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Data in Whitehall: Which UK departments are the least and most open?

Charlotte Jee | Aug. 27, 2015
Few are brave or foolish enough to publicly disagree with the idea that public bodies should publish as much of the data they hold as possible.

The MOJ has led Whitehall efforts to water down open data measures within European Union directives and has "resisted attempts to open up case law," Boswarva adds.

Makgill says he has had trouble dragging data out of the MOJ - it took an Information Commissioner's Office judgement to compel them to release spending data, a process that took 13 months.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' position where it has to defend the commercial interests -and thus data - of trading funds like the Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Met Office make it "the most harmful countervailing force to the development of an open national information infrastructure", Boswarva claims.

For example, the department came under criticism from MPs in March last year for including the Postcode Address File - a database of all UK addresses - in its sale of the Royal Mail, meaning it would no longer be available to all.

The Ugly

It is the Cabinet Office, ironically the department responsible for open data policy, that is cited by all respondents as having the worst record in central government when it comes to publishing its own data.

Despite being in charge of cajoling the public sector into publishing more data and becoming more transparent, the Cabinet Office did not publish its spending data for a whole year from August 2014. This data is supposed to be released every month.

"The Cabinet Office itself doesn't hold much data. But as the lead department for open data policy, its failure to publish recent spending data and its notorious hostility to FOI have undermined its credibility," Boswarva says.

"The Cabinet Office's guiding principle seems to be 'Do as I say, not as I do'," one civil servant who wished to remain anonymous told ComputerworldUK.

"In the Cabinet Office, there is a whole team dedicated to transparency, yet they can't seem to even persuade their finance teams to regularly publish spending data," Makgill says.

"It's the only department I've seen where there is such a clear demarcation between what the policy people are trying to achieve and the service is actually delivering," he adds.

Anecdotal evidence from civil servants and startups suggests the Cabinet Office's laggard approach to releasing its own data and resistance to FOI is being used as an excuse by other departments who take a more lax approach to the issue.

"We've heard from people who are having problems getting their department to publish their data as their leaders are saying 'well, the Cabinet Office aren't doing it'. It corrodes from the head down," Makgill says.

It's easy to see open data as a niche issue. But without good quality data, we are all in the dark about the work government does: its impact, its value and its importance.

 

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