Researching local data transparency

kelly for blogRecently, Compact Voice concluded a piece of research looking at how local authorities in England spend on, and engage with, the voluntary sector.
We wanted to understand how transparent local authorities were able to be with their spending data, how they were consulting with the sector and if they were cutting funding to the sector disproportionately.
The intention was to follow up on the research we’d undertaken in 2011 and 2012, where we’d issued Freedom of Information Act requests to local authorities. There’s a bit of background covered by my colleague Rachel in her blog from February this year.
Publishing data around spending, and being open and transparent in relationships and engagement is a vital way for councils to communicate better with the communities they are serving. Furthermore, reliable and timely data can help drive better public services and increase confidence and trust that citizens have for their local authority.
The previous research undertaken in 2011 and 2012 resulted in the same two themes, which were:
1. An ample amount of data, which allowed us to draw some solid conclusions about the state of funding to the sector across England. In 2012 for example, we learned that half of local authorities were cutting funding to the sector disproportionately. In other words, by more than their own settlement from central government was being reduced.
2. A dislike of the approach: we received a fair amount of feedback from local areas saying that they found the use of FOI requests to be confrontational and to damage local relationships: certainly not what we had intended.
With both of those things in mind, in late 2013 we decided to establish if the picture of spend and engagement had changed - but we decided to do this by asking for the information to be provided voluntarily.
We’ve now published a short briefing outlining some of the findings from 2013’s research.

What we received was:

  • Significantly fewer responses in 2013/14 than in 2012, when we asked the same questions but did so under the FOI Act.
  • A lot of emails acknowledging our requests, but in most cases these weren’t followed up with answers.
  • Feedback from some areas saying they were pleased we hadn’t issued them with FOI responses. Others however chose to treat the voluntary requests as FOI Act requests anyway.
  • A lot of information that was unusable: links to spreadsheets containing vast amount of data that was complex or unclear.
  • Information about, for example, every single consultation an area had run, rather than just information about consultation with the voluntary sector. Other areas could not provide a figure but stated ‘consultation were run by the council’, which is reassuring, but unable to be analysed properly.

What we could conclude:

Despite the Department of Communities and Local Government's Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency, most authorities are still largely unable, or unwilling, to provide the information we requested.
Three consecutive years of undertaking this research has allowed Compact Voice to gather useful knowledge and insights about how councils record their data on spend and engagement with the voluntary sector.
This is useful for our work more widely on encouraging open government and transparency across every level of government – locally and nationally.

Some areas did provide prompt, clear answer to our queries and our warmest thanks go to them for taking the time to respond.

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