Council spending data: Are councils more accountable as a result?

Much as I’d love to believe otherwise, the Government didn’t instruct councils to publish details of all spending over £500 to help journalists find stories. The intention, to quote local government secretary Eric Pickles, went like this:

Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government.  Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They can only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.

So now the deadline has been and gone for councils to be producing the information, can members of the public now hold councils to account via spending data?

To quote a story in the Stoke Sentinel, some councillors don’t think so:

Liberal Democrat group leader Kieran Clarke,  cabinet member for resources, performance and governance at the city council, admitted the list of invoices, in its current format, would not be useful to most people.

He said: “Realistically, I don’t think this information will be of much use to the average man on the street. It won’t really mean anything to him.

“But it could be useful to people who have made a particular inquiry. For example, if they’re thinking of making a Freedom of Information Act request, they might look at this list first, and so it could be useful to them.

“If we’d have been given more time we could write programs to convert the data into a more user-friendly format.

“But that would cost a fortune, and I don’t think it would be on the top of our list of priorities at the moment.”

He has a point. If I want to find out how much Rossendale Council has spent on grit recently, I’m struggling. I can see how much they’ve paid out on many invoices, and can whittle it down to which department spent the money, but short of going through Google and checking each firm out to see if they sell grit, I won’t find out that answer.

That isn’t really information at my fingertips at all. If I was acting as a journalist, I could probably ring up the press office and get them to clarify, and they probably would help me.

But as a member of the public, I couldn’t expect the council to answer my question in the press office.

If I was a member of the public in Birmingham wanting to find out why the council was spending so much with a firm which appeared to run a chain of local Spar stores there’s a very clear instruction on how the council would deal with my query:

If you require further information about any of the payments, please contact foi@birmingham.gov.uk setting out the details of the payment and what additional information you require. Such request will be handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the Council aims to be able to provide a response to your query within 20 working days.

So that’s 20 days to answer something which is supposed to be at my fingertips.

The frustration is evident at Fulham and Hammersmith Council, an authority which the Tories like to boast about. In a press release last year, leader Stephen Greenhalgh said:

Council Leader, Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, says: “We want the public to hold us to account. We have proved with our year-on-year tax cuts and improving services and residents’ satisfaction ratings that councils can deliver more for less and these simple changes will shine a spotlight on every item of council expenditure.”

Underneath that press release are comments like this:

925,511 was spent on catering services while 184,636 was spent on the department of health?? Seriously??! How does that happen? As a council taxpayer I”d like to suggest trimming the catering services budget.
From Julia on 22/08/2010 at 20:24
I don’t think the publication presented on spending data is particularly revolutionary or transparent; a PDF document makes it particularly difficult to analyse the data and, furthermore, unless familiar with each supplier, it is unclear which spending goes on what services. I think this is a cop-out presented with great fanfare, and does your council a disservice.
From S Kumar on 02/08/2010 at 09:17

Note the dates the comments were posted. August. Five months on and there are no answers in response from the council.

It’s not entirely the fault of councils here. Times are hard and it feels that in the haste to make councils release the data, the government hasn’t given enough thought to what is actually being released and the follow-up questions people might have.

And while it’s encouraging to have a government which isn’t happy with the speed local government often moves at, there’s a real danger that the chance for real accountability via the monthly accounts could be lost for good.

For journalists, of course, the usual routes to information remain. But, as I said at the start, this isn’t supposed to be about journalists.

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