Data: One set of data, two very different stories, and no-one any better off as a result

Politicians have always had a reasonably relaxed relationship with numbers – which is why making data behind decisions freely available is so important.

But if you thought that the publication of raw numbers would bring an end to confusing interpretations of data by politicians seeking to push a political point of view, then think again.

On Sunday, Labour went on the offensive over funding for Primary Care Trusts, claiming that funding was being moved from poorer – and generally unhealthier – areas  to richer – and generally healthier – areas as a result in a change in the way funding is allocated.

The changes, Labour said, mean that health inequalities – such as low life expectancy or high levels of disease – are no longer taken into consideration when money is allocated. As a result, areas like Manchester will lose cash.

In response, Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, said no area was losing out, and that all areas are getting budget increases.

Fortunately, the Department of Health has kept to the spirit of the government’s transparency agenda and released the details of the funding settlements to the PCTs.

So who is right? The answer is both – to a point.

Lansley is right to say that every PCT is seeing an increase in funding – in fact most are getting many millions more. But they are being expected to do many more things as well.

Looking at Blackburn with Darwen Primary Care Trust, which serves one of the poorer ends of the country. It’s total revenue allocation is up 2.9%, meaning it will receive an extra £8million.  But of its £290million budget,  £13.6million is classed as ‘non-recurrent allocations’ for one-off things, with no guarantee of that money being paid again next year. Another £2million is another grant, which may or may not be renewed next year.

Strip those out and you have a figure of £274million of ‘recurrent allocations’, which is 2.2% up on last year. The crucial point here is that this falls 0.7% short of the amount which the Department of Health determined Blackburn with Darwen needed to be able to provide the services its residents need once health inequalities are taken into account.

So, Blackburn with Darwen is getting more money – but not enough to maintain services.

Contrast that with Richmond and Twickenham, one of the more affluent areas of the country. When all of its allocations are added together, it is seeing a 2.6% increase in funding. Strip out the one-offs, and its revenue is going up 2%.

But according to the DoH target, that means its allocation is running 14% up on the money it needs.

So it would appear that primary care trusts in richer areas are benefitting.

But – and here’s a big but – the data might have been released, but where is the explanation of what it means?

I’ve covered local government and health beats in the past, so I’m used to looking at charts like this. The crucial column is the ‘distance from target’ column. To get a definition of what that means, I had to have a right hunt through the DoH website.

And it’s quite possible I’ve got the wrong end of the stick (I’m reasonably confident I haven’t though).

It isn’t, of course, the first time the Government has ‘released’ data which can be read two ways. The government invented the term ‘spending power’ to try and reduce the perceived impact of council cuts – as well documented by the Manchester Evening News’s David Ottewell here.

Proof that when it comes to releasing data, just releasing the numbers isn’t enough if the public to get answers they understand? For politicians, that might be a useful position. For the rest of us, the illusion of transparency isn’t good enough.

(For a much better analysis of this – read Full Fact here)

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