Every piece of council spending over £500 to be made public. A huge change for regional journalists?

In January, I blogged about the potentially exciting data.gov.uk website, set up by the government, which is designed to make finding government data easier. Back in January, there were 3,000 datasets available, although many of them won’t have been news to journalists used to hunting around government department for information.

With the change in government, there was a fear that the top-level commitment to making data freely available could become a victim of either the coalition manifesto bonfire or put on the back burner as economic issues took precedent.

But prime minister David Cameron appears to have come good on his promise to make government more transparent by massively increasing the role data.gov.uk will play in keeping people informed.

Over the weekend, Cameron made a series of pledges on on a podcast about opening up data. The one which grabbed the headlines was the one about making hospitals release superbug figures every week – a move which will make data.gov.uk (or the Department of Health website) a must visit website for health reporters on a set day every week.

It make sense in many ways – if you think about the way the interest rates announcement is made each month, or the inflation level figures are reported at a set time each month, you see a way to make sure that figures dominate the news agenda for a set period of time. For government, of course, that’s a double-edged sword, but it will certainly focus minds.

But the big change – for regional journalists at least – has been less well reported. Cameron is apparently to tell councils to publish details of every piece of spending over £500. Windsor and Maidenhead Council is already using a site called spotlightonspending to break down its spending, although it currently only breaks down to the name of supplier. This is still a massive step forward on many other councils – think of how many hide behind the commercial confidentiality exemption with FOI – but does demonstrate the devil will be in the detail of Cameron’s announcement.

Details of any spending over £500 will be much more useful if it details what it was spent on, rather than just who it was spent with. That said, within four clicks I found out Windsor and Maidenhead Council had spent £20,000 with a confectionery manufacturer.

The prospect of having to be much more open with this sort of data will doubtless lead to claims in some parts of the local government sector that the Press are mis-using the data for sensationalist stories – just as we’ve heard with FOI. The government’s motivation is clearly to make the public sector think twice before spending. In fairness to town hall staff, local government is much more careful with spending than central government, but there are significant pockets within the local government sector which will still find itself open to interesting questions when spending figures are revealed.

Also forcing the release of all tender documents for contracts worth more than £500 is a huge change – an area which has been vague under FOI until now.

Details of the proposals can be found here. You can also read Cameron’s letter to government departments here. In many ways, if this decision becomes reality, it’s a step towards the biggest information development since FOI kicked in back in 2005.

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