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Open data is not the same as open government

Thanks to unrelenting pressure from press and public, we are getting to learn more about the workings of government. Go to www.data.gov.uk and you can discover the identities of VIPs who attend meetings with ministers and, expected soon, a summary of the contents of ministerial tax returns.

Open data is indeed a cause to celebrate, however, it comes at the same time as other less welcome developments in government communications. Two in particular that seem to have avoided closer scrutiny are the closure of the Central Office of Information at the end of March, and, more importantly, a decision by the government to stop publishing the annual civil service yearbook.

In response to a question during a House of Lords debate last year, the government said it would stop publishing the yearbook because information can now be found on www.data.gov.uk. While it is true that top peoples’ salaries are now available to read (along with much else), the website’s listing of names and job titles for civil servants is patchy and limited to very senior people. In contrast, the yearbook contained the names of Whitehall officials at many levels, together with their job titles, and contact information, including direct phone numbers.

In the online version, names and details for less senior people have been withheld presumably to protect officials from being bombarded with emails from the public and to encourage people to contact government departments using the Freedom of Information route. This undoubtedly suits government but it has made the rest of us data poor.

Like its predecessor, the present coalition government tells us it is committed to more openness, but in reality, previous UK administrations, while far from perfect, were not as censorious as you might think. For at least the past two decades it has been possible to obtain quite detailed data on spending by individual departments and agencies.

Obtaining such data in the days before the Freedom of Information Act was not always easy; the process, however, was laborious rather than painful. Few in the civil service opposed the principle that government information should be made available to those who pay the bills. It’s true that the yearbook wasn’t free (the last edition would set you back £70), but it was a staple of all libraries, large and small.

Many readers will argue that the loss of access to a few names and phone numbers of civil servants needs to be balanced with the benefits from the mountains of data that are now accessible at the click of a mouse. But we would argue that the act of uploading terabytes of spreadsheets does not, on its own, amount to open government. For government to be open, it also needs to be open about what the sources of its data are; what data are missing; and preferably providing access to previous data sets so that proper comparisons are possible.

These questions tend not to be answered by a static website. They need the public to be able to access relevant experts in Whitehall. Those people are more likely to be mid-level civil servants, the subject-specialists who have expertise and often welcome the opportunity to share it, but who will now remain hidden from public view.