Not with a Bang but a Whimper The Politics of Accountability and Open Data in the UK

  • Posted on: 3 December 2012
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)
TitleNot with a Bang but a Whimper The Politics of Accountability and Open Data in the UK
Publication TypeMiscellaneous
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsMcClean T

In late May 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron instructed Treasury officials to begin the online publication of historical data from the Combined Online Information System, known as COINS (Prime Minister 2010a). COINS is the Treasury’s main data- base for managing budgetary and expenditure data, and covers organizations across the public sector. It is used for fiscal management, the production of Parliamentary Supply Estimates and public expenditure statistics, the preparation of Whole of Government Accounts and provide data to the Office for National Statistics (Treasury 2010). COINS is, among those outside government who are aware of its existence, often seen as the most comprehensive record of UK public sector finance (e.g. Rogers 2010b:11:45am). The release of the COINS data formed part of an ambitious “Transparency Agenda” adopted by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which was elected in 2010 (Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition 2010:Chapter 10). This Agenda forms part, in turn, of a broader program of public sector reform which seeks to transform state- society relations by publishing official data on public sector contracts, salaries, spending and performance. More recently, this Transparency Agenda has also produced an Open Public Services White Paper (Minister for Government Policy 2011) and an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 enshrining a so-called “right to data” in law (clause 92 of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which was being considered by the House of Com- mons Bill Committee as of late July 2011). Democratic concerns were a prominent feature of the political rhetoric surrounding the release of the COINS data. One of the most prominent rationales offered by the gov- ernment for its release, and for the Transparency Agenda more generally, was thhat it would strengthen the democratic accountability of the state towards individual mem- bers of the public (Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister 2010:20-21). Similar con- cerns were also expressed by journalists and civil society organizations who had tried (unsuccessfully) to obtain the data under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The editor of the Guardian’s Datablog went so far as to wonder if its release represented the “end of the data war” (Rogers 2010d). Despite the lofty rhetoric and the anticipation which surrounded its release, the public availability of the COINS data does not (yet) appear to have had much of an effect on everyday politics in the UK. There was a brief flurry of media interest in mid-2010, in the immediate aftermath of the release, but reports explicitly mentioning COINS are now extremely rare and those members of the press who were most interested obtaining access to it report that it has not proved particularly useful as a driver of journalism.1 search of blogs, discussion boards and online media suggests that broader social interest in it has also largely subsided. This paper argues that the political impact of the right to data has fallen short of expec- tation largely because of unrealistic expectations. These, it argues, were brought about by pervasive tendency to focus on supply-side issues, coupled with a systematic lack of attention to how the data would be used once it was released. The paper has three aims. First, to identify the unrealistic expectations by tracing the historical impetus for the re- lease of the COINS data and the emergence of open data as a government policy in the UK. Second, to identify the specific reasons why these expectations proved unrealistic. And third, to consider some of the broader implications of the COINS experience for the advocacy and use of technology and open data to transform democratic politics.


Tom notes that too much attention has been given to 'supply' of data and removing the supply-side barrier, without enough attention being given to removing other barriers to data use.
He notes the classic arguments (data will be used by techies to build new things; or data will be used by journalists to hold gov to account) are not supported by the evidence. However, other routes to transparency having an impact - e.g. through "law of anticipated reactions" acting as a disciplining force on bureaucracy - may be having an impact.

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