The government has hailed its work to create data registers as a major milestone in its move towards improving transparency, as set out in its action plan on open government.
Making government data accessible is part of the open government plan – Photo credit: Pexels
The action plan, which was first published in October 2013 and ran until 2015, is part of the UK’s involvement in the Open Government Partnership – an initiative involving 70 countries that aims to ensure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, fight corruption and make better use of technology.
The government has now published a self-assessment of the status of the targets set in 2013, saying that 18 of the 21 commitments have been achieved successfully.
A number of these relate to work on government data – others are around contracting, whistleblowing and policy-making.
The first commitment was to create a national information infrastructure, which involved the government identifying and publicly listing all the datasets it has, and creating publicly-available standardised datasets, or registers.
The government declared this as being completed successfully, and the report sets out the milestones of the work. It involved the creation of three exemplar departments – Department of Health, the Department for Transport and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – which were used to understand the challenges and issues involved in creating a coordinated dataset framework.
The idea is to ensure that the government was transparent about the data it has, and the assessment said that departments can now list their unpublished datasets, with descriptions of their contents as well as a possible release date, on data.gov.uk. This will also help identify priority datasets in the future.
The assessment added that the project was “a continuous improvement project”, with a key part of future work being the creation of the standardised registers.
The first register, which was of countries and was created by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is already being used by services, such as the e-petition service, the report said.
Meanwhile, the FCO has recently announced that its second register – on political, administrative and geographical territories that are not countries – has moved into alpha. It said the idea was for the two registers to be used by all to be used by all government departments and would help standardise the use of territory names.
The news comes just weeks after the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that its own register on local authorities in England had gone into alpha.
The creation of these registers is being done in collaboration with the Government Digital Service, and in a blogpost earlier this month the GDS’ open data director Paul Maltby described the local authorities register as “a giant leap forward”.
However, he added that one issue was making sure that the data is right at the source. “Perhaps counter-intuitively in an age of big data in our team we often talk about creating minimum viable datasets,” he said. “This is important if other services are to trust this core reference data, and end the practice of duplicating data within our silos.”
To address this, there is a named custodian responsible for each register’s upkeep within the relevant department, and this person can only be held accountable for the data they “mint”, Maltby said.
Further commitments on data infrastructure set out in the third and latest iteration of the national action plan include collecting more granular data on grant making and the publication of more granular data on government grants expenditure at scheme and award level.
Elsewhere in the government’s assessment, the DCLG project OpenDataCommunities is described as completed. The programme, which allows the department to provide open, accessible and re-usable data, had more than 200 DCLG datasets from across its housing, planning and local government finance pilot portfolios.
The report said that the programme had seen a “steady increase” in usage since the 2013 national action plan was launched – in the 12 months ending on 30 June 2015, there were 78,000 visitors; for the 12 months ending on 30 March 2016 it was 89,000.
In addition, the commitment to a local authority transparency code, which aims to increase democratic accountability by asking councils to publish more information and data for citizens to use, was also listed as complete.
However, the report added that local data must be published at a level that can be used for national analysis – not just by local people.
To achieve this, the government said the next iteration of the code would have an increased focus on the quality of data, which will enable better scrutiny and analysis. A consultation on the changes closed on 8 July.
Areas in which there were fewer successes include health and social care – the health information standards commitment was withdrawn after a new framework on standards was published in November 2014. Meanwhile, the better health information commitment was described as being “substantially” completed because the government scrapped the care.data scheme for patient data sharing across the NHS earlier this year.
The report said that the work that had been done was at the stage where it was ready to be operationally tested with 120 pathfinder GPs, and that the work done to date would be used by the National Information Board as it considers how best to improve healthcare data sharing. A consultation on opt-out and security standards closed last month.
Meanwhile, work on digital records was also not fully completed, with the government committing to further work with the National Archives to create digital records from born-digital content.
The self-assessment will feed into an independent assessment by the Open Government Partnership.