Politicians should open up casework data

Would it be useful to know whether complaints about welfare payments are rising or falling? Or to understand more about the jobs that our politicians do?

There is data that can help answer both of these questions and many others. Unfortunately it’s not open.

If this data was open we could make more informed decisions about where to target housing support, how to improve our welfare system or who to vote for.

The chamber of the House of Commons. There are no MPs in sight. That might be because their work in the chamber of the House of Commons is only part of the job. Image (c) Parliament. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politicians do casework for the constitutents they represent. They help people by solving problems: an issue with welfare benefits, a difficult immigration claim, a housing problem. Someone might ask a politician for help by writing to them, phoning their office or by going to meet them.

Casework is vital. It is one of the ways that politicians understand the challenges faced by their constituents.

As an ex-assistant to a UK politician put it:

What many people don’t realise is that in many cases an MP’s office is a last port of call for those who have fallen through the cracks of civil society.

We can open up data on casework whilst protecting privacy. Some MPs already do this.

Making the data open will make politicians better

There is a lot of data that politicians could choose to publish but casework data seems a very useful dataset. It might even be an easy one if they use a digital service to manage casework and that service published the open data.

Whilst politicians may have no legal obligation to do casework I suspect that most choose to. It is a little understood but vital part of a politician’s job. Publishing data about this work can help voters understand more about the job that politicians actually do. It will help politicians explain their job, and its challenges, to voters and should help voters make more informed decisions when they choose who they want to represent them.

Harriet Harman’s casework statistics, reportedly the largest volume in the UK. (source)

It is suprising how few politicians publish data about their work. Here in the UK Chi Onwurah publishes data and some others, like my own MP, Harriet Harman, publish it but in a form that is not easy to use. Many others, even those who either now or previously have had responsibility for open data, publish nothing. Politicians will benefit from going open and learning from the technology, the data protection challenges and the cultural benefits that openness brings. They will benefit from showing voters that their job is different from many people’s expectations.

There are more politicians than those in the House of Commons. Our representatives also work in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and the hundreds of council chambers and parish councils up and down the country and they also do casework to help their constituents. All of these politicians could publish their casework data, gain the same benefits and help fix the cracks in society. This is a non-partisan issue. If politicians from all parties and all layers of government open up their data in a standard open format then it can be combined to create a more accurate picture.

Making the data open will help fix the cracks

People contact their MP for help when the system has failed. We will all benefit from the root cause of the problem being solved and the system being improved. Publishing this data should lead to targetted action and better services.

One month of Chi Onwurah’s casework statistics. Are the volumes comparable to other cities? Are the trends up or down? (source)

The data could be combined with other information about an area to help all of us understand the challenges it faces. It could be combined with other data, such as that published by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and local authorities, to inform national debate.

The data might show general trends or it might point to specific issues that can be resolved. A fall in benefits casework might show that the system is improving whilst a rise in casework on housing in a given location might show that services are being increasingly stretched and that action is required to investigate it and build a solution.

By making data about politicians’ casework open we will make politicians better and help fix some of those cracks in our society.

If you know of other politicians publishing casework data then I’d love to see it. If you think this is a good idea then why don’t you write to the politicians that represent you and ask them to publish some data? If you don’t think it’s a good idea then do tell me why. I’m @peterkwells on twitter :)