The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this morning warned that the Government needs to do more to ensure that the information it releases to the public is accurate, consistent and easy to interpret.
When the Coalition took office after the May 2010 General Election it was quick to promise that it would "make the UK the most transparent and accountable country in the world."
Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude at the time announced an 'open data' initiative to help the Government towards this goal. However today's report suggests that more needs to be done to help the public locate and use the information that is relevant to them.
The committee said:
"It does not help government to meet the objectives of the transparency agenda when large quantities of raw data are released without ensuring that the data are fit for purpose. Some data are very difficult to interpret, such as on local government spending, and there are important gaps in information, such as incomplete price and performance information on adult social care. We are also concerned about some information not being presented on a consistent basis, again for example in local government.
"Poor or incomplete data hinders the ability of users to exercise effective choice, for example on care providers. It also undermines the ability of service deliverers and policy makers to focus on improving quality."
A number of areas were earmarked by the committee for improvement.
The committee gives the example of price and performance information for adult social care as a case where there are gaps in the data and inconsistencies which make comparisons across local authority boundaries difficult.
It recommends that the Cabinet Office take a greater lead in setting out guidelines to Departments to ensure that the scope and quality of the data released is consistent.
PAC are particularly critical about the "poor" way that figures are presented to the public. While partly this is put down to teething problems with data.gov.uk - the portal for government data - some more fundamental flaws in the approach to releasing data are also highlighted. For example, the report notes that:
"simply dumping data without appropriate interpretation can be of limited use and frustrating. Four out of five people who visit the Government website [data.gov.uk] leave it immediately without accessing links to data."
While the committee notes that these visitors may still benefit from third-party interpretations of the information, this doesn't help them to understand the underlying primary data, something that the committee feels the Cabinet Office should do more to promote.
The way that the 'Transparancy Agenda' is handled by Departments is another area of concern for the PAC, particularly in terms of the costs to the public purse.
According to the committee, "Government does not understand the costs and benefits of its transparency agenda." By this it means that the costs of producing and distributing the data, and any benefits or savings produced are not currently measured, making it difficult for Department officials to prioritise open data.
A subsequent problem that the committee notes is that there is no consistent policy on whether or not to charge for data that is released, although the Government hopes that the Open Data Institute will help to resolve some of these issues.