Image: Where Does My Money Go?
Local authorities already face formidable challenges in adjusting to the new age of austerity. There will be many tough decisions to come to ensure core services are protected amid the cuts. But now there is a new challenge.
In just a few weeks’ time, councils will be required to open their books to the public for the first time, and provide detailed information about key areas such as spend, performance and service provision.
From January 2011, it will be a government requirement that local councils publish online details of all their spending over £500.
So far, while guidance on opening up their data is now available, many councils have yet to meet the demands of the open data initiative. The Guardian recently reported that only 66 of the 326 councils in England had published data online, and of these, only 32 had published in an open format – a government requirement so it can readily be re-used by third parties.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues have all stated their determination in recent months to enforce the changes. Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, says the public has a legitimate right to access detailed data.
He adds: “When times are tight, the public rightly want to make sure that their council tax is being used to collect the bins, support the elderly and vulnerable, keep the streets clean and run excellent schools.
“If council figures show that those services are being squeezed while the council continues to shell out on taxis and lunches, then the public will soon make its views known.”
However, the release of detailed data will not only inform the public. It will also provide a continuous stream of newsworthy information to print, broadcast and blogging media, together with a new breed of data journalists, who combine traditional investigative and new media technical skills, and an ability to use statistics and spreadsheets.
Councils who are unprepared are likely to suffer a stream of negative press stories as the spotlight falls on them, the kind of council-bashing content popular with the local and national papers and existing critical bloggers. Stories of council junketing, sky high salaries, inefficiency and waste.
But there is an alternative. Adopt a communications strategy which enforces the following ground rules, every time a data release is imminent:
- Analyse your data on an on-going basis so that you are clear on what the data is saying and why
- Anticipate the most likely reaction of press and public
- Ensure you have an honest and effective response prepared and ready for release to point the media to (on your blog, naturally)
- Most importantly of all, however – if you are on top of your data and it highlights areas for improvement, get stuck in and fix them. Make sure you address the issue by responding proactively and ensuring the issue never arises again.
I’ll be in London at the Guardian’s Web Data Revolution – a new future for journalism event later on today to find out more from the other side. Follow me on Twitter to find out how the conversation goes.