Open Data Brings West Sussex Benefits Beyond Their Expectations

Customer: West Sussex | Site: West Sussex County Council

When West Sussex launched the Socrata platform in the summer of 2014, accountability to local residents was the county's biggest priority. Being transparent about where taxes were spent and the effectiveness of programmes were important goals for the council, particularly with a reduced budget for public spending. Louise Goldsmith, West Sussex County Council leader, explained to the Argus "Moving from paper to digital and giving residents the opportunity to see our performance at the same time opens our accountability.

But the effects of instituting publically viewable performance data went far beyond this initial intent: the very culture and conversations of the council transformed, as did the council's goal- and budget-setting process, and meetings in general. For Samantha Mowbray, the head of policy and communications at West Sussex council, one of the biggest benefits has been the "more open and honest conversations about performance."

Changes to Culture and Conversation

When it came to performance, green used to be the only result that counted in West Sussex (under a traffic light system of performance management). And behaviour followed: goals were set that allowed departments to achieve green consistently. Samantha comments, "People weren't particularly stretching" when it came to establishing targets. 

Because when every goal is green, the most likely reason is that benchmarks are overly generous. Council Leader Goldsmith commentsBy the nature of the type of information that’s in there, not everything will be green and we’re certainly not in the business of inventing easy targets so that we can have a dashboard that's filled entirely with green indicators." 

When success isn't reduced to a binary—green is good; anything else is problematic—a more subtle and fact-based conversation can take place. Samantha found that the dashboard led to "a willingness to be honest about how we're performing." People could explain the reasons behind performance, from why it's below the target to what's being done to improve it. This opened the door to setting reasonable goals, and being frank about the budget and investments necessary to achieve benchmarks. 

Putting Performance First

With the heightened visibility of performance—freed from filed-away PDFs seen mainly at meetings—its importance has increased. Now, Samantha feels performance is on an equal footing with the budget. 

"Previously," she says, "we were more interested in total spend, rather than what we got for that spend. We're now having far more rounded conversations about performance and money. Rather than being driven by the cash, we're driven by what we want to achieve with it."

From start to finish, the budgeting and goal setting process transformed with the dashboard available as a resource. Rather than having the budget set early in the year, and performance goals determined and distributed mid-year, the performance dashboard allow what the council wants to achieve to lead the conversation. "We're looking at what we're spending in terms of what we want to achieve, rather than just looking at what we've spent in years past," comments Samantha, and "it's a far more sophisticated discussion to have than the one we used to have.” 

A Motivational Tool

The West Sussex County Council Performance Dashboard provides a tremendous view for the public, journalists, and other stakeholders. Since launch, there have been a million hits to the site, although as Samantha points out, the public requires reminders on social media to encourage visits to the site. 

Even when the public is not digging deep into the three major priority areas for the council: 

  1. Giving children the best start in life
  2. Championing the economy
  3. Supporting independence in later life 

Samantha thinks the site's impact can still be felt. "Just the fact that you have the confidence to put it out there and that you're being open and transparent about what you do really drives your reputation," she comments. 

But what's perhaps most striking is the dashboard's impact on staff, where it's become something of an internal communications tool, popularising both the council's vision and what's being done to deliver the vision. As nearly anyone who has made a New Year's resolution is aware, it's easy to forget or disregard goals. With the performance dashboard, goals are too visible to be neglected. "You can so easily see the vision and what we're trying to achieve," Samantha says, "rather than needing to look it up in a dusty performance report."

The effect bleeds into meetings, too. No longer is the data months old, with a feeling of irrelevance. Now, it's a matter of checking the reports just prior to the meeting. And, no longer are massive printouts prepared prior to meetings—it's a savings in terms of paper, staff time, and printing costs. 

West Sussex's Path to Performance Data 

One word keeps coming up in conversation with Samantha: bravery. Revealing performance may be laudable, and result in positive feedback from the press and public, but it can also feel vulnerable, especially when targets aren't achieved. Even now, there's an ongoing dialogue about the value of explaining metrics that are marked as needing improvement, rather than just removing them from the site. 

Samantha, who is departing her position at the West Sussex council, is uniquely well suited to assess what makes the difference for overcoming internal resistance. She credits the "leadership style" of Louise Goldsmith, who pushed transparency consistently, and made it clear that all data, even in areas that need improvement, should be visible. And of course, the positive response from the press and public is also a tremendous encouraging force. 

But for Samantha, it's even more interesting to think about what can be done next with the performance data. "I can see exactly how you'd use the data to engage the public in those very difficult conversations," about prioritising what to achieve with limited resources.