Data danger: Will government cuts make it harder to get what we want?

Phrases such as ‘red tape’ and ‘centralisation’ have become dirty words since the election.

In the same way as all public-sector pensions are now ‘gold plated’ and any public salary more than £140k is now described as ‘higher than the prime minister’s’, the negative connotations of civil service administration have been exaggerated to an excessive level.

And while only the most narrow-minded public sector employee would argue that there isn’t room for efficiencies which don’t hurt front-line services, there is a danger that we forget some of the advantages of centralized monitoring of publicly-funded services.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the risks to open data from the budget cuts. The Government, commendably, is committed to making as much data available as possible. It estimates doing so could create a £6bn a year industry.

But their actions when it comes to cutting budgets suggests that a £6bn a year industry could find data harder to come by in years to come.

Already, the government has slashed the number of targets in the NHS. That’s no bad thing in one sense, but if you’re a member of the public trying to work out how good your local hospital/doctor/ambulance service is, it’ll suddenly be much harder to come up with a conclusive answer.

Last weekend, the Government indicated the census might well become a thing of the past. Yes, it’s massively expensive, but in terms of data accrued by government, is there anything more vital to understanding the country than the census? Suggestions that the Government will collate data via credit reference agencies looks good when written on the back of a fag packet, but doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. What about those people who have never appeared on a credit list? What about those people whose circumstances have changed? What about all the information the census used to collect which credit reference agencies have no interest in?

If I’m being cynical about this, it’s not hard to reach the conclusion that less potential data means a reduced likelihood of critical argument against the Government going forward. But David Cameron has insisted he is committed to transparent government, and that has to mean continuing to source data which is of interest to the public.

In my previous post on this, I also mentioned a potential threat to the Freedom of Information Act too. At the moment, academy schools aren’t covered by FOI – if we suddenly have 1,000 more of them, that’s 1,000 schools which can remove themselves from public scrutiny.

At the same time, removing these schools from local authority control massively reduces the ability of the public – journalists included – to source information, including data, which they want via FOI, which otherwise wouldn’t be produced. Data on, say, exclusions or school admissions can currently come via one FOI to a local authority. If  a third of an area’s schools switch to academy status, that data suddenly becomes a lot less relevant.

A similar situation is potentially about to unfold in the NHS. I’m sure not many people will cry over the axing of strategic health authorities. My experience of dealing with one is that they were incredibly secretive by nature and served only to make the lives of those in hospitals or primary care trusts more difficult.

But the loss of primary care trusts could also have an impact on access to information via FOI. Macmillan cancer research published research based on FOI last week around access to certain services in the UK – a fresh take on the well-worn, but ever compelling, postcode lottery theme.  The information will have come from PCTs, which have a ton of useful data.

If their commissioning role goes down to GP level – or, as more likely, GP consortia level – what happens to that access to information? At worst, it’s lost forever, at best, it’s a one request for an area replaced by a handful – time consuming for those asking the question and an extra red tape burden for those in the NHS.

If the open data revolution is to be as successful as everyone hopes, it’s essential that we – as reporters, members of the public, entrepreneurs – can select the data we want. FOI enables us to do that. Making the FOI Act harder to use is a backward step.

Of course, government policy can’t be determined on how it impacts on the Freedom of Information Act or how access to data will be damaged, but if the result of current cuts is that it’s harder to find information that  you want, then Cameron’s promise of transparent government will have been a rather hollow one.

4 comments

  1. It’s a good point – although worth noting that GP practices are currently covered by the FOI Act, and it’s a fair bet GP consortia will be in future. That doesn’t solve the problem of it being time-consuming to the NHS though…

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