It’s time for an information revolution

Rhun ap Iorwerth calls for a ’21st century government’ that realises large data’s potential for public service improvement

“We do not hold this information” is a response I receive frustratingly often from the Welsh Government.

One of the first sets of written questions I submitted to the Welsh Government upon taking up my new role as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health concerned the ambulance service in north Wales. I asked a series of Written Ministerial Questions to get a better idea of what the problems are, where resources are tied up or being used inefficiently, and where perhaps we could identify gaps in capacity. Written questions are usually questions members ask the government when the purpose is to obtain information regarding a particular subject. So it was extremely disappointing to have the familiar two line response to my questions which stated:

We do not hold this information centrally.  This type of operational information would be held by the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust.”

Now the Welsh Government has the resources and influence to pursue this so a simple phone call or e-mail should have been enough to obtain the data I was asking for. That the Welsh Government did not ask an official to pick up the phone, or even press forward on the e-mail, shows a lack of respect to Assembly Members and to the principle of open and transparent democracy. Furthermore, directly asking the ambulance service for the information requires a Freedom of Information request (which I have made), which imposes additional costs and requires a more formal response from the service than would have been the case had a civil servant just picked up the phone.

Unfortunately there is something of a pattern in these responses. A search of written questions in the 4th Assembly (2011 -2016) show that on at least 67 occasions the Welsh Government avoided answering a question by using the phrase “we do not hold this information”. Enquiries that received this response include questions about the number of children on fostering lists, the number of breast cancer and prostate cancer specialist nurses, or the cost of work carried out on trunk roads.

Indeed, the poor quality of data collection and publication was highlighted in no less than 18 of the 22 Health and Social Care committee enquiries that occurred in the 4th Assembly.

This lack of transparency is not just confined to Wales, it also affects our ability to compare performance between Wales and other nations in the UK. The Nuffield Report of 2014 noted the poor availability of comparable data, and the effect this had on transparency and scrutiny, making better data the central recommendation of that report:

“Our first recommendation is that there should be better comparative data. This is not about curbing the freedoms of governments to pursue different policies. However, it is right to require that data be collected to enable the impacts of different policies to be compared, particularly when these policies appear to be increasingly divergent… As one of the main purposes of the governments in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Westminster is the running of devolved services, it can legitimately be argued that proper electoral accountability ought to require data to be published on their comparative performance in running these services.”

The Nuffield Report noted that in most federal systems, the federal government mandates what data is collected and how it is published precisely so that poor performance can be identified, exposed and corrected. It also helps to encourage innovation because when one government implements a policy that is successful, their success is identified. For example when the initial data on the impact of the presumed consent system for organ donation was published, it was immediately followed by calls for Scotland, England and Northern Ireland to adopt this system.

Unfortunately, the trend in Wales has actually been away from publishing comparable data. For example, the Welsh Government’s changes to the ambulance service targets and collection of data was intended to make it more difficult to compare Wales’ poor performance with other nations.

As Plaid Cymru’s new Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health, I say this is not good enough. Policy development should be fact and evidence based. Scrutiny makes for strong democracy and better governance, and this should be embraced. I want an information revolution in the Welsh NHS. To this end, I suggest:

  1. That all written questions from Assembly Members should be effectively treated like Freedom of Information requests to the government, with a legal obligation to answer honestly and accurately – if they don’t have the information centrally, then the obligation should be on the government to obtain it unless the cost of doing this would be prohibitive.
  2. That the NHS needs to invest in its information collection services to at the very least ensure areas of concern highlighted by the 4th Assembly committee are addressed. Furthermore, it must publish this data in an open manner – including access to entire datasets for independent statisticians to be able to audit.
  3. All devolved governments, and English public services, should seek ways of collaborating on the collection and publication of data on, but not limited to, staffing, waiting times, and financial information.

At the moment it appears as if we have a 20th century government that is still resisting the information age, when what we need is a 21st century government that realises large data offers great potential for public service improvement. It’s time for an information revolution.

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Rhun ap Iorwerth is Plaid Cymru AM for Ynys Môn and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health

9 thoughts on “It’s time for an information revolution

  1. Well yes, more data wold be good, however like statistics it is always open to interpretation. Lies, damned lies, and statistics. The civil services (eg. the above mentioned Ambulance Service) will always regard ‘data collection’ as a stick to beat them with – a self immolation. No matter what data politicians are provided with, from whatever source, it will be twisted or edited to suit the political message the politician wishes to convey. Fact of life.
    Voter segmentation, voter intention, poll analysis and demographics are all very well but it didn’t get Plaid or any other Party very far in the recent Brexit Referendum or General Election, did it!
    Perhaps the sainted Mr. ap Iorwerth and his ilk should be doing their job, which in my view, should be walking the streets, knocking on doors listening to ‘real’ people and soliciting votes and healing the rifts between communities. You don’t need 21st century ‘Big Brother’ surveillance/information to do that – you just need a good pair of shoes, a warm personality and a smile.

  2. Agreed, Rhun. On all devolved areas of Welsh governance there should be a mine of information accessible to those that want it. My particular beef is with the lack of data about the Welsh economy. The WG has control over economic development and yet it is difficult to get economic data of the granularity required or disentangled from the England&Wales construct we have for company reporting. If we are to know what is going in the Welsh economy regarding current account situation, cross border trade with England as well as the export data we do have then we need far better data.

  3. “Unfortunately, the trend in Wales has actually been away from publishing comparable data. For example, the Welsh Government’s changes to the ambulance service targets and collection of data was intended to make it more difficult to compare Wales’ poor performance with other nations.”

    There we have it! The pro-devo, post-devo, political class in Wales has consistently moved public services into a position where comparative data with England cannot realistically be processed. That’s what the people may or may not have voted for, that’s what the AMs consistently vote for, that’s what you’ve consistently actioned, and that’s what you’ve got so stop bleating about it. You are all hoisted by your own petard! You’ve shafted yourselves and the rest of us! Thanks. NOT!

    At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, if legislative devolution did not exist in Wales you/we/everybody would not have this problem. There was no shortage of data flying around in the old Welsh Office and it was pretty much the same stuff available throughout the UK.

    Does availability of information for the Welsh political class make much difference anyway? I don’t think so because the available data clearly is not being used very effectively. On the face of it dogma is the main driver of business in the pro-devo bubble occupied by the WG and much of local government in Wales.

    Even when Welsh data is sourced under FoIA and analysed and it shows fairly clear trends it is not acted upon. That much is blindingly obvious from the data on Welsh medium education collected by the likes of J. Jones, myself, and others. The data shows a clear trend that L1 English kids in WM schools are under-performing, especially in primary, so the political class in Wales does what exactly? It demands an increase in a damaging policy! Data 0 – Dogma 1

    Welsh Spring anybody?

  4. Hear, hear. In Wales there is liberal application of the mushroom principle: keep them in the dark and feed them on bullsh*t. We have an inadequate or non-existent press, and uninterested public and a government that doesn’t like the publication of anything that could be interpreted as bad news. No wonder our political system in underdeveloped. Most people have little clue what’s going on.

  5. Same applies to the IWA, R. Tredwyn – My thoughts on Rhun’s article were not published and the same approach used on R W Walker. Keep them in the dark seems to be the IWA’s principal modus operendi, especially if contributors challenge the Y Fro Gymraeg agenda!

  6. You and J. Walker got in in the end Glasnost but my own humble contribution never saw the light of day. It’s just that here in Wales, as in other countries (North Korea springs to mind) it just is not allowed to question the view of the establishment. I suppose that under the new IWA director of politically correct dogma you and I and maybe even JW will once again be banned for daring to mention the unmentionable truth.

  7. Any comments must be within our policy, which can be found here:

    Recently comments have yet again been off-topic, which is why a number of them have not been approved. There is no issue with constructively critical comments, however these must be within the topic of the article.


  8. Surely Jessica when a comment points out the plentiful data that is available it is “on topic”. Going one step further and pointing out that the authoritative data on language medium of schools and their relative performance is regularly ignored for political reasons by the author of the article is reasonable and, if it leads to him changing his attitude, constructive. I thought that I ticked all the boxes.

  9. It comes to the interpretation of relevance Jessica – I called Rhun a hypocrite for doing the opposite what he was preaching in his blog for reasons stated at the time and you chose to see it as ‘off topic’ – Convenient way of silencing those whose stance does not coincide with the IWA’s agenda. Creating a fair and a robust debate seems a low priority for the IWA and perhaps time for a change?

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