CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ #8 – Margaret Hodge & the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee

by Stephen Tall on August 3, 2012

ImageWelcome to the eight in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is simple enough: to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We will be highlighting individuals regardless of their party affiliation, and indeed from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Margaret Hodge & the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee

The Committee focuses on the value-for-money of public expenditure.
Reason: for holding effectively to account the Coalition’s commitment to data transparency and promoting more informed public choice.

“Data transparency”: two words pretty much guaranteed to mute a dinner-party conversation or to get the casual blog-reader clicking on their ‘Back’ browser button. However, the Coalition has made it a central mission to open up how local and national government spends taxpayers’ money — here’s how David Cameron described this zeal back in May 2010:

Greater transparency across Government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending; and to realise significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites using public data.

More than two years on, hows it all going? Not bad, but could do better is the conclusion of two reports assessing progress. In April, the National Audit Office noted:

By the end of last year, 23 out of 25 specific commitments for central government had been met and some initiatives had achieved spectacular results: 47m visits to the police crime map website between February and December 2011 and an 84% rise over 12 months in use of comparative schools data released by the Department for Education.

So job done? Not quite. Building on the NAO analysis, the powerful Commons Public Affairs Committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, has said there is a long way to go to ensure that the public can make any sense of the information now available, with four out of five people who visit the data.gov.uk website leaving it immediately without accessing links to data:

It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda. At the moment too much data is poorly presented and difficult to interpret. In some sectors, such as adult social care, there are big gaps in the information provided so users cannot use it to make informed choices. … One area of particular concern to this Committee is that private providers can hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ to block the disclosure of relevant information. We must be able to follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it is spent.

Two liberal aspects to welcome here:

First, it is an excellent example of Parliament holding the government to account, scrutinising the implementation of legislation, and identifying areas in which it falls short of liberal principles. Incidentally, Parliament should extend this principle to European legislation, too, with standing departmental European Scrutiny Committee sub-committees taking more responsibility for monitoring EU-derived business — espying problems earlier rather than just complaining later.

Secondly, the actual recommendations given by the Committee are an attempt to ensure that the Government brings about freedom of information and data transparency in a way fully compatible with the liberal nature of the Coalition’s original promise. Particularly crucial is the need to put in place a framework to evaluate the success and value-for-money of the approach — currently, it is not possible to show ‘data transparency’ is achieving any of its objectives beyond providing public access to public information. In other words, there is a need to focus on outcomes not just output.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here.