Speech

Implications of new government

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. Thank you Nick for your introduction. For those of you that were expecting…


Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Thank you Nick for your introduction. For those of you that were expecting Eric Pickles, apologies. As minister with special responsibility for local transparency I’m delighted to be here this morning.

Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government and enable the Big Society. I want to talk to you this morning about how everyone can be a part of this revolution, and how transparency is the foundation for the government’s ambitions.

Context of decentralisation

There are three main drivers for transparency: decentralisation; accountability; and the need to reduce the deficit - but they are all interwoven. It is this relationship between them that I want to touch on this morning.

Through decentralisation and the Big Society, councils and local people will have more power to build the communities and services they want. Open data and transparency are key tools in achieving that. This government is committed to achieving a fundamental shift in the way this country is governed. The publication of departmental business plans on Monday will bring about a fundamental change in how departments are held to account for implementing policy commitments. Our success will be measured by the degree to which transparency helps shift the focus from bureaucratic to democratic accountability.

This shift is already happening: councils are being freed from top-down bureaucratic control and centralist performance management; freed from the burdens of centrally enforced targets; and freed from the burdens of inspection by our abolition of the costly and bureaucratic Comprehensive Area Assessment and the Audit Commission. We have marked the end of the old, top-down local performance framework and have made a fresh start underpinned by genuine localism, with councils becoming more directly accountable to local people for the services they provide and the money they spend.

The government is clear that deficit reduction, and securing economic recovery, is the most pressing issue facing Britain today. Councils are responsible for their own finances, and any unjustified spending should be rooted out, in the first instance, by senior financial officers and elected members. But pressure from local residents for councils to justify overspending and waste can help reinforce this scrutiny.

But they can only do this if they have the information they need at their fingertips.

That is why this government is committed to increasing transparency across Whitehall and local authorities in order to make data more readily available to the citizen and allow them to hold service providers to account.

Transparency

So the aim of every one of us should be to: firstly - publish all data you hold unless it is illegal to do so; secondly - keep safe the personal data you hold; and thirdly - be absolutely clear about what data it is you hold.

But what does transparency mean and where to start?

The Secretary of State has called upon councils to increase transparency and openness about how they do their business by publishing information on senior salaries, councillor allowances and all spending over £500 as a first step.

Other types of data including council minutes, decisions and papers, expenses, organograms, service information, performance data, food hygiene reports and licensing applications should also be freely and openly available. All contain invaluable information to help not only citizens hold councils to account, but also assist officers and councillors question the way they conduct their business.

Simply making this data available is a good first step, but to make it truly useful it is imperative that we all - government and local government - work towards providing data that complies with the public data principles, that are being developed by the Public Sector Transparency Board. I won’t repeat them all here, but there are a few that deserve a particular mention in the context of revolutionising local democracy.

Firstly, public data policy and practice will be clearly driven by the public and businesses who want and use the data, including what data is released when and in what form. We are moving away from the days when central government demanded data from you, but instead councils will need to respond to data requests from the public.

Secondly, public data will be released under the same open licence which enables free reuse, including commercial reuse. There is a value to data - not just to your citizens, but to the wider economy. To realise that value, you must publish data with an open hand, and let others analyse, interrogate and present it back to you, your residents and others. Not only should you allow it, you should encourage it - partly by having up to date data asset registers, but also making the data timely and appropriately formatted.

I am clear that, despite needing some effort at the outset, it is in councils’ own interests to make data open, accessible, comparable and timely. But it is for the sector - not government - to set its own standards as to how this is done. The list of councils that are already publishing this data is growing daily. For those of you that have not, and think there are practical and technical obstacles stopping you, then speak to those that are already publishing the data - they may well have tackled these issues already.

Guidance has also been produced by the Local Public Data Panel on £500 spend, and the Local Government Group have developed guides, in partnership with central government and sector experts, setting out how councils can publish financial data on salaries, spending, contracts and tenders over £500 to meet the January 2011 deadline. And we are looking to see whether more guidance is needed on a common method of publication, so that there is easy comparability of data. The ‘Spending practitioners guide’ and ‘Salaries disclosure guide’ will be revised on an ongoing basis to reflect councils’ experience and feedback.

And just to show that we’re not expecting councils to do something that we’re not prepared to do ourselves, my department is also now publishing details of its spend over £500 - leading from the front in ensuring Whitehall also makes its own spending transparent.

What will good look like?

But let’s remember that we are not publishing data for the sake of it - there must be some real world benefit. Setting data free will give the public greater insight into what their local authorities are doing, what is happening in their local area, and most importantly where their money is going.

We are living in challenging times. Where cuts to services are proposed, citizens must be able to see how decisions are being made and their opportunities for influencing them.

Citizens need information to suggest new ways of doing things and to get involved.

There are different ways of getting this data to them.

There will be some armchair auditors who will pore through data and challenge their council on some aspect or other.

And alongside this, releasing the data in its rawest state will enable businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites which will make the data easier to understand.

We are already seeing good examples of this on websites such as Openly Local, Where Does My Money Go, Armchair Auditor and Spotlight on Spend and through tools such as You Choose.

On the other hand, pages of figures on endless excel spreadsheets will mean nothing to many ordinary citizens. Councils will, rightly, want to present their data in such a way as to make it more meaningful to individuals and community groups. This is why transparency is integral to the Big Society.

For some groups - communities of interest, or brought together in a locality - there will be lobby groups who will interpret data for their benefit to help them push for change. It will also, in some cases, be the media who will use your data.

But what does this mean for you as scrutiny councillors? The challenge is how do you help people to use this wealth of information to press for their cause and hold their local leaders to account? What can scrutiny committees and councils do to strengthen local scrutiny, both through existing formal routes and the wider web of accountability? What more can government do? How can we get developers interested in these local datasets?

Last week I participated in the Local by Social online conference. This was an exciting and innovative way to bring together a range of experts to discuss how the internet can be used to deliver services, influence how localities are governed and, crucially, strengthen local accountability. I was very interested in the conversations that followed the presentations given by Swansea and Coventry on what they have done with social media, and the conversation that took place with councillors on social media surgeries.

To me, the critical word here is conversation - how can social media and transparent open data be brought together to enable councils to have a conversation with their residents? How can local open data be used in innovative ways to rebuild the accountability relationship? What can I do as minister with special responsibility for local transparency to help you drive localism and facilitate those conversations that I know you are having already, but want to be having with more people in your communities? How do we use open data, social media, and other tools to bring people into the decision-making process, as well as to raise an army of armchair auditors?

I am sure that many of you are at the forefront of this agenda, either as part of ‘Tweetyhall’, or through other social media activities. As I’m sure you know, Eric Pickles, is a keen tweeter, though I, I have to admit, am catching up with this agenda.

These are exciting, as well as challenging, times, and I see no limit to the opportunities that we can give people through greater transparency and democratic accountability. This government is doing what it can. You all have a pivotal role in supporting your councils to make your data available, and your residents to make the best use of it.