Francis Maude MP: Our plans for government transparency continue apace - but we must uphold the highest possible standards of personal data protection
Our coalition government has achieved much in these early months. We have worked hard to correct the profligacy endemic in the last government and rein in the record deficit. We have rooted out the wasteful spending in Whitehall and imposed freezes on consultants, IT, advertising and websites. We have also started to free our public sector workers from Labour’s stifling system of top-down targets and diktats. But perhaps the most startling difference between this administration and the last is the degree of honesty we have with the public.
There has been a marked shift from the Labour era in making government more transparent and accountable. For proof, just look at what we have achieved in less than five months. We have released a huge array of data that the previous government had refused to publish, ranging from the Treasury’s COINS database of government spending to the salaries of senior civil servants and quangocrats. This is symptomatic of a change in culture in Whitehall.
We have put government transparency at the heart of our approach and we believe it will contribute to tackling some of our most important policy challenges; when we set ourselves the ambitious target of cutting government emissions by 10% in just 12 months, we published online the real-time energy consumption of buildings across Whitehall to help drive behaviour change and reduce energy use. This is already having an effect. And when we dismantled Labour’s disastrous PSA targets, we replaced them with a radical framework of government transparency that puts unprecedented information and power in the hands of the public, allowing them to scrutinise performance properly and drive up standards.
In the months ahead, we will go even further in opening up government. Citizens will soon be able to see for the first time exactly how and where their tax money is being spent, with every item of central government spending over £25,000 published online from November, and local council spending over £500 published online from January. That same month, crime data will begin to be published on a street-by-street basis, providing communities with an unparalleled amount of information about crime in their area, which can then be used at neighbourhood beat meetings to hold the police to account.
But our ambitions go far beyond the release of specific pieces of data.
When it comes to transparency and openness, we want nothing less than radical culture change for the public sector. That is why we have begun work on a radical Right to Data, which will give individuals, campaigners and social entrepreneurs the power to demand and receive data held by public bodies. Instead of civil servants deciding what data may or may not be socially useful, we want to turn the system on its head and enable the public to decide what it wants to see released. The Right to Data will mark a profound shift in the culture of government, and will help to put power where it belongs: in the hands of citizens and communities.
However, despite my profound belief that transparency is transformative in its effects, it is crucial to be clear about the type of transparency we mean. We want to be transparent about anonymised corporate data, we do not want to publish the public’s personal details. Personal privacy is the bedrock of a free society, and is as important a guiding principle for this government as transparency. That is why our commitment to making government more open goes hand in hand with our commitment to strengthen civil liberties. So as we move forward with our plans for government transparency, it is imperative that we continue to strike the right balance between this openness agenda and individual privacy.
This balance needs constant attention to make sure we get it right. Take our latest data release; today we are publishing detailed organisational charts showing exactly how many people work in every branch and level of central government. These ‘organograms’ are a huge stride forward for government openness, and will provide an unparalleled insight into the structure, focus and size of government departments.
However, when publishing this information, we have taken into account potentially sensitive privacy issues. We had initially planned to publish the names and salaries of all civil servants earning over £58,000 as part of the organogram, but after careful consultation with officials across Whitehall, we concluded that the balance between transparency and privacy would best be struck by not releasing this personal information.
We want to continue to strike this balance in future, which is why I can today announce that I will commission an independent report for government on open data and personal privacy. This report will focus on the datasets that the government is committed to publishing in the months ahead, and ensure that in each and every case, we continue to uphold the highest possible standards of personal data protection.
Our commitment to open data is clear, and in the months ahead, it is my ambition that we can make the British government one of the most open and transparent in the world. In his memoirs, Tony Blair bizarrely revealed that his biggest regret in office was introducing the Freedom of Information Act. If I ever sit down to write my own memoirs, freeing up government information will not number amongst my regrets. In fact, I very much hope that it will be one of my very proudest achievements.