If charities are to deliver public services will they need to release data?

The UK government yesterday confirmed its commitment to devolving some power to the voluntary sector, and to ensuring data is made available for the public scrutiny of public services.

“The best contribution that central government can make [to the Big Society] is to devolve power, money and knowledge to those best placed to find the best solutions to local needs: elected local representatives, frontline public service professionals, social enterprises, charities, co-ops, community groups, neighbourhoods and individuals.”
Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: an essential guide

Central to this is a continued commitment to releasing public data for the public to use:

“Public access to public data provides the evidence base for public pressure and action, both on the part of those proposing new ways to deliver services and on the part of service users thus enabled to make an informed choice”.

I’ve not yet seen anything that puts an expectation on the voluntary sector to release data, and to do so in an open format, but if they are to deliver services alongside local government then it seems inevitable that there will be a similar expectation on them to release data as there is on public sector organisations. And it will, quite rightly, need to happen across the board – regardless of whether or not an organisation is delivering a public service.

NCVO is already encouraging charities to release data and Open Charities has opened up the charity register; the Charity Commission itself, however, seems to be lagging behind at the moment.

I expect it won’t be allowed to lag for long though. Voluntary sector organisations may well be about to find themselves under a lot more scrutiny, not just from government and funders but from the general public too.

This post is based on one I published to the Citizenship Foundation’s blog.

Update (15 Dec 2010, 18:00)

In light of comments, I have changed the title of this post from a statement to a question.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

9 thoughts on “If charities are to deliver public services will they need to release data?

  1. Have you got some examples in mind of datasets that you think, if released, would generate substantial additional utility in service delivery?

    I ask this question fairly frequently on “open it up” posts – I haven’t yet seen much in the way of clear, confident responses. Which intrigues me 🙂

    • Having said that, if government salaries and spending are expected to be public and open then – using my arguments above – it’s not a giant step to expecting the same from voluntary organisations.

      Also, any research (social or otherwise) that charities undertake should (in my opinion) be available openly.

  2. There’s another layer of complication as I see it – your argument seems to go: ‘if charities are to pitch in to deliver public services then they should behave like the government’ (not like deliverers of public services). I thought that the governmetn has to give details of contracts, but management companies that deliver them don’t have to disclose all their inner workings. So if only charities do, then that puts them at competitive disadvantage to deliver those services.

    ALongside this – there is a lobby trying to get VAT relief for charities, whcih doesn’t work in connection to the encouragement to make charities greater deliverers of public services. This time it can’t happen, because VAT relief would unfarily advantage charities… unless you have some extra clauses (e.g. VAT relief on items not associates with public service contracts) which is a mess again…

    • I’m not suggesting charities necessarily should behave like that, but that they might soon find that they’re expected to.

      I agree though that I may have confused ‘public service delivery’ with ‘government’; I confess I’m not really sure how far the expectation to release data reaches, or exactly how all public services are delivered.

      • At the moment I think the understanding is that government is forced to open data up, while those that provide services will not be forced. The problem this might create is that the gains in government opening up data are wiped out by the transfer of services to bodies that don’t release data.

        But this may change – see this article in Computer Weekly: http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2010/11/17/243970/Government-suppliers-may-be-ordered-to-open-up-data.htm

        There are arguments either way about providers of public services being subject to FOI – arguments about openness, value for money, admin burden, competition, etc.

        What I would argue though is that by becoming more open, voluntary organisations (and dare I say it private companies too) can gain advantages. They can create trust, they can get better feedback on their services, they can integrate their data with other sources

  3. Thanks for the article Michael.

    You say, it “seems inevitable that there will be a similar expectation on [charities] to release data as there is on public sector organisations.”

    I don’t think it follows that supplying the public sector (as a charity or private organisation) means that one would be treated AS a public sector organisations.

    – – –

    You mention the possibly of the following data being made available by charities:

    a. Research (social or otherwise)
    b. Salaries
    c. Spending

    A. Research

    I could not find any obligation for charities to publish this. This may fall within policies relating to acting in the public benefit. I have made enquiries and will update with a comment when I have a response from the Charity Commission.

    B. Spending

    Currently published online:

    -Total expenditure
    -Voluntary income costs
    -Fundraising Trading costs
    -Investment Management costs
    -Grants to institutions
    -Charitable Activities costs
    -Governance costs
    -Other resources expended
    -Total Resources expended
    -Support costs
    -Depreciation

    C. Salaries

    Currently published online:

    -Number of Employees
    -Governance costs
    -Support costs
    -Pension Assets/Liabilities

    If a charity has an annual income is over £25,000 the following would also apply to their published accounts:

    “Staff Costs and Emoluments
    234 It is important that the accounts disclose the costs of employing staff who work for the
    charity whether or not the charity itself has incurred those costs. This includes seconded and
    agency staff and staff employed by connected or independent companies. For instance, staff
    working for a charity may have contracts with and be paid by a connected company. Payments
    may also be made to independent third parties for the provision of staff. Where such
    arrangements are in place and the costs involved are material (in relation to the charity’s own
    expenditure) there should be disclosure by way of note which outlines the arrangement in place,
    the reasons for them and the amounts involved.

    235 The total staff costs should be shown in the notes to the accounts giving the split between
    gross wages and salaries, employer’s national insurance costs and pension costs (those pension
    costs included within resources expended excluding pension finance costs) for the year.
    The average number of staff during the year should be provided and where material to the
    disclosure, eg due to the number of part-time staff, an estimate of the average number of full
    time equivalent employees for the year may be provided in the notes to the accounts providing
    sub-categories according to the manner in which the charity’s activities are organised.

    236 Where a charity is subject to a statutory audit then the notes should also show the number
    of employees whose emoluments for the year (including taxable benefits in kind but not
    employer pension costs) fell within each band of £10,000 from £60,000 upwards. Bands in which
    no employee’s emoluments fell should not be listed.

    237 In addition the following pension details should be disclosed in total for higher paid staff as
    defined in paragraph 236:
    (a) contributions in the year for the provision of defined contribution scheme (normally
    money purchase schemes); and
    (b) the number of staff to whom retirement benefits are accruing under defined
    contribution schemes and defined benefit schemes respectively. (Further information on
    accounting for Retirement Benefit Schemes is given in paragraphs 430 to 448).

    238 If there are no employees with emoluments above £60,000 this fact should be stated.”

    http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/Library/guidance/sorp05textcolour.pdf

    I hope this helps inform our discussion.

    Kindest regards,

    David Pidsley
    @davidpidsley

    • Thanks David. I’m aware though that it’s not currently the case that charities face these expectations; I was merely suggesting that if the Localism Bill is passed into law then it may eventually become the case.

      It’s also fair to say that although the Charity Commission does publish the annual accounts of charities, it does so in the form of scanned pdfs: in (as far as I can tell, though I may be wrong) no standard format. While this certainly makes them ‘publicly available’ it does not make them ‘open’ in the sense that they can be accessed and reused easily (there is currently an argument that ‘Open data’ is not the same as ‘publicly available data’).

      • Further to my previous comment, I have consulted with the Charity Commission regarding any obligation for Charities registered in England and Wales to provide their research as open data.

        They have pointed to requirements placed upon Research by Higher Education Institutions.

        Universities and other Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have always been recognised as charities under the law of England and Wales.

        In summary, any HEI research does need to be published
        or any results that flow from it need to be made available publicly.

        The contact centre advisor referred to Nick Mott, Head of Division for Policy and Effectiveness at the Charity Commission as the expert in this regard.

        I have followed up with them to establish if requirements exists as to the licence and format of the material published their Higher Education Institutions, and will up date you with their response.

        – – –

        “C2. When is research a valid charitable activity?

        Research is not, in itself, a charitable aim or activity. To be charitable, research carried out or funded by a charity must both fall within its aims and powers and be carried out for the public benefit. It follows that the research must fulfil each of the criteria set out below:

        Research must be in a subject, or be directed towards establishing an outcome, which is of value and calculated to promote in a meaningful and direct way the particular charitable aims indicated in the body’s objects (typically to advance or enhance knowledge and understanding in an area which education may cover for the public benefit).
        Research into a subject may be of public benefit whether or not it is directed at testing a particular hypothesis and (if it is so directed) regardless of whether any particular hypothesis which the research sets out to test is proved valid or invalid. In any case knowledge and understanding should be advanced or enhanced.

        Research must be undertaken with the intention that the useful knowledge acquired from the research will be disseminated (and so advance the particular charitable aims) to the public and others able to utilise or benefit from it.
        Any research which results in useful knowledge must be disseminated. This includes making the knowledge available or otherwise accessible. In some circumstances, particularly where the charitable aims go beyond the advancement of education, knowledge acquired as a result of research can be ‘disseminated’ through the practical application of the research results where this is done for the public benefit. This applies equally to research results whose value is immediately apparent and may be of practical application, and to research results which simply add to the store of useful knowledge and which may be developed further by subsequent research.

        Research must be justified and undertaken for the public benefit and not solely or mainly for self-interest or for private or commercial consumption.
        Public benefit may arise from research in a variety of ways. In many cases, the dissemination of the useful knowledge gained will constitute adequate public benefit.

        We recognise that, in most cases, HEIs will only want to undertake research that is in a useful subject of study and where it is intended that the findings will be disseminated; otherwise the research would be of limited value or merit and would be incapable of furthering the HEI’s aims and mission.”

        http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/Charity_requirements_guidance/Specialist_guidance/Education/higherres.aspx#c

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