FOI: Does spending data prove that some councils could be more open?

Here’s an FOI many readers will be familiar: Finding out how much councils spending sending staff to awards ceremonies.

The Taxpayers Alliance set about finding out by submitting FOI requests to councils across the country. 433 were asked. Fewer than 40 failed to reply or refused.

Birmingham City Council was one of those to refuse. A spokesman told the Birmingham Mail:

“The council has determined that it is not possible to provide a response to the request.”

The issue here isn’t so much about the spending itself – that’s another argument – but the fact that so many other councils can provide the information, but Birmingham can’t.
Local MP Gisela Stuart said:

“This raises very serious questions about the transparency of the council’s accounting systems. If the council does not know how many events it goes to and how much they cost, how can taxpayers judge value for money?

“Is it incompetent or has it something to hide? We just don’t know.”

Spending data could help here. A quick search of Google for ‘site:birmingham.gov.uk filetype:pdf Emap’ and for ‘site:birmingham.gov.uk filetype:pdf hemming’ brings up the pdfs of spending data which references Emap – the publisher of the Local Government Chronicle, which runs one of the awards – and Hemming – which publishes the Municipal Journal. Some of that spending will be on subscriptions, but it’s a start.
If I can do that having not covered local government for five years and without access to the council’s accounts or the managers who will presumably have to approve awards spending, why can’t one of the largest councils in the country not try a bit harder?

5 comments

  1. I’m not so sure this does raise issues around transparency, merely around how information is recorded on the authority’s accounting system.

    While some authorities might have a cost code just for ‘events’ others might have ‘training and events’ and for the MP to suggest that this is either incompetent or that the authority has something to hide suggests that the MP has an agenda all of their own.

    In a previous authority i had a request around foreign travel but the PA only record ‘travel’ and so had to look at staff calendars etc to try and identify foreign trips and then cross reference those against expenditure coded as ‘travel’. What seems to be simple on the face of it isn’t always as easy as the requester/reader/viewer believes.

    1. thanks for the comment. I think you’re right, it will be down to how an authority accounts for stuff. But I think it becomes a transparency issue when the size of an authority or the way it accounts means it is harder for people to get information under FOI.

  2. I agree to an extent but where do you draw the line, regardless of authority size, in breaking down expenditure types on the accounting system? The system has to be workable for staff and the more cost codes you have the more potential for misallocation, and so the harder it is to get any transparency at all.

  3. Authorities should design their accounting systems in the way that best allows them to conduct their business, rather than attempting to anticipate every possible permutation of FOI request that may be thrown at them.

    I’d far rather councils concentrated their attention and resources on monitoring large and important areas of expenditure, not trivial and inexpensive matters like staff attending awards ceremonies. Are the Taxpayers Alliance running short of ideas or something?

    1. The problem I see with your argument is that it makes it entirely possible for councils to then say ‘sorry, it’s not effective for us to be transparent.’

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