The Tyranny of Time: the other side of open data

I came across the following reference to time within the retail sector and it made me consider how local government, or any business, thinks about time.

An old saying in the retail industry is that: ‘If information is available monthly, then decisions taken will take 6 months to have an effect. If it is available weekly, then decisions take a month to influence outcomes; if daily, it takes a week; and if hourly, the decisions can have an impact the next day’ (p.13)

(Source : Valuing Information as an Asset )

How often do councils, and other organisations, collect data? In many organisations, there are quarterly returns, but is that enough for today’s services? In some cases, councils collect real-time data, but are their reporting systems ready for it? For example, a scrutiny or a cabinet committee meetings may be once a month, but is that enough to have a strategic view of what is happening within an organisation?

At one level, the timeframe for the Members is different because their work is strategic, they are trying to shape the organisation’s future and where it will be over the long term and not determining if the recent bin collection achieved 99% or 98% effectiveness. Even if we discount the member’s need to have real time data (at least a strategic level) and focus on the officer’s role, we still see the tyranny to time.

How often do officers see, use, or for that matter, analyse, real-time data? Do our performance management systems display a disconnect between the timescale within which they are collected and reported? We may have bin collection rates measured every day, but if our performance reporting within the organisation is quarterly, how well does that serve the organisation? At the same time, is that performance information available to the services, such as customer service desks?

In the bin example, if the real-time performance is being reported to the customer service desk, they can see that the bin collection rate on a snowy day (for example) is lagging in some areas, but is still robust in other areas. Thus, a call from an area with good collection (say 99%) is going to be a different issue than a missed bin in an area with an 80% collection rate because of the snow conditions. Yet, how many performance management systems or performance information systems are designed to capture and analyse real time data. Even weekly data, can be considered real time data depending on the service, so it raises the point at the start. If the information is only available quarterly, what is the impact rate? If you collect each quarter, is the final impact seen yearly or in two years? If that is the timescale, is it going to be effective?

What does this have to do with open data? If data is being collected and made available to the public, are they getting real time data or is there an institutional lag effect on the data? One of the main themes within the UK  government’s open data collection consultation ( as well as its overall transparency agenda is to open service performance information to the public.

The service performance information will inform their choice about services but also to hold it to account. Yet, if there is a lag effect, between when service information is collected and published can the public hold a local authority to account effectively? How much and when the information is released can have a large influence on whether an organisation is accountable. If it only has to report once a year, how much accountability can be achieved? If a change in performance is required, how will it be demonstrated in such a long reporting cycle?

If, however, the real time data is released, will that have a destabilizing effect on the political process? If the political process is relying on quarterly performance reporting and the public are getting the information in real time, how will members be able to respond? Moreover, if members, as residents, are consuming the information in real time as well what is the role of a quarterly performance reporting system?  To be sure there will be different reports for different issues, but the underlying question is how to make  open data respond to real time demand.  Do I need to know the car park was full last week if I am trying to get parked now?

The issue of time is also about how and where information is released. If an organisation releases its performance statistics in a paper report, and not as a spreadsheet, can external scrutiny be achieved?  In that sense, the format for publication will show the timescales. Such reporting has an immediate and direct effect on the ability of the public, and members, to hold the organisation to account.

At the same time, there is the question of whether real time reporting fits your strategy. If one company is working on a the day to day reporting and another is taking a ten year strategy to grow they will have different understandings of time.  Moreover, their reporting mechanisms will be different.  Yet, can the 10 year plan work without taking care of the day to day? In that sense, can anyone escape the tyranny of time?  The more your competitors harness, the more you will need to adapt or adopt.

From an accountability perspective, the issue may be simply finding a way to reconcile that with monthly or quarterly performance reporting to the real time data.

What effect this has on the public sector? Only time will tell.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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