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Government selective about open data, says Hodge

Gill Hitchcock Published 06 November 2012

PAC chair Margaret Hodge says universal credit concerns mean government needs guts to publish MPA report

Margaret Hodge

The government remains selective about which data it chooses to make openly available, according to Margaret Hodge, the chair of the influential public accounts committee.

Speaking at a panel discussion about unlocking the potential of government data, Hodge praised the work of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) in examining the quality of ICT and other major projects as they go through government departments.

"But they can't publish their findings on whether the projects are at risk because it might be damaging to government," she told the discussion with representatives from EMC and right-wing tank Policy Exchange.

Asked by Government Computing whether the MPA's long-awaited report would be published, Hodge said probably not.

"The government needs a bit of guts to do it, and I think it would really help. I think that the project that is holding it back must be universal credit," she said.

"We had a session with Nick Macpherson, the permanent secretary at the Treasury, when we asked 'what's happening; is the Treasury trying to push back universal credit implementation?'

"I said 'is this true?' and there was about a minute's pause. I think he is bruised by the implementation of the tax credits system under the previous government."

Hodge told the meeting that transparency is vital for democracy, enables comparisons and should drive improvement in public policy. But, she said, that consistency in the application and usage of data is essential.

She pointed out that because of rules affecting the classification of data about academies and local authority schools, it is not possible to make a comparison between the value of investment per pupil in the two settings.

In an effort to get rid of targets in adult social care, the government abolished the star rating system. She said: "If you look at which nursing home you should ensure your relative goes into, you now have no intelligent way of assessing the comparative quality."

Another problem, according to Hodge, is that "definitions change so quickly for all sorts of reasons, so that trying to use data to make sensible comparisons becomes extremely complex."

For example, further education is now defined by government as a private sector activity, and funding for academies has moved from local to central government, which makes comparisons over time very difficult.

Government is increasingly choosing to use private providers, but Hodge said it is difficult to access data through freedom of information provision or because of commercial confidentiality.

"I think the great issue there is that government still works too much in departmental silos." Hodge told the meeting.

"We can get such a poor decision in one department, which then impacts upon another. And it's deeply frustrating that we can't break down these departmental silos."

According to Hodge, the classic example is the Treasury which allocates budgets across departments, expects them to operate within those budgets, but does not share intelligence.

"The use of data should support government decisions, and help make informed decisions, particularly at a time of deficit reduction," she said.


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