No longer waiting for perfect data

Not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good

Elisabeth DaviesIf there’s one consistent theme that comes out of virtually every piece of Panel research and every consultation response we’ve produced over the last four years then it’s probably access to data. It’s about as basic as it gets – we were once even criticised for making a “vanilla recommendation” by calling for more data to be made available – but it is at the heart of so much of what we do to improve consumer outcomes. Much is made of consumers voting with their feet and exercising choice in the new legal services market but to do this they need to be making informed choices based on accurate, meaningful and useful data.

It might be basic but it’s clearly not straightforward. Access to data raises some challenging operational issues – the state of IT systems and aged databases that are no longer fit for purpose – alongside what are seen as fundamental ethical and philosophical questions: Are you responsible for what others do with data if you put it in the public domain? Should you be able to determine who uses your data?  Who owns it? No doubt this is why we are so many years down the line with professional registers still being seen as the protected and sole property of the regulators and representative bodies.

Against this backdrop the Approved Regulators must be commended for recently agreeing to make sure a core and usable set of data is put in the public domain. It is early days and this may be a baby step – the minimum data set could be very minimum indeed – but it’s clearly a step in the right direction and one we welcome and appreciate.

Stephan Shakespeare’s independent review of public sector information made much of recognising that ‘perfect’ data should not be the enemy of the good and that there should be an imperative to publish early, even if imperfect. This is about reducing excuses for poor or slow delivery – whether operational or ethical – and allowing organisations to ‘get it all out and then improve’. This has long been the mantra of the Panel. We have always believed that legal services are not unique and should be abiding by the fundamental principles of an open data strategy whereby data can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. Will this lead to ‘information overload’? This has been used in the past to justify a cautious approach to information disclosure, because of the risk of confusing people. But intermediaries are now able to deal with imperfect raw data and repackage it in a way which is useful to consumers. So imperfect or too much data is no longer an excuse.

Over the next few months we’ll be working closely with the Regulators to support them in adopting a new and much needed approach to open data. It may not be welcomed by everyone but it’s a vital next step in making sure markets work for consumers. Well done to the Regulators for taking this step – hopefully others will follow soon.