The Power of Information

I moved a private members' motion yesterday on the benefits of putting more information in the public domain.
On the motion of Dr Leigh—That this House:
(1) recognises:
(a)  Australians are keen to have better access to information about government performance;
(b) more transparent public services have been shown to perform at higher levels; and
(c) greater access to information helps Australians make the best choices; and
(2)  commends the Australian Government on the creation of the MySchool, MyHospitals and MyChild websites.

MySchool, MyHospitals and MyChild, 30 May 2011

Four hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon made a simple observation. He said, 'Knowledge itself is power.' This motion recognises the transformative power of information. When we put information in the hands of voters we help people make the best choices for themselves and their families. Providing information also helps improve public services which are crucial to boosting productivity growth in Australia. This motion focuses on three websites created by the Australian government: MySchool, MyChild and MyHospitals.


The website allows schools, teachers, parents and the community to compare schools serving statistically similar backgrounds and to compare all schools in Australia. It allows parents to identify and learn about high-performing schools, including schools in which significant student progress is demonstrated. Under MySchool 2.0, parents can now look at student gain over time and they can learn about the financial resources available to the school. Since the MySchool website was launched at the start of last year, over 5 million people have visited the site.


The website helps parents find childcare options suitable for their needs. It allows parents to find information about the childcare places in their area and assistance with childcare costs. The website now includes information about vacancies across the full range of age groups and information on both permanent and casual vacancies. In the last 12 months alone, the MyChild website has had over 420,000 visits. The website also links to useful information for parents such as children's health and wellbeing, and parenting and family support services.


The website provides information on bed numbers, patient admissions, hospital accreditation, types of specialised services. It also provides national public hospital performance statistics such as waiting times for elective surgery and emergency. It helps patients choose the hospital that is right for them and allows everyone to compare the performance of their local hospital with other hospitals around Australia.

Better Information

These websites were opposed at the time of their creation. Some education insiders opposed the MySchool website. The Australian Medical Association and some state governments opposed the MyHospitals website. The opposition recently has been critical of the updated MySchool 2.0 website, preferring instead to keep financial information secret from Australian families. Opposition to data release has been based around two arguments. First, critics argue the performance measures are imperfect. This is undoubtedly true but it sets the bar too high. We should always strive to improve the quality of information but the perfect should never become the enemy of the good. Second, those who oppose data being released claim it will lead to underperforming institutions being stigmatised. But so long as the data are collected so as to minimise the potential for manipulation and provide the broadest possible set of indicators, it will help identify the strongest and weakest institutions. Rather than allowing poor performance to continue under a veil of secrecy, we should let a little sunlight in.

We also put in evidence that more information raises overall performance. In the case of school reporting, Stanford University researchers Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb found strong evidence that those US states that provided more public information about school performance experienced more rapid growth in maths scores. Similarly, Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond found that students in countries which published school performance data tended to do better on international exams.

The same is true of hospitals. In his book Better: Asurgeon's notes on performance, medical writer Atul Gawande discusses the impact performance information had on the treatment of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that impedes lung capacity. While patients at the average treatment centre would typically live to 33, those at the best centre lived to 47. Over recent decades the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients has increased substantially as treatment innovations have percolated down to the leading centres.

Making school and hospital performance information publicly available should help everyone. There are good reasons to think the poor may benefit more than the rich. In a low-information environment, information is restricted to insiders who share it with their friends. Publishing statistical data helps democratise access to information, allowing everyone to see what the insiders already know. The more comprehensive public data is, the less individuals need to rely on questionable sources of information.

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