Local Public Data Panel response to the Public Data Corporation consultation

Consultation on data policy for a Public Data CorporationResponse from the Local Public Data Panel[1] 

The Local Public Data Panel welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the development of policy for the proposed Public Data Corporation (PDC).  Opening up access to government data has the potential to support economic growth, more effective and efficient government, and increased accountability, collaboration and participation.

At this stage we are not taking a view either for or against the establishment of a PDC. 

The question of whether a PDC is a good idea depends to a large extent on further clarification of its purpose, objectives and governance arrangements.  This response focuses on the question of how a PDC should work if it is created.

In making this response, we would endorse the recent statement from the Transparency Board,[2] which outlined five principles that should apply to the data held by the trading funds.  In particular, this response further develops the principle that the governance of the PDC should be set up to promote and protect the long term public good by widening public access to government data.

Governance is crucial.  The panel notes that the Government is the shareholder of the trading funds in question.  The Government could achieve many of the goals of the PDC through a systematic reorganisation of the existing boards of these bodies. By including a far wider range of board members these bodies could be transformed in short time and with arguably less expense and effort.

If a PDC is created, there are two fundamental questions that will need to be clearly and fully addressed at an early stage if the PDC is to create public benefit.

  1. What is the scope of any potential charging and licensing policy? 
  2. Decisions about how to define the scope of charging and licensing policies will be at least as controversial and complex as decisions about the policies themselves.

    This will depend partly on decisions about what is and is not included within the definition of the public task.  There is an implicit assumption that datasets created as part of the public task will be made freely available under an open government license.  The consultation paper suggests a different, commercial charging, approach to other ‘value-added’ datasets that do not fall within this definition.  

    The consultation document notes that few public organisations in the UK have yet defined what data they collect as part of the public task.  It will presumably be for the PDC transition board[3], or the PDC itself, to determine the scope of any charging policies in this regard.

    In any event, whether or not data is collected as part of the public task will not in itself be a sufficiently sophisticated criterion for determining which datasets should be made available entirely free in the interest of widening public access to data, and which should not.  There is a range of factors to consider, and because this is still a relatively new area of government policy the evidence base is contested.  Existing evidence and approaches about transferring assets into the private sector is inadequate to the quite different task of sharing data assets by opening them up for public use re-use.

    As a pre-requisite to establishing the PDC, a clear set of broadly accepted criteria will need to be established as a basis for deciding whether datasets should be freely available or if a charging regime should be applied, and which datasets should only be made available under a restrictive license. The long-term public interest and the wider objectives of transparency and open data policy must be at the heart of these criteria.  The criteria must include but not be limited to narrow financial considerations, and they must recognise that the public and economic benefits of open data are unlikely to be predictable or quantifiable at the time of release. 

    It will be essential to establish a much stronger evidence base than is included in the consultation paper in order to inform both the development of criteria and the decisions that are taken about whether or not datasets should be included in the scope of any charging or restrictive licensing policies. 

    Consideration will also need to be given to the scope and application of charging policies in respect of different types users of data –SMEs, community organisations or interested members of the public must not be effectively excluded as a result of poorly informed or ad-hoc decisions about pricing and licensing. 

  3. What charging and licensing policies should be applied to datasets outside the public task?
  4. The consultation document outlines options for charging policies that could be applied in order to (a) cover the costs of producing data, and / or (b) generate a commercial income that would make the PDC into a viable proposition for private sector investment. 

    Decisions about the extent to which private sector investment would achieve the intended goals, and about the objectives, content and application of charging and licensing policies relating to different types and sets of data, will be taken either by the transition board or by the PDC once it is established. 

    These decisions will be crucially important.  Inappropriate charging and licensing policies, or their ineffective application, will act as barriers to entry in exactly the sectors that the Government is seeking to grow through the release of public data.  They will stifle innovation, and prevent the public, developers, and governmental and non-governmental organisations from being able to use the data to increase accountability and make public services more effective. 

    Excessive centralisation and / or complexity to support open data and charging policies would be inefficient, and would work against the objective of reducing bureaucracy around access to data.

These questions are controversial and difficult.  When they are asked about core reference datasets such as those held by the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey, the answers are critical to the achievement, or not, of the Government’s stated objectives in opening up public data.  This is because people’s ability to use other public data sets often depends on their ability to map them on to core reference data such as geographical location and land use.

At a local level, core reference data such as postcodes, addresses and land use data are essential for making effective use of other data concerning matters of great importance to people.  Planning applications and decisions, regeneration policies and local services all rely to some degree on geographical and land use data.  Efforts to develop more effective ways to inform people about such basic information as the local of public services in their area are often inhibited because the location is derived from copyrighted Ordnance Survey data.

We do not claim to have all the answers to these questions.  More importantly, nor should the Government.  That is why these decisions must not be made behind closed doors by people representing only a limited set of interest groups.

The membership and terms of reference of the transition board are not included in the consultation paper.  The board is considering potential business models and will be informed by the results of the consultation, but it is not clear who, other than the two ministers chairing the board, is involved in these discussions, what they are discussing, or what evidence they are using to inform their decisions.  The board was set up in July 2011, so has presumably met several times already, but so far no information has been published about its deliberations.

A commitment to open government must go beyond publishing data.  Transparent, inclusive and open governance and oversight arrangements are essential to the PDC’s credibility and chances of success.  

An ongoing, open dialogue with a wider range of stakeholders would be a much more effective way of testing ideas and generating workable solutions to what we recognise are complex and difficult problems.  Including a wider group of stakeholders in the discussion would give civil servants and ministers access to a vast range and depth of knowledge, understanding and ideas from within the wider public sector, non-governmental organisations, SMEs, developers and community activists.  This can only help to improve the plans for the PDC.

Any major shift towards opening data will have implications for trading fund business models.  If our proposed approach is adopted, it would allow rational and transparent assessment of the arguments.

We therefore recommend that:

  • The principles by which the PDC operates must be drawn up through a process of open dialogue with the wider community, having regard to the open data principles developed by the Transparency Board.
  • The transition board, and the PDC board that follows it, should include a majority from outside central government and the trading funds; people who can voice the concerns, ideas and interests of the community, developers and small business sectors. It is their use of public data that will be central to the accountability, value for money and economic growth outcomes that the Government is seeking to achieve. Genuine and ongoing involvement of this wider community in the governance of the PDC is essential to ensure that its strategy and operations are directed towards long-term public benefit.

Finally, we would reiterate the points made in our recent statement about the scope of application of Freedom of Information legislation, in which we argued that openness and transparency should follow public money, applying not just to the ‘public sector’ but to all public services regardless of who delivers them.[4]

[1] The Local Public Data Panel is an independent panel appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to champion the release of local public data and information sharing, accelerate progress in agreeing common standards for data released into the public sphere, and for making local public services better understood and more accessible.  More information available at: http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-public-data-panel

[2] http://data.gov.uk/blog/transparency-board-urges-widest-possible-response-to-consultations

[3] Consultation, p. 6

[4] http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-public-data-panel-freedom-of-information-public-services-and-open-data