(Local) Information is power? Localism and local transparency

Dr Benjamin Worthy reflects on the Centre’s recent seminar on localism and local transparency.

One of the Coalition’s flagship transparency policies is now in place. Every local authority in England is publishing all their spending over £500 (see an example local authority here). Some are also publishing a host of other information from salaries to contracts and grants. Our seminar on Thursday discussed how this is developing and what impact it may have on the future.

In late September 2012 the Local Government Association surveyed 128 local authorities to find out what was happening (see here). The first finding was that everyone is publishing spending data, though there is variation in other information being published; 100% of councils that responded published spending data, 96% published salaries but only 54% published details of grants to community groups. There are also various strategies with which this links up – some authorities link it to FOI policy or communication, though some to none at all.

In terms of use, it seems that there is very little public interest as yet, with a sense there was no ‘demand’ for the data. The information is still seen as too ‘raw’ and is not yet useful, localised or contextualised enough to attract or interest local people. Local authorities indicated the biggest impact of the data had been to increase their accountability, with 80% feeling it helped ‘external accountability’ with the added benefit, from 50 % of those asked, of reducing the volume of FOI requests.

Discussion in the seminar focused on the ‘Armchair Auditors’; the idea, championed by Eric Pickles, that citizens will be the new auditors of their own authorities. Though there are some appearing, it may take time, particular skills and a certain enthusiasm (and stubbornness) to become one and not everyone is convinced. See this example and an interesting comment here.

However, one of the most important developments is not the data local authorities are releasing but the innovations. This can be developments such as Chris Taggart’s Openly Local where you can assess council spending at the push of a button or the wonderful ‘Where Does My Money Go’.

Data also becomes more useful when data is linked to other data. The survey points to some emerging use by community groups and other public bodies, with a great deal of interest in further ‘joining up’ of information across bodies and council boundaries and in the pushing of more innovative developments.

The future is likely to lie with initiatives such as this DCLG experiment where different kinds of data can be linked and made relevant, both for people and policy-makers themselves. These initiatives can move in many unexpected directs from prescription analysis that can save money to this amazing site in India, recommended by an audience member, which enables citizens to report who they paid a bribe to. The future of data is local, linked and may be unexpected.

Thank you to everyone who took part.

Taking up the gauntlet in the UK: the only real Big Society is the associative society

By Dr Jason Edwards

The uncritical understanding of what constitutes a ‘community’ and the failure to grasp what forms of citizen self-government are possible in current conditions is what betrays the intellectual laziness of the Big Society’s key thinkers.

As a political project espoused by Britain’s coalition government, the ‘Big Society’ looks moribund. Yet those on the left would do well not to dismiss without reservation the thinking that has lain behind its construction. Big Society thinkers such as Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond offer some accurate diagnoses of the social and economic problems of contemporary Britain, and are right to put forward far-reaching alternatives for socio-economic governance that are informed by ideas of localism, voluntarism, and mutualism.

Continue reading on openDemocracy.