.

    I’m not sure to what extent, if any, the report reviews distortions and asymmetries arising from open data issues.
    A search of the report for mentions of FOI turns up:

    Provider transparency
    Historically, public providers have faced higher levels of scrutiny than other providers, including requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. This degree of scrutiny can improve accountability to patients and promote good practice. Freedom of Information requirements have been extended through the standard NHS contract to private and charitable providers. However, it is not clear that this is operating effectively as yet, and other aspects of transparency do not apply across all types of provider.
    29. The Government and commissioners should ensure that transparency, including Freedom of Information requirements, is implemented across all types of provider of NHS services on a consistent basis.

    As I said, it’s on the reading list…

  • A terrifying post on the Computer Weekly/Public Sector IT blog – NHS watchdog commandeers data in bid to stimulate privatization and an earlier one on the naive take on hospital mortality data: Data regime makes merciless start on NHS privatization. Are there any reports or strategy documents from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) I need to add to my reading list?
  • Something academic… such as this piece from the Proceedings of the 21st European Conference on Information Systems on The Generative Mechanisms of Open Government Data, much of which I suspect is summarised by these two figures taken (without permission) from the the paper:

    generative mechanisms open gov data


  • Opening up data (particularly data held by public bodies) around private companies is another area I can quite get my head round, particularly when it comes to comparing information about the machinations of private companies as compared to public bodies. To what extent should companies that are public and limited liability have data that is held by them by public bodies be openly available, for example? Maybe related to this is a currently open BIS consultation: Company ownership: transparency and trust discussion paper as well as the HMRC consultationon Sharing and publishing data for public benefit (press release) that I linked to from yesterday’s Rambling Round-Up of Some Recent #OpenData Notices. (OpenCorporate’s Chris Taggart posts some interesting thoughts on the sheen given to the proposed release of VAT registration data to credit agencies that the consultation is in part based around: Open tax data, or just VAT ‘open wash’.) A recent edition of File on 4 (h/t @onthewight) on charity based tax fraud – Faith, Hope and… Tax Avoidance – also got me wondering further about what information is openly available about charities’ activities (eg A Quick Peek at Some Charities Data…)?
  • One to dig for… via Lexology, a post on Freedom of information in the private sector? which claims that “The Confederation of British Industry (“CBI“) has revealed that it is developing ‘transparency guidelines’ that will apply to private companies that provide services to the NHS.” Have these appeared yet, even in draft or consultation form?

A few other things on my to-do list in this area: map out the lobbiests and board/panel members around open data; use disclosure logs to search for companies putting in FOI requests in different sectors; see who’s pitching ideas in to ODUG; map out who’s funding NGOs and activities in the opendata space.

Sigh… no time…;-)

PS Not sure if there is a full paper version of this…? Bates, J. 2013, Information policy in the crises of neoliberalism: the case of Open Government Data in the UK at International Association of Media and Communications Researchers Conference, Dublin, June 2013: “Whilst open data releases by the UK government have received substantial support within UK civil society, often being interpreted as a creative and innovative response to a range of social issues, and, for some, a radical challenge to key components of neoliberal capitalism, this paper argues that deeper analysis of the OGD initiative suggests that it is being shaped by the UK government and corporate interests in an attempt to leverage a distinctly neoliberal agenda. The adoption and development of the OGD agenda as core to the policy response adopted by the UK Government to conditions of political economic crisis, suggests that information policy is being implemented as a key, yet often opaque, element of the neoliberal policy toolbox.” See also an earlier paper, “This is what modern deregulation looks like”: Co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative (“whilst OGD [Open Government Data] might potentially support modes of transparent and democratic governance, the current ‘transparency agenda’ should be recognised as an initiative that also aims to enable the marketisation of public services, and this is something that is not readily apparent to the general observer.”) and a statement of Jo Bates current research project in the are: The politics of Open Government Data in the UK

PPS Supporting the idea of symmetry in reporting between public services and private companies delivering public services, Richard Murphy on Making public services accountable. And some excellent writings critiquing computational thinking and the teaching of code by Ben Williamson.

Rambling Round-Up of Some Recent #OpenData Notices

It’s been some time since I (b)logged recent reports and announcements relating to the ongoing evolution of the open data thang in the UK, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the things I have floating in my open tabs…

  • Secretary of State’s Code of Practice (datasets) on the discharge of public authorities’ functions under Part 1 of the Freedom of Information Act – I guess this is the big one, the latest code of practice relating to the release of datasets under FOI. (Owen Boswarva has also compared it to the consulted upon draft.) The ICO give a quick overview as well as a specialist guidance on Datasets (FOI sections 11, 19 & 45). A sceptic might say it looks like FOIable bodies have also been given the wherewithal to set up their own data trading funds, enabled by The Freedom of Information (Release of Datasets for Re-use) (Fees) Regulations 2013. In passing, this looks like a handy place to catch up on FOI round-ups.
  • Via Out-Law, HMRC consults on plans to release anonymised tax datasets, I notice that HMRC has a new consultation out: Sharing and publishing data for public benefit. Apparently, [t]his consultation brings forward three options:
    • wider sharing of aggregated and anonymised tax data, for example, for the purposes of research or policy development;
    • release of basic non-financial VAT registration data as public data; and
    • sharing more detailed VAT registration data on a more restricted and controlled basis for specific purposes, such as credit referencing.

    At first glance, section 2.4 read to me like the hatchets are out on the NHS and the marshalling of resources to drive its privatisation continues ever onwards. From the consultation, I noticed that a Tax Sector Transparency Board was set up at the end of last year, which brings the number of sector transparency/data boards to about 437, I think? (Try searching for site:gov.uk inurl:sector-transparency-board.)

    In passing, I also note this response to an FOI request from 2010 in relation to accessing company VAT number data:

    I believe that disclosure of a complete list of VAT numbers currently in use would be likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime and the assessment or collection of VAT. I have reached this conclusion as I believe that the requested information could be used by opportunistic individuals and fraudsters to hijack genuine VAT numbers in order to fraudulently present themselves to HMRC, to other traders or to prospective customers as VAT registered. VAT is charged when a VAT-registered business sells to either another business or to a non-business customer. When VAT-registered businesses buy goods or services they can generally reclaim the VAT they have paid. If fraudsters are able to charge or reclaim VAT when they are not entitled to do so, then this will result in loss to the Public Purse and to members of the public who fall victim to such fraud.

    Section 31 is a qualified exemption which means that, if it applies, I must consider whether it is the public interest to override the exemption and release the information. I have very carefully considered this but have decided that on balance it is not in the public interest to release this information.

  • The ICO is also in consulting mode, running a Consultation on the “Conducting privacy impact assessments” code of practice. The consultation isn’t posted on page with a sensible URL though, it’s linked via the “current consultations” page, so if you’re reading this a month or two after the time of writing, you’ll probably need to look in the closed consultations area of the site. Go figure…
  • I had a little play with FOI myself recently. G4S was in the news again in a minor scandal about overcharging the Ministry of Justice on tagging contracts. I thought I’d have a peek at the MoJ spending data with respect to G4S, but they’ve been slipping in their transparency duties, so I felt obliged to FOI the spending data. No reply as yet – and I’m not sure if the data has gone up via their transparency pages yet, either?
  • I’ve recently started picking up on the creation of research panels and government department data labs. For example, the HMRC datalab and the more recent Justice data lab, which looks like an interesting resource for charities and other agencies working in the justice sector who need to demonstrate impact… HEFCE are also trying to open up access, sort of, to student survey data by means of the National Student Survey research panel. I suspect that the NHS (and the DfE, eg via the National Pupil Database) have data access initiatives, as well as data linkage services? For example, the Linked Hospital Episode Statistics and Mental Health Minimum Data Set. In the academic health research area, see also the Expert Advisory Group on Data Access.
  • A handful of recent reports on how open data is perceived and being used: from Sciencewise, a June 2013 report on Public views on open data; from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a couple of brief reports on “how DWP uses transparency and open data to improve public services and accountability”. Alternatively, for a few thousand dollars, you can get a Forrester Research report on Getting The Most Out Of Open Data. One of the opendata “success” stories I heard championed most recently was by Sir Nigel Shadbolt at the Guardian Activate Summit. Apparently, the release of spending data has resulted in the “success” of private companies selling procurement advice based on an analysis of the data back to the public bodies, though I don’t think any specifics were mentioned. Are there any papers out there looking at how open data is being used to drive privatisation and destroy public services, I wonder?
  • More research centre initiatives, from another report that I missed when it came out in December 2012 – The UK Administrative Data Research Network: Improving Access for Research and Policy. It would be interesting to see how the models proposed in this report compare to the structures used by the government datalabs?

And finally, an even older report I’d not picked up on before. From the Audit Commission in March 2010, a discussion paper: The Truth is Out There – Transparency in an Information Age. I keep meaning to do a history of UK open government data over the last few years, so checkpoints like this are interesting when it comes to logging the hopes and aspirations, as well as the claims that were being made in support of developing policy, from back in the day. Also on the to do list is post about how I’m increasing uncomfortable with the whole open data thing, and what motivations are actually driving it at the policy (and lobbiest) level…

Publishing Stats for Analytic Reuse – FAOStat Website and R Package

How can stats and data publishers, from NGOs and (inter)national statistics agencies to scientific researchers, publish their data in a way that supports its analysis directly, as well as in combination with other datasets?

Here’s one approach I learned about from Michael Kao of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics division, FAOStat.

At first glimpse, the FAOStat website offers a rich website that supports data downloads, previews and simple analysis tools around a wide variety of international food related datasets:

FAOStat website

FAOstat - graphical tools

faostat - inline data preview

FAOStat - ddata analysis

One problem with having so many controls and fields available is that it can be hard to know where (or how) to get started – a bit like the problem of being presented with an empty SPARQL query box…

It would be quite handy to be able to set – and save with meaningful labels – preference sets about the countries you’re interested in so you don’t have to keep keep scrolling through long country lists looking for the countries you want to generate reports for? (Support for “standard” groupings of countries might also be useful?) Being able to share URLs to predefined reports might also be handy? But this would possibly make the site even more complex to use!

One easier way of working with FAOStat data, particularly if you access the FAO datasets regularly, might be to take a programmatic route using the FAOStat R package. Making datasets available in ways that bring that data directly into a desktop analysis environment where they can be worked on without requiring cleaning or other forms of tidying up (which is often the case when data is made available via Excel spreadsheets or CSV files) is a trend I hope we see more of. (That is not to say that data shouldn’t also be published in “generic” document formats…). If you are using a reproducible research strategy, queries to original datasources provide implicit, self-describing metadata about the data source and the query used to return a particular dataset, metadata that is all to easy to lose, or otherwise detach from a dataset when working with downloaded files.

I haven’t had chance to play with this package yet – it’s still in testing anyway, I think? – but it looks quite handy at a first glance (I need to do a proper review…). As well as providing a way of running data grab queries over theFAO FAOSTAT and World Bank WDI APIs, it seems to provide support for “linkage”. As the draft vignette suggests, “Merge is a typical data manipulation step in daily work yet a non-trivial exercise especially when working with different data sources. The built in mergeSYB function enables one to merge data from different sources as long as the country coding system is identified. … Data from any source with [a] classification [supported by the package] can be supplied to mergeSYB in order to obtain a single merged data. (sic)“. Supported formats currently include: United Nations M49 country standard [UN_CODE]; FAO country code scheme [FAOST_CODE]; FAO Global Administrative Unit Layers (GAUL) [ADM0_CODE]; ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 [ISO2_CODE]; ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 (World Bank) [ISO2_WB_CODE]; ISO 3166-1 alpha-3 [ISO3_CODE]; ISO 3166-1 alpha-3 (World Bank) [ISO3_WB_CODE].

By releasing an “official” R package to access the FAOStat API, it occurs to me that this makes it much easier to start building sector specific Shiny applications around particular datasets? I wonder whether the FAOstat folk have considered whether there is a possibility of developing a small Shiny app or custom client ecosystem around their data, even if it just takes the form of a curated set of gists that can be downloaded directly into RStudio, for example, using runGist?

I don’t know whether the Eurostat EC Statistics database has an associated R package too? (If so, it could be quite interesting trying to tie them together?! I do note, however, that Eurostat data is available for download (though I haven’t read the terms/license conditions…).

I also note that a Linked Data/SPARQL way in to Eurostat data appears to be available? Eurostat Linked Data.

[Man flu, hence the brevity of the post… skulks back off to sick bed…]

PS BY the by, I notice that the NHS are experimenting with making some data releases available via Google Public Data Explorer [scroll down…]

PPS See also this package – Smarter Poland – which provides an API to the Eurostat database.