On Friday the 10th of September 2010 Data.gov.uk’s Local Data Panel published their draft guidance for Local Authorities on how to comply with the Prime Minister’s commitment to to publish each item of local government spending £500 from January 2011. The guidance is available at:
I have been concerned by the poor examples of local council spending data being published which the government has been pointing to as examples of good practice. These have included Bedford, Barnet and Windsor councils none of which even include a description field explaining precisely what each payment was for.
The newly published guidance sets a sensible standard for the publication of financial information, councils following the guidance will need to provide description fields and details of which department in the council spent the money. What the government has previously cited as good practice falls well short of what the new guidelines demand.
While the guidance itself is good there are a couple of problems which need to be addressed. The draft guidance states “councils should publish to the minimum standards within 6 months of the publication of the guidance.” As we are already within 6 months of the start date for publication it appears there will not be an expectation that councils will follow the Local Data Panel’s guidance from day one. What we may see in January 2011 is a incomplete, badly presented and difficult to work with data being released by many councils. This will may result in the government’s commitment to financial openness in councils appearing much weaker than the Prime Minister’s commitment indicated and examples of completely inexplicable lines from accounts will be commonplace allowing the data release to be shown up as a farce by the media.
I recently spoke to Chris Taggert, who served as member of the Local Data Panel. He is widely credited with successfully lobbying for higher standards of data quality than might otherwise have ended up being described in the guidance. Mr Taggert told me that it was not expected that the guidance would be given made law, it would remain merely guidance.
I understand that one problem is some councils are claiming they will find it difficult to comply with a new law if it is too demanding. Councils currently may have inflexible contracts with accounting software providers or even have outsourced key parts of their accounting mechanisms. The Prime Minister has announced an ambitious target date of January 2011 for the publication of this information, I don’t think he should back down from ensuring the publication occurs in a meaningful and useful way on the grounds some councils are complaining about it and saying they can’t cope.
It is expected that there will be an Bill in the next few months which will seek to make local councils’ compliance with the Prime Minister’s requirement to publish each transaction over £500 the law. I think that Bill ought incorporate some, if not all, of the Local Data Panel’s guidance. I think the Bill ought make publication of the fields which the guidance describes as mandatory – exactly that – mandatory, and should go further and require the publication of the additional fields where they are available within the council’s accounting systems. I think that without the inclusion of a minimum standard for the publication of financial data any bill will not be as effective as it could be. In the comments below I have posted a draft letter to my MP, Julian Huppert, urging him to try and ensure that the local accounts data ought be published in a meaningful and usable manner by all councils from day one.
One particular area of the guidance I would like to comment on, while it is still in a draft state, is redaction. I accept the need for some redaction, eg. to remove personal data and am impressed that the guidance requires redaction to be done transparently – ie. it should be clear where redaction has occurred. What I am suggesting is:
- A clear principle of only applying the minimal redaction necessary should be adopted. For example I suggest that even if the value of a payment under a contract is deemed exempt the fact that payments are made, to whom, and for what, ought not be redacted. To give another example, if a payment has been made to an individual in many cases it would be appropriate to release the value of the payment and the reason even if it was appropriate to redact the recipient’s identity. (eg. Lists of compensation payments and the reasons they were made ought be disclosed so far as is possible without disclosing personally identifiable information.)
- The standard for redaction ought be set with reference to material which could be obtained by inspecting the accounts in person under the provisions of the Audit Commission Act 1998 and not the Freedom of Information Act, the former gives the greater degree of access. It would be absurd if people were able to visit their council in person during the open periods for the accounts and fill in gaps in the data published online.
- Another option, rather than complete redaction of for example Salary/Pension/Severance spending would be to combine payments made to all staff within a section/department to avoid the disclosure of personal details but achieve the aim of making the overall spending public. Such entries should make clear the number of staff to which they refer. (When I viewed my local council’s accounts I was able to view salary costs under a particular cost centre, but not information relating to an identifiable individual). This is one example of an “aggregate entry” which I think ought be explicitly permitted by the specification (see below).
- Redactions could be flagged in the data. ie. there could be an additional field which could be populated only in the case of redactions; which could contain a categorisation of the reason for the redaction along the lines of the example reasons given in the draft guidance. ie. I am proposing a greater number of more precise reasons for redaction rather than merely personal data and commercial confidentiality.
While not within the scope of the Prime Minister’s announcement I think it would be desirable to be able to calculate the total spending within the body as a whole by summing the items of expenditure. One way a council may wish to achieve this is though addition of aggregate items representing total amounts of all payments under £500 and total amounts of payments where the sum involved has been redacted. These lines could be added on a per department, or per cost-centre basis where that is compatible with the reasons for redaction.
While the guidance currently states “there is nothing to stop local authorities publishing all spending”; the guidance does not explicitly permit items which are in-fact aggregate entries. I think aggregate entries ought be permitted, but only in cases where the individual items would not otherwise be published due to redaction, or being below the threshold used. I would suggest adding specific approval for such aggregate items to the guidance to give those councils who are keen on publishing where all the money they spend on our behalf goes a way to achieve that while complying with the file specification produced.
I understand that the guidance does not make some types of data mandatory on the grounds that not all councils will be able to provide it (eg. if they use alternative classification schemes to those mentioned in the recommendations); the guidance could be strengthened to require the publication of these fields if the council holds the information.
Each Financial Transaction
I believe there is an error in the blog post introducing the guidance at the moment; as it refers to the “Prime Minister’s call to publish each financial transaction…”. All that the Prime Minister committed to publish was spending data; “each financial transaction” is a much wider net which would catch payments being made to councils. As the title of the posting and the title of the guidance both clearly refer to spending this isn’t a major error.