Those of us that work in the policy world watch the political party conference season through a different set of lenses to those used by most of the public and always have done. This year was no different, and while attention is rightly paid to the pronouncements of those in opposition, it is the speeches of Ministers that tend to command most attention.
For us this year, we waited with bated breath for an announcement from Eric Pickles about the outcome of his Weekly Waste Collection Fund, but MRW’s recent reporting probably put paid to that while a rethink goes on.
Elsewhere, the new Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson was given a tough slot - early on the final morning, before the Prime Minister, but after the last big night of parties. (This would explain the rows of empty blue seats more akin to a midweek Carling Cup match at Manchester City rather than a Ministerial keynote). This was a pity, as the tone of his remarks about the need to strengthen British farming and British low-carbon industry in general deserved a wider audience.
Sandwiched in between was a little reported speech by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who has the task in Government of championing what is called the ‘transparency agenda’. Not a bad thing at all, potentially very refreshing in terms of driving forward reforms in the public sector that deliver better access to information about public services that in turn help to deliver greater choice to residents. His message couldn’t be clearer, as quoted from his speech to the Conference:
“We are determined to remain the most transparent government in the world. We want the media and a nation of armchair auditors to hold our feet to the fire and help us cut out waste.
Crime maps, sentencing, medical outcomes, school results – all this drives up standards in public services. There’s no going back. Open data is the new raw material for the twenty-first century, helping a whole new generation of entrepreneurs to build the businesses of the future.”
Mr Maude singled out some data sets that tend to command greater political salience, but as he spoke I wondered about the extent to which the waste and recycling sector and public servants within it have grasped the emergence of this agenda and its possible implications for them?
Over many years now at countless conferences, we have heard the mantra “the data could be better”, “there hasn’t been a survey for years, the data set is very old” and similar, all descriptions of the situation in waste management that has only started to feel less familiar recently. In the days when the industry was primarily landfill based, and before Landfill Tax, it could be argued that it didn’t matter as there were enough holes in the ground to go round and no pressure to do anything different.
That world has certainly changed, and as the industry transforms itself into a modern resource management industry that needs to produce resources fit for manufacturers in the green, low-carbon economy as well as account fully for what is landfilled as well as exported, the data challenges for the sector are real.
It is true that today we have better data than ever in the waste and recycling sector, but there is still plenty of scope for improvement.
Better public information and the ability to make judgements about public services as demanded by Maude’s Open Data White Paper launched in June need better data management. This potentially has several implications for waste and recycling – but consider this one scenario: if you are a local authority with robust data on what materials are collected by you or for you; are confident that any materials rejected at a MRF are accounted for and removed from recycling data; and are then clear where the materials processed are then sent for recycling whether at home or abroad then you potentially have a good story to tell Mr Maude.
If not, the increased demand for transparency clearly evidenced by public opinion and responded to by this Government should command your attention with some urgency.
Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association.