Monday 16 July 2012

The opendata confessional for localgov

We don't have a water cooler you can gather around at GDS (though we do have drinking water on tap) because you'd be massively in the way if you did but if we did this post would be tagged watercooler.

I think best when I think aloud. I don't have anyone to think aloud to, which is why this blog is so brilliantly useful, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going to use it to think aloud about opendata in local government and how and why you need to make the argument that opendata is good for local government, not 10,000 disastrous news stories waiting to happen.


But I suppose before that I should remind people of the eyebrow test. A central government press officer mentioned she wasn't an opendata specialist the other day. I'm not either, I'll be completely honest. I'm not a specialist in anything, it's what I do best. But I am a citizen, and I am a user of output from central and local government. Most of this country is - we all get our bins collected. So we can all read through data and see the same things a journalist will - the glaring zero in the wrong place or the travel fare amount so ludicrous it cannot possibly be correct. You will see those things and you will raise an eyebrow and if you do, so will a journalist. It's that simple. If it isn't a mistake, do your research and be ready for the questions, you will see them coming, deal with them, and move on.

On to the actual data and why local government should bother.


Policy gets eaten by culture, just like strategy. It's like some weird game of paper, scissors, stone. But policy also need to do an awful lot of research and sometimes a little bit of benchmarking as well. They seem to be where relationships sit with a lot of external stakeholders but internal ones too. 

Wouldn't it be nice if someone else could do all the research for you and you could simply consume a report which told you what everyone else was doing on a particular subject so you could decide whether a policy change would work in your area or not?

Opendata is not just spreadsheets full of numbers. Sharing your policy decision and the thinking behind them, all of you, would mean someone could compile a searchable database for 436 Councils which would tell you with a quick keyword search what someone with a similar demographic to you did when considering renewing seating layout in their town centre. Or whether someone needed to change gritting policies as a result of the recent bad winters, just like you. Imagine never having to save everything you come across just in case you might need it in future every again.


Imagine, if you will, a world where you'd be able to know with 60% certainty the outcome of a financial decision, be that supplier, resourcing or a change in allocation of staffing to a different resource. And I've plucked that number out of the air - it could be and probably would be higher. A world where you fire up a web browser, put your Council name in, what you're trying to do and it spits out the details of someone else who's done exactly the same thing with price tags attached. Purchasing a cleaning product for the next 5 years? Sourcing diesel suppliers? Doesn't matter. Because every Council has popped all their spending data online, combined with their supplier lists and what they use them for. And someone else who wants to make a little bit of money (proportionately massively less money than potentially you will spend making the wrong decision on suppliers) will take all that information, cross reference it with population, demographic and other census data as well as map information to find a Council similar to you who has made the same budgeting decision or who has looked for and found the same solution.


With the removal of National Indicator sets and the retention of PAM's and internal reporting requirements mean that performance statistics are still important. And you know that eventually someone is going to want to know how they're performing compared to the next village/town/county over. Which then results in endless phone calls, lots of relationship building, a little bit of grovelling and a lot of research depending on your Council's relationship with aforementioned village/town/county. 

There's an easier way. Every Council chucks their performance data they report on onto the web. An enterprising data cruncher comes along, normalises the data, makes a few phone calls, gets everyone publishing in the same format. Creates a tool which allows you to find the performance outcomes for every Council at the click of a button. So you don't need to stick to your local village/town/county to benchmark, you can measure your success or failure against any comparative Council within the country. And if you discover you're falling short, you can phone that Council up and ask them to come and tell  you how they're succeeding. 


Bins. My old friend bins. The single biggest daily repetitive operation that local government carries out. Do you have nightmares trying to make your bin collections as efficient and cost effective as possible? Do you lie awake at night trying to work out if you've missed something crucial, a saving concealed in the mire of back alleys, ginnels, alleyways and secret shortcuts only the locals know? 

You might well be missing something. And if all Councils published their bin round maps online, it'd be a damn sight easier for everyone to share what they do and how efficient it is. Timings, number of staff, number of vehicles, number of rounds. Map showing what gets done when and how often. Find a local Council with a high density of the type of housing you're looking for (if you're not sure, ask Keep Britain Tidy, thanks to LEQS they know where all kinds of types of housing are across the UK). Look at their maps and schedules. Differ massively from yours? Phone them up and ask them why they've done what they've done and how much it's cost them. You might find you can save a few £100,000 by picking someone else's brains.

Don't get sidelined by the stories in the data for others

I could go on and on and on. A blog post is not the place for a document which outlined by section and department through an entire Council structure how opendata could benefit. Suffice to say I hope that the above examples demonstrate why opendata is not just about spending figures. Why operating in isolation is potentially costing you money. Why sharing doesn't just mean with journalists, but also with each other. Why having other Councils knocking on your door asking you how you're doing what you're doing looks pretty good come Award time. 

The long and short of it is, opendata could be saving you a huge amount of time, effort and money, resource you could free up to reallocate internally to doing something better instead. Yes, resource will be needed to produce, collate and publish all  this data - but are you really not already producing it as a by-product of your day to day job anyway?

Don't get sidelined by the stories in the data for others. Focus instead on the stories in other peoples data for you.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. You've managed to crystallise a question that I ask in practically every meeting I attend: 'Hmm. Interesting. What do other local authorities do?' closely followed by 'Have you asked them?'