Open Data? Context is Key

Today the Government has disclosed masses of data about payments made by central Government since the election. Hard to criticise really – this is good news, especially if you believe in openness.

But already I note – and even in the generally pro-public service press – the immediate reporting and analysis of this data is falling into the bad habits that have sometimes characterised reporting of FOI stories in the media. The Guardian report this morning (and the Guardian was given advance sight of the data) described:

“the lingering waste in the government machine, with civil servants sent on chocolate-themed awaydays, training for civil servants in how to have “difficult conversations”, and nightclubs rented for official meetings. Downing Street spent £55,000 renovating David Cameron’s offices after his election.”

Of course, “chocolate-themed awaydays” sounds bad, but then so did the stories of Audit Commission staff going to the races, and that turned out to have been unfairly distorted once anyone bothered to ask the Head of the Audit Commission about it. Isn’t it a good thing if Civil Servants, who undoubtedly are having a great deal of “difficult conversations” at the moment, receive training in how to get the most out of those conversations? And when we’re told the cost, are we given any context – how many civil servants were being trained? If it costs £20,000, that’s not really that bad if 40 or 50 staff had one or two days’ training. And if an office in a heavily used and pretty old building needs £55,000 worth of renovation work, isn’t it important to know when it was last refurbished before judging if it is “lingering waste”?

I’m not saying that these details shouldn’t be scrutinised, but if you’re going to report it with an arched eyebrow, in words dripping with insinuation, shouldn’t you first be sure of the context of the spending? Shouldn’t you report that alongside the figures?

Yesterday, journalist David Higgerson wrote about the Prime Minister’s statement about Greater Manchester Police in a blog entry for the Liverpool Daily Post. He made exactly this point, adding:

“maybe Cameron should stop stigmatising many thousands of hard-working people to score cheap political points. Context is key here, and Cameron, as in opposition, is having a struggle with context once again.”

It’s not just David Cameron who has been at fault here, but also other politicians and journalists who should know better. It’s not truly Open Government if we’re just thrown batches of figures and cheap shots at the public sector (and by the way, that’s part of the context too – how does public sector spending and practice compare to equivalent spending and practice in the private sector?).

There will be a brief break in transmissions from FOI Man for the next week. Thanks again for reading, contributing comments and emailing me barmy FOI requests. It really is appreciated, and I’ll look forward to resuming normal service again in a week or so’s time.

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