A to-do list for Nick Hurd, Part 4, Charities Data Act

By 20 May 2010

In its announcement on the ‘Big Society’ earlier this week, the new British government made a commendable pledge to free up more data, continuing the trend begun under Gordon Brown. In this fourth blog post outlining a to-do list for the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, I argue for a Charities Data Act to free up all data held by charities.

The argument for such an act is simple.

Charities exist for the public benefit. They are granted charitable status only because they exist for this end. And being a charity confers some financial benefits which imply public money is used to create data.

Therefore, the public can claim ownership over the data collected by charities about the effectiveness of the services they provide and the communities they serve. If the public ‘own’ this data, it should be made available to the public; that is one of the basic tenets of the open data movement.

Consistent with this, I believe there should be a requirement for charities to publish all available information about their performance. This would include evaluations commissioned by foundations.

The history of NPC to date shows a great desire for information about charities’ and their performance. Strikingly, the greatest demand seems to come from charities themselves, who want to understand what works, as well as where they fit into the sector. But there is also a desire for more and better information from private donors, foundations and the public sector.

It is not possible to foresee the myriad of ways in which data about charities’ performances might be used. That is the clear lesson from opening up government data sets. If government data is opened up, it is hard to see why the same should not happen to charities’ data. And existing data sets such as the Charity Commission’s or Guidestar do no more than scratch the surface of the data that is available and could be shared.

Information sharing speeds up learning and improves practices. If such data was available, it would improve accountability, help decision-making by charities, make donors better informed, and enable public sector funders to allocate their scarce resources more effectively.  In short, the public benefit delivered by charities would be greater.

Of course, there will be some exceptions where questions of confidentiality, whether commercial or personal, override the need to publish. These should, though, form the exceptions, not the rule. Without good reason not to do so, charities should be compelled to share their data with the public.

Some people might suggest that grant-making bodies be exempt. It is sometimes argued that private foundations are just that, private, and should not be forced into the open. Provided they are acting properly charitably, it is argued, they should not face further scrutiny. But they are public entities by virtue of seeking and holding charitable status. The public should be able to see how they use their status and, if possible, to learn from their experiences. They should also be encouraged to share with and learn from each other by publishing their data.

There is also an important, related point about government data which affects charities. As we argued in an earlier blog, sometimes government holds onto data and actively prevents charities from learning more about their impact, even when they insist of evidence. The Minister for Civil Society could intervene and ask colleagues to sort this out.

Open data for and about charities would be inexpensive and could turbo-charge the provision of high quality information about the performance of charities and the success of different projects and interventions. Donors, charities, and government funders, as well as, ultimately, the most important group—the people and causes charities exist to help—would benefit. A Charities Data Act would be good for us all.

(Since thinking about this as something for Nick Hurd to take on, I now see a similar idea has been put forward in the US by leading blogger, Lucy Bernholz. I am happy to provide a UK echo of Lucy’s argument for US foundations and non-profits.)