The Government published data on Friday (19th November) on governmental spend over £25,000.
Open data enthusiasts are piling on from all sides to pick through the data. I must admit that my first instinct was one of sheer neighbourly nosiness; I looked first to see how much support the charity I work for receives from government, then had a quick look at those that I’m most interested in because they are most like us. But in the long term I can see this giving me a much more detailed understanding of how public services that I am interested in are being delivered.
There is criticism as well that this will lead to a nation of ‘armchair auditors’ who instead of curtain-twitching, will be going online to poke into the details of government spend, and then FOI-ing the life out of any department who has spent money on something that they don’t like. Well, yes, it is time consuming for civil servants to answer Freedom of Information requests, but we have to decide whether that’s a part of democratic life that we are going to support. I think it has to be. My view at heart is that surely it cannot be right that we can find out more about our best mate’s ex on Facebook than we can about how our tax money gets used (for the record, I do nothing to find out any information about my best mate’s ex).
In any case, delivering public data to the interested citizen seems to be a large part of what the Coalition government sees as ‘Big Society’ – digitally and statistically empowered citizens logging on to scrutinise government expenditure, looking for value for money and looking for delivery of promises.
It’s a tall order. I’m a self-confessed open data geek but it still challenges my analytical muscles to stretch and strain meaning out of the data published today. If the Government really want meaningful, independent discussion about this data, then Citizenship Education needs to be supported to help people work with it. Otherwise the digital divide combined with open data will result in an increased participation gap, with those in-the-know able to get better evidence for their side of the argument and ultimately tilting patterns of distribution so that public services meet their needs. We cannot afford to take a ‘you snooze, you lose,’ approach to something so critical as who gets which services. Something needs to be happening right now, in schools and in communities, across all age groups and all levels of digital fluency, to help people get to grips with how government runs this place.
This could mean interesting stuff, like linking up Citizenship Education with mathematics (understanding statistics) or with ICT (understanding how to use ICT to deal with data). But that takes time and commitment, and the leadership needs to come from the grassroots AND those who set national policy.
If governments want engaged citizens, then they must support Citizenship Education, by retaining it in the statutory curriculum, by supporting it in communities, and by giving those who teach it sufficient resources and support.
Essi Lindstedt, writing in a personal capacity, and as a signatory to the Democratic Life campaign.