Government releases departments' open data performance
Compliance challenges include technological, logistical and cultural factors, Cabinet Office says
The government has announced that the average 'openness score', measuring departments progress in meeting their open data commitments, is 52%.
However, performance varies widely among the different departments. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) scored just 5%, compared to HM Treasury, which achieved a score of 95%.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) scored 18%, while the Department for Education's openness score was 88%. The Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health achieved a score of 40% apiece.
The Cabinet Office's Open Data White Paper in June 2012 included a commitment to provide quarterly Written Ministerial Statements on departments' progress 'against the Public Data Principles as set out by the Public Sector Transparency Board'. This is the first such statement, covering the period between 1 July and 30 September 2012.
According to the Cabinet Office, "Over a third of government departments, including their arms-length bodies, have met or are on track to meet all their open data commitments instigated since May 2010.
"Just over half have met their obligations set out in letters from the Prime Minister in May 2010 and July 2011 and two-thirds of departments have met or are on target to meet departmental commitments set out in their Open Data Strategies."
For low-scoring departments, the Cabinet Office has committed to undertake a number of measures to improve their performance. For example, the statement says that the department will work with other departments to 'produce stronger guidance and good practice examples to assist embedding transparency within the corporate process'.
In addition, the Cabinet Office has said it will 'work with departments to enhance engagement of arms length bodies through workshops and good practice awareness sharing', and, 'through the implementation of the Government ICT Strategy, ensure new ICT systems are developed with transparency functionality as standard'.
Explaining the disparity between the openness scores, a Cabinet Office spokesman said that there are a number of reasons why some departments appear to be performing better than others, with barriers to compliance including technological, logistical and cultural factors.
"Transparency and Open Data are changing the way government works, in that there is now a presumption to publish data rather than to withhold it. We are well aware that despite the great progress we have made there is still a very long way to go. Historically, no two departments have published their data in the same way.
The spokesman added, "Technologically, the barriers are not only with legacy IT systems inherited by departments but the technical knowledge required to produce open data. Some departments have struggled to publish datasets due to limited resources. However, as transparency becomes more embedded, so the need to devote additional resources should decline.
"This agenda is still only 36 months old, and in that time departments have published a large amount of data that has never before been released. Where there is any cultural resistance to the transparency and open data agenda, this can be attributed mainly to lack of knowledge of formats, privacy laws, and so on.
"We have found that once people start to understand the technicalities of open data, their engagement with the agenda improves. The Cabinet Office Transparency team is working to encourage the dissemination of knowledge in departments through the Practitioners Group, representatives from each core department and larger ALBs, who promote transparency and open data best practice", the Cabinet Office spokesman added.
He pointed out that, "another factor is that many arms-length bodies (ALBs) are independent of, and hold much more data than, their parent departments. Also, because ALBs have separate systems and different processes for collecting data, there are variations in the quality and timing of data releases from the parent department.
"Sector panels have been set up to look at data publication from a sector-specific rather than a departmental point of view, and offer a valuable channel for departments to encourage ALB participation in transparency. The Cabinet Office Transparency team is also starting to work with ALBs, providing guidance, raising awareness of the transparency agenda and assisting with the technical aspects of open data.
"Where there are hold-ups, departments are already working, either internally or with their ALBs, to publish the delayed data and the Cabinet Office is looking to help departments as the process develops."
Commenting on the development, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said, "Transparency is also about making government better by sharpening accountability. That is why today we are publishing information showing how departments are meeting their own demanding open data obligations.
"We are at the start of this process and it has never been done before. There is still some way to go to meet all our obligations, but now we have a benchmark against which progress can be measured."