Government backtracks on key open data and FOI commitments

The UK has withdrawn some of its key open data and freedom of information (FOI) commitments in its latest national plan, which aims to boost transparency, participation and accountability in the public sector.

A review of the government’s initial commitments to opening up data to the public found that legacy ICT systems and a conflicting government agenda to reduce regulation were creating problems for the plans.

The Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) carries out a biannual review of each of the participating Open Government Partnership (OGP) country’s open data activities.

The OGP is an initiative aimed at securing firm commitments from governments to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective and accountable. It officially launched in September 2011, with the UK as one of the eight founding members.

Out of 41 commitments the UK set out in 2011, only four have since been withdrawn. Some 17 were completed and the remaining 20 were in progress, IRM found.

Some of the withdrawn commitments were key to the UK’s first National Action Plan and fail to feature in the latest plan, which was released last week.

A merged, single data inventory - scrapped

For example, the UK had been planning to create a ‘single data inventory’ by merging information asset registers, publication schemes and other data lists. Alongside this there was going to be an ‘unlocking service’, which was set to provide citizens and businesses the ability to make requests for datasets not currently published.

This commitment also required setting consistent expectations of the appropriate quality of metadata and creating standardised data co-ordinated across government – both key to allowing people to compare and connect data for re-use.

IRM found that the government carried out some work to establish a single data inventory, but the work was discontinued “in light of the considerable challenges posed by the differing structures of government departments and legacy ICT systems”.

The report goes as far to say that a single data inventory is “beyond the current capacity of government”.

However, a recent independent review found that if departments could quickly and systematically identify core reference data, this could provide a partial inventory of core material that could be published and kept up-to-date.

This comes in the form of the National Information Infrastructure (NII), which was announced in the government’s second National Action Plan. The NII will make clear the most important datasets held by government and create a framework to help data owners prioritise their release, whilst making published data accessible to the public via an API.

FOI requests come under pressure

Another scrapped commitment was the plan to introduce new powers held by independent organisations to secure the release of valuable public datasets, with a suitable format, quality and regularity of publication.

Currently FOI requests are enforced by the UK Information Commissioner, who is responsible for dealing with appeals that are made over unfulfilled information requests. This commitment would have further empowered people to make FOI requests.

It was also intended that a higher cost cap for datasets requested would be introduced. At present, if it costs a central government organisation more than £600, or other authorities £450, they can reject an FOI request on the grounds that it costs too much in staff time and materials.

The IRM report states: “The commitment to raise these upper limits was apparently to prevent cost from inhibiting the disclosure of datasets in response to FOI requests, particularly if the details were requested in a specific format.”

It is thought that the government’s ‘hands off’ approach may have conflicted with this, resulting in a retraction.

“These commitments may be out of sync with an overarching government trend to reduce regulatory burdens,” the IRM report said.

“The UK government made it clear…that it intends to review the circumstances in which requests can be refused on cost grounds, which could lower the cap, making it more, rather than less, likely that information can be withheld in response to FOI requests.”

Other commitments that are unlikely to be fulfilled include establishing a framework for public service providers to have common, consistent and transparent inventories outlining what datasets are held, and whether or not they are open, using standards set by central government. This is in addition to developing a clear methodology to support ‘intelligent inventories’ that are prioritised by value.

National Action Plan 2.0

Following the IRM’s report assessing the government’s commitment retractions, the Cabinet Office has released its second National Action Plan.

It states that the UK’s first plan looked at the challenges of improving public services and more effectively managing public resources, whereas the latest iteration will demonstrate what the government is doing across all ‘five grand challenges’. These are as follows:

• Improving public services

• Increasing public integrity

• More effectively managing public resources

• Creating safer communities

• Increasing corporate accountability

The two commitments that received the most attention at last week’s OGP Summit in London were the National Information Infrastructure plan, and the UK government’s commitment to create a publicly accessible central registry of company beneficial ownership.

It is hoped that the registry will contain information about who ultimately owns and controls UK companies, which could help tackle corruption and tax evasion. If legislation is passed, companies are likely to face greater requirements around compliance for reporting financial information.

On release of the second Action Plan, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said: “We have consistently made clear our commitment for the UK to become “the most open and transparent government in the world.

“Our resolve has not weakened. Indeed, our engagement with civil society to develop and agree the stretching and ambitious commitments in this second Open Government Partnership UK National Action Plan has strengthened, not lessened our commitment to open government.”

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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