The theory behind open local data is to hold a local public body accountable and help them shape better public services. To achieve this, the real prize is the database that underpins a local authority’s contact centre. It gives a unique insight into issues the public are contacting the council about and the rate at which they get resolved.
Many local authorities centralised their point of contact with citizens a few years ago. This was part of modern public sector management ‐ answer the phone more efficiently, rationalise phone numbers, allocate and (crucially) track jobs and their completion around the council. Chase up units that you can then see are underperforming. I first experienced this as citizen consumer in Islington north London, about six years ago a council that was then recovering from under performance. With other reforms the unified contact centre, Contact Islington made a big difference. In the states the 311 movement was similar.
This is commonplace now , all very ‘noughties’, Barberist etc now as we move into variously the big society and/or the post bureaucratic age the moment has come for the next step: opening up the contact centre database in real time to citizens on the web. We should see live data feeds of planning applications coming in and mapped. Where street lights are broken, how long it takes to get them fixed. Where people report broken things in public housing, how rapidly they get resolved. Where the potholes are where the fly tipping happens, where graffiti is cleared up ‐ the list is endless. That’s where accountability will really happen.
Ultimately all this data should be provided live in real time through an API to create a modern civic dashboard. Turning the council inside out and democratising accountability. The council doesn’t need to do the public facing application ‐ these days there are plenty of people who would do that almost for fun. They could start by just releasing pseudonymised sample data sets in CSV files and encouraging people to play with them.
There are a number of cities where this is happening in the USA ‐ Washington DC is the leading proponent. But precious little in the UK. I spoke to a local Councillor about this. He said he would be delighted to see the infromation flowing through the contact centre ‐ remarkably members don’t get told basic performance trends and data by officers.
A modern contact centre operator should be able to provide data pretty easily with an up to date system. Indeed, one would hope that this data is regularly extracted for performance management by the council. I put in an FOI request for some basic data at Islington to test the water and they sadly haven’t got back to me.
I spoke with officers at Birmingham who were fired up by the potential. They have a modern contact centre provider there in Vertex. I see that NESTA have a funding stream. And Birmingham has a superb local web infrastructure for the civic good. Would be great to see if Brum could be one of the first to do this in the UK. But is anyone else doing it?
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