Don’t squeeze out the trust

By Gavin Jones | 13 May 2024

Government is a serious business. People’s lives depend on it. We should care about the discourse surrounding it – that is the least the public deserves. Government is also complex. Local authorities are faced with competing pressures that need to be traded off. There is no perfect package of services – that is a matter of local context and political choice. And we elect local politicians to make those choices and be accountable to the public for them at the ballot box.

In the run-up to the local elections, The Times published an article purporting to establish a league table of the best and worst performing councils in the country. It was based on data published by the Office for Local Government (Oflog). As the article showed, a league table of local authorities is largely meaningless. You might as well ask which is the best county or which is the best government department.

The proposition does not make sense on its own terms and the superficial methodology employed meant it was not even bad enough to be wrong.

The newspaper can, of course, publish whatever it likes and readers will form their own views on the merits of what is written.

But, by the same token, those of us who care about local government also have a responsibility to speak out when we are concerned that misleading and, in the run-up to an election, potentially damaging information, is published.

Because government is such a serious business, I think we should welcome the publication of data about our services. We should encourage transparency and a well-informed debate about the merits of our local authorities. And we should welcome an invigorated improvement regime from the Local Government Association (LGA) to provide assurance about the functioning of the sector. As a commissioner, I know what the impacts are in the small number of places where things have gone wrong. We should be intolerant of such examples. No one is well served by sugaring that pill.

It is precisely because we value its importance that we should speak out when data is not just trivialised, but misused. In this instance, it was Oflog who published the data used by The Times and, given the unhappiness that authorities across the country feel about its use, Oflog should set out its view about the appropriateness of the judgements formed on its basis.

It is too late now to do anything about the use of this information in the local elections, but Oflog should see this as an opportunity to be clear about the values, standards and principles that it subscribes to in the publication, usage and analysis of public data going forward.

Oflog should serve to strengthen the public discourse around the performance of local government, not undermine it – that is how it will fulfil part of its mission to improve public understanding. Solace, the LGA and, I am sure, local authorities stand ready to support Oflog in the creation of a code of practice in the use of the data it publishes.

Governments have to make difficult decisions. Local authorities have had to make enormous savings while responding to huge increases in demand over the last decade. In my authority, that is £800m of savings. There are no easy choices left.

Making information available to the public; increasing public awareness of the performance of local government is a valuable service. But equally, we should speak out when we are poorly served by inappropriate usage that erodes trust. Trust is like toothpaste. Once we squeeze it out of the public conversation, we will find it very difficult to get it back in.

Gavin Jones is chief executive of Essex CC

X – @Essex_CC

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