The government yesterday launched a searchable database of business plans, structures, salaries and other data for its departments. The launch of the online transparency database is the latest move by government to shift power away from central government and increase its accountability to the public.

"We're going to smash open state monopolies. We're going to invite new providers in. And in one of the biggest blows for people power, we're shining a bright light of transparency on everything government does. Because each of these Business Plans does not just specify the actions we will take. It also sets out the information we will publish so that people can hold us to account... Plain-English details about the progress of the reforms and the results they are achieving," said Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech yesterday.

The launch of the new site follows the release of a series of government datasets in June this year and plans for more data to be made available in 2011. Leading industry figures told that this step towards greater transparency could provide an amazing resource for journalists at a national and local level.

But what does the new transparency website tell the media industry and how can journalists make the best use of it?

Changes to government advertising
In its newly-published business plan, the Cabinet Office's proposals to change the government's advertising model are indicated. A freeze on the government's marketing and advertising, which was introduced in June, forms part of the business plan.

According to the Cabinet Office, the moratorium on advertising caused a 52 per cent reduction (£6.5 million) in spending in its first month compared with June 2009 and a restructuring of the Central Office of Information (COI) to reduce staff numbers from 737 to 450.

According to the new transparency website, the Cabinet Office will publish its review of government advertising in March 2011. This will include exploration of new models including the US ad council, which produces, distributes and promotes public service advertising in America. The Cabinet Office has previously suggested that the private sector could take on some of the Central Office of Information's advertising spend through partnerships.

The department has also said that the future of the COI as a body is not under threat and no mention of abolishing the office is made in the newly published business plan. The results of the review will be implemented from April 2011.

Plans for Freedom of Information changes

The Cabinet Office's business plan also sets out the timetable for more opening up of government data through changes to Freedom of Information guidance.

A new requirement from central government departments and arm's length bodies to commit to implementing a "right to data" in their "information strategies" to allow the public access to datasets that they request is already underway and scheduled for completion in March.

Next month the process of extending Freedom of Information guidance to extend "right to data" to public services will behind, as will the addition of legislative amendments to the Freedom of Information Act to strengthen this public "right to data". The Cabinet Office will work with the Ministry of Justice to introduce these changes, which could open up new avenues of enquiry for journalists.

Tracking the changes
Perhaps most significantly, the new transparency database gives journalists on local, national and trade titles access to new dates for their diaries and new data to play with.

The business plans database gives a current status and start and end dates for elements of each plan, providing opportunities for journalists to track and report on the progress of these proposals. There is also information about future data sets and government reports and when they are scheduled for release, and soon monthly reports on progress will be available from the site.

The database also provides information on ministerial and special adviser meetings, gifts received and hospitality given. This data has already sparked stories - including PR Week's recent analysis of media organisations entertaining advisers - and provides a wealth of background knowledge and detail on ministers' movements.

While not all of the information provided is particularly user friendly - there are still a lot of links to download information as PDF rather than viewing it in screen - there are already opportunities for research and new leads from this transparency site. And journalists should take note: data on how public money is spent is promised to be added to the site later this month, while government contracts will be published in full from the new year.

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