Friday, November 19, 2010

Data for transparent government

According to Francis Maude, the UK minister for the Cabinet Office writing in The Guardian today, the current UK Government "will be the most transparent and accountable government in the world". This reasoning follows from the publication of the 'Whitehall accounts' for the first time ever, which detail Government expenditure since the coalition came to power. This data is presented online at

I'm not particularly interested in the finer points of the actual spending, but rather the nature of the move towards transparency itself, how this has been presented and the possible outcomes. It's clear from Francis Maude's claim that this is a work in progress, and an intriguing experiment it certainly is. By the Government's own admission, this is not complete data, but an unprecedented starting point. From a DAM perspective, the website hosting the data itself feels a bit like a work in progress - the information is probably there, but the website doesn't do the user any favours. Yet this raises a key point: to be transparent, the Government needs to present raw data, rather than digested information - it must ride the balance between accessibility and leading the user towards any particular conclusion. There may be virtue in its spare design.

In any case, people are downloading and interpreting the data, and numerous independent developers have already released a number of their own analytical tools. This is where the real nature of the experiment lies: will the Government be held to account and real savings found, or will it be put in a straitjacket, possibly resulting in further spending just to analyse all the claims made against it and avoid more in the future? Everyone will have different views on spending priorities, and their own way of interpreting the data; the findings may well make for good press. One hopes that this won't result in the kind of knee-jerk reactions that have hit US politics, which must be partially to blame on new media, seemingly able to create a loud enough drone that can stifle constructive debate.

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