Do you know what your council spends?

(This post reflects a personal view)

For every public sector organisation the horizons have changed. Budgetary cuts aside, from Whitehall to town hall greater transparency is the new landscape.

There is a wider debate about the timing and speed of bringing about transparency. But, that’s now where we’re heading. The coalition government has certainly been a catalyst in this change – certainly in its speed – but the direction of change has been on the cards for the last decade.

Of course, transparency and particularly the call for “open data” in every corner of government is a good thing. Isn’t it?

With over 20 years of tackling HMSO filing cabinets, I think I’ve got some perspective. I’ll deal with some of the broader issues in other posts.

For now, I’d like to concentrate on the looming deadline for local authorities to publish details of their expenditure over £500.

On the face of it, this sounds like a simple exercise. Just open up your accounting software, run a report and publish the information on your website.

If only.

Firstly, let’s think about the information contained in the accounting database.

Oh, let’s stop there. This assumes that all the information will be stored in one database. Unfortunately, most authorities will have more than one financials system. I’m not an accountant so someone else might need to explain, but we’ve got three basic systems. There’s also systems covering council tax, non-domestic rates and housing benefit.

Okay, we’ve run the reports, managed to import all the data into one big spreadsheet. (Thankfully by the time we came around to compiling the information guidelines – er guidance – had been published so we had a good idea what data we needed to include.)

Ah. But, some of that data could be sensitive. We’ve got council tax rebates, housing benefit payments and other personal information. The guidance allows us to redacted some information. All this had to be done by hand, by an accountant, making individual judgements.

All ready to publish and we’ve now got a process to repeat every month. That’s fine, right?

Yes, the process is there, but I’m left with a few doubts about the value of what we’ve just published.

It’s good that the public can now scrutinise how its local authority spends council tax*. But, what we’ve provided has very little context. For the council’s part, there’s a loss of control of the information and the worry that the information will be “misinterpreted”. The public, the “armchair auditors”, are presented with a lot of information presented in a particularly un-user friendly way. The content of those spreadsheets baffle me.

The financial data might not enable someone to track expenditure on a specific project. For a start the monetary cutoff could leave out some spending.

Perhaps more importantly, the description of the expenditure in many case leaves a lot to be desired. The (perhaps apocryphal) council spending on lingerie springs to mind. (The story goes that a council reimbursement of non-domestic rates to a closed lingerie shop seemed to indicate that councillors were paying for the, ahem, wife’s frilles on the rates.)

Let’s remember what that financial data represents. It’s an audit trail, yes. But – and maybe I’m being picky – it was never collected or collated with a view to exposing to the public. (Not that there’s any intention of hiding information.)

Maybe a phalanx of armchair auditors of will emerge. Maybe, some bright spark might alight upon one line out of thousands that looks odd, suspicious or whatever.

To get that bigger picture, I suspect the armchair auditors will have to take a deep breath and consult not only the expenditure data but the deeply impenetrable statement of accounts.

Having had a chance to reflect after publication, what strikes me is that councils now need an urgent rethink about data.

In the past, data was collected because:

  • government or another agency (hello, Audit Commission) told us to do so
  • it helped us do our jobs

We’ve never collected data on the assumption that the public wanted to view it, crawl over it, question it. Thought to publication must now be at the heart of data collection.

The expenditure exercise just scratches the surface. It raises questions about systems, process and presentation.

Open, but not quite fully opened data.

(* – remember councils derive income from several sources: council tax, non-domestic rates, block grants from central government and local income. Proportions vary from council to council.)

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