Publication Standards for Local Government Spending Data


Monday, September 13th, 2010. 3:48pm


Screenshot of Bedford Published Transactions

Anyone wanting find out what an item of spending published by Bedford Council refers to is invited to contact the council to find out as they don’t proactively publish descriptions.

On Friday the 10th of September 2010 Data.gov.uk’s Local Data Panel published their draft guidance for Local Authorities on how to comply with the Prime Minister’s commitment to to publish each item of local government spending £500 from January 2011.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:

http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-spending-data-guidance

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 The draft guidance states “councils should publish to the minimum standards within 6 months of the publication of the guidance.”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.

Redaction

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.

Aggregate Entries


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.

Recommended Data

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.

See also:

14 comments/updates on “Publication Standards for Local Government Spending Data

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I am considering writing the below draft letter to my Local MP:

    Dear Mr Huppert,

    I understand that at some point in the upcoming weeks your Government will be bringing forward a Bill including a provision intended to enact the Prime Minister’s commitment that every council will be required to publish each item of spending over £500 from January 2011.

    The reason I am writing is that I am concerned a simple requirement to “publish each item of spending over £500″ will not be sufficient alone to ensure meaningful information is released. (A council could comply with that by publishing say a scanned in print out from a council’s finance system listing just the value of each transaction). To be of use the items of spending need to be described, need to be in-context and in a format which makes working with them practical. Your Government is well aware of this and has set up the “Local Data Panel” which has produced draft guidance specifying the format in which the local government spending data ought be released:

    http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-spending-data-guidance

    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 currently expected that any of the guidance he and his colleagues have devised would be made law, it would remain merely guidance.

    What I am asking you to seek to ensure is that any law made requiring the publication of the spending data incorporates the minimum standards laid out within that guidance. What I would suggest is making publication of the fields which the guidance describes as mandatory – exactly that – mandatory, and also requiring the publication of the additional fields where they are available within the council’s accounting systems. If publication standards are not made part of the law and effective from January 2011 then the publication of local council finance data in risks being a farce / flop rather than reaching its full potential.

    You might also want to ensure any Bill requires regular reviews of the publication standards, with a view to increasing them, occur on a regular basis so that this becomes just the starting point of a road towards greater proactive publication of local government financial data.

    I am suggesting incorporating elements of the current draft guidance into the either the Bill or linked secondary legislation. The alternative of making it a legal requirement to follow the guidance would be undesirable as it takes power away from Parliament and gives it to the unelected and unaccountable body responsible for producing the guidance.

    The coalition government’s aspirations for increased openness is, in my view, excellent. I believe there is the potential to strengthen democracy as people become better able to hold councillors to account for the way they have spent taxpayers’ money. I also hope the greater public scrutiny will deter opulence and excessive spending by councillors and council officers. Transparency ought also prompt better value for money to be obtained as it will become clear which councils are spending funds most efficiently in particular areas and it will make valuable information available to those wishing to supply products and services to councils.

    Regards,

    If anyone has any suggested improvements, or would like to co-sign the letter do let me know.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    None of the currently proposed measures tackles spending on councils’ behalf by contractors. In the future I would like to see local government contracts include requirements for bodies taking on councils’ responsibilities to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and other openness and transparency related measures – such as proactively publishing spending – in relation to activities councils would otherwise conduct directly themselves.

  3. Chris Taggart

    Richard
    Good blog post. Just one point about the status of the guidance — i.e. whether it should be law or not. The problem as I understand it is, is that it is difficult to enact legislation that says roughly, ‘You must follow this guidance’. You can put the guidance in law, possibly even have it as a Statutory Instrument, but this means it becomes fixed, until there is the political will to enact new legislation (or SI).

    Things are moving sufficiently fast that — to me — that’s a problem, and it becomes a particular problem should this or any other government lose its appetite for openness.

    So the question is, how do we resolve this. I don’t have the answer.

    My only suggestion is that we have guidance that has the force of opinion (i.e. ‘The most closed council in Britain’), and that can evolve to greater quality and higher levels of publication, back by a change in the FoI Act that requires data to be provided.

    Thus the community could bombard recalcitrant councils with FoI requests, given them an incentive to do things the right way.

    Whether this is feasible I don’t know, and I’m happy to have the debate about the best way to ensure the openness happens. Just concerned that enshrining it in law may not be the best way.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    Chris,

    Many thanks for your comment.

    Perhaps the solution would be to have a few different levels:

    ie. the absolute minimum a council must do should be defined in an Act; I think that minimum should be more than just “publish each item of spending over £500″ and incorporate key elements of the proposed guidance eg. the “within 30 days” timescale. Further details of elements of the data format which the government wants to make mandatory could be made statutory within more readily up-datable secondary legislation.

    A pointer to the guidance itsself could be included in the form of a provision requiring councils to consider it while determining their policies. While that latter strategy doesn’t actually require councils to follow the guidelines to the letter it does give those pushing for increased openness an extra lever as they can question why a council decided not to follow a particular aspect of the guidance when they considered it.

  5. David Hollingsbee

    In my experience it is common for staff responsible for posting invoices on the accounting system to miss out the description field. This only becomes apparent when you try and run the type of report which councils will now be expected to produce.

    Even where purchase ledger entries are full and complete, it may be the case that the invoice received from the supplier was not sufficiently detailed – e.g. it may say simply “charges in accordance with contract XYZ123″ – which would not be particularly informative to the general public.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    David,

    The Prime Minister’s statement also promised greater transparency related to contracts he said:

    New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011.

    As for description information not being included in the accounting system; in Cambridge this isn’t a problem as can be seen from the information I have obtained from them. While I consider a description a basic essential the lack of other information in accounting systems is a reason why it might take some time to make all the desirable fields compulsory.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    It has been suggested to me that my main point, that the minimum specification ought become law, also applies to the central government guidance

    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/transparency_spend_over25100910.pdf

    I propose adding the following as the penultimate paragraph of my letter:

    The same issue arises with central government spending. In this context central government is defined more widely than central departments and includes, for example the NHS. Here too the publication standards, which are very similar, are currently only designated as best practice guidance and I think the basic elements of them ought be incorporated into the law as well.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    While watching Prime Minister’s Questions earlier I thought an MP had at last spotted the problem. Nicky Morgan, MP for, Loughborough, noted the public will want to know what their money has been spent on when information on public spending is required to be published next year.

    Below is an extract from the Hansard draft:

    Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Charnwood borough council has completed the online publication, three months early, of all its expenses over £500. In the light of today’s announcements, is it not right that taxpayers want to know exactly how much is spent in their name and what the money is spent on?

    The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one of the ways that we will try to save money while not losing too many jobs in the public sector is by making sure that we are more efficient. One of the best tools for efficiency is transparency: putting online what is spent and how it is spent, and what people’s salaries are can help to drive down costs in a way that makes public services better while saving money at the same time.

    A tweet from Nicky Morgan MP shortly after the question stated:

    Pleased to draw PM’s attention to Charnwood publishing 3 months early online their spending over £500 at PMq’S TODAY.

    It appears she was not intending to draw attention to the fact that no description of what the money has been spent on is required, just details of who has received it. In Charnwood’s case it as they provide a “cost centre” and “account” there is enough information there to provide reasonable context, but while an “expense area” is a required field other council’s data won’t necessarily make as much sense.

    http://www.charnwood.gov.uk/pages/publishing_local_authority_spend

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    I was intending to write to My MP, Julian Huppert, when this issue was about to be debated in Parliament or when a draft statutory instrument had been produced which I could ask him to comment on. It appears though that despite the Prime Minister’s commitment there might not be any plans to bring in any new law requiring the publication of local government spending data.

    I have today written the below to Mr Huppert:

    Dear Mr Huppert,

    Many thanks for being such an accessible and communicative MP.

    I’m writing to you on the subject of publishing local government spending data. As you’re aware the Prime Minister made a commitment to publish each item of local government spending above £500 from January 2011 [1].

    I think that’s a good step in the right direction. I’m surprised though that as far as I can see no legislation has yet been proposed to require the publication of this information. Recent statements in Parliament by DCLG ministers have suggested the Prime Minister’s commitment has been watered down to a mere request; for example Bob Neill MP has in the last week said: “local authorities have been asked to publish such information”[2] . When questioned on what will happen to those local councils not publishing the information Minister Eric Pickles has said only that he will “challenge” them [3].

    The Prime Minister will not in my view have fulfilled his commitment unless a law requiring publication is brought in and provisions are made to ensure the information released is meaningful and in context and there isn’t much time left. It may be that only secondary legislation under S.6 of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 [4] is required.

    A simple requirement to “publish each item of spending over £500″ will not be sufficient alone to ensure meaningful information is released. (A council could comply with that by publishing say a scanned in print out from a council’s finance system listing just the value of each transaction). To be of use the items of spending need to be described, need to be in-context and in a format which makes working with them practical. Your Government is well aware of this and has set up the “Local Data Panel” which has produced draft guidance specifying the format in which the local government spending data ought be released:

    http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-spending-data-guidance

    What I am asking you to seek to ensure is that any legislation requiring the publication of the spending data incorporates the minimum standards laid out within that guidance. What I would suggest is making publication of the fields which the guidance describes as mandatory – exactly that – mandatory, and also requiring the publication of the additional fields where they are available within the council’s accounting systems. If publication standards are not made part of the law and effective from January 2011 then the publication of local council finance data in risks being a farce / flop rather than reaching its full potential.

    You might also want to ensure any legislation requires regular reviews of the publication standards, with a view to increasing them, occur on a regular basis so that this becomes just the starting point of a road towards greater proactive publication of local government financial data.

    I am suggesting incorporating elements of the current draft guidance into the legislation as the alternative of making it a legal requirement to follow the guidance would be undesirable as it takes power away from Parliament and gives it to the unelected and unaccountable body responsible for producing the guidance.

    The coalition government’s aspirations for increased openness is, in my view, excellent. I believe there is the potential to strengthen democracy as people become better able to hold councillors to account for the way they have spent taxpayers’ money. I also hope the greater public scrutiny will deter opulence and excessive spending by councillors and council officers. Transparency ought also prompt better value for money to be obtained as it will become clear which councils are spending funds most efficiently in particular areas and it will make valuable information available to those wishing to supply products and services to councils.

    I am not seeking a reply. I am happy to have had the opportunity to put my point of view to you. If you consider the points I have raised worthy of further action I would suggest either forwarding my email to the Minister responsible for the Transparency Board Francis Maude, or a DCLG Minister, or tabling a question such as:

    “To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what plans his department has to legislate to require the publication of each item of local government spending above £500 from January 2011 in line with the Prime Minister’s commitment on the matter; and how his department will ensure the information is released in a meaningful and contextual manner.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor
    [My Full Address]
    Cambridge
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

    [1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/jun/01/government-data-david-cameron-letter
    [2] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2010-11-02a.19572.h&s=500#g19572.q0
    [3] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2010-10-21a.18478.h
    [4] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2007/23/section/6

  10. David Hollingsbee

    I found it surprising that the County Council recently refused to provide to the Cambridge News details of amounts spent on taxis, claiming it would take too long to tot up the figures.

    http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Home/Taxpayers-funded-67k-of-taxi-bills-for-councils.htm

    If taxi costs had their own line code in the accounting system then pulling out the total spend should be an incredibly quick and easy exercise. Most systems would also allow you to dump the data into Excel or another useful format.

    This is the type of analysis that accountants working in well run businesses carry out on a daily basis.

    I find it very concerning that the Council has such poor visibility on its costs. How can they expect to control these costs if they don’t know even how much they are spending?

    No wonder they won’t proactively publish the information.

  11. Richard Taylor Article author

    My question, has now had a response from Bob Neill (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government)

    All local authorities are expected to publish data on items of spend of £500 and over from January 2011. Around 100 councils are already publishing this information. Given the importance of transparency to citizens and communities, I will continue to challenge and support those authorities yet to publish their data. Next month I intend to issue for consultation a Code of Recommended Practice, under section 2 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. This will address issues such as the scope, formatting and timing of the duty to publish the data. In the meantime the Local Public Data Panel has published guidance on spend transparency, which the Local Government Association has taken as a basis for its practical guides for councils on publication of £500 spend and senior salaries. The Code of Recommended Practice will not cover data archiving and legacy issues. This is an important and complex issue with implications for many bodies and is being considered in a broader context.

    (View via TheyWorkForYou)

    My interpretation of that is that it is saying there are no plans legislate to require the publication of each item of local government spending above £500 from January 2011 in line with the Prime Minister’s commitment on the matter.

    A “Code of Recommended Practice” under section 2 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 is proposed; though even this is just recommendation to publish, it doesn’t make publication a legal requirement.

    I am concerned that come January what could have been a massive leap forward in openness and transparency, enabling people to make more informed comments on how their local councils are spending their money, will be a bit of a flop.

  12. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cllr Andy Pellew had a written question on Cambridgshire County Council’s online publication of its spending answered for the 7th December 2010 Full Council meeting. Cllr Pellew had asked why the council wasn’t doing something of the things I have suggested above.

    The council publishes the written answers on paper on the day of the meeting; but does not put them online for many weeks.

    I’ve summarised the questions and answers rather than typing them all in verbatim (they’ll be online at some point):

    Can the redacted recipients of money be given unique identifiers so we can group payments to the same entity?

    Cllr Pellew noted that in October 2010 alone £1.6 million pounds had been spent by the council to entities with their identity redacted on the grounds them being personal or commercial data.

    Cabinet member Conservative Cllr John Renyolds responded to say that supplier numbers were not published because of fear of fraud. He stated that other councils had been subject to fraudsters, armed with a supplier number, being able to get councils to change where they send payment.

    Cllr Renyolds appeared to be suggesting that Cambrigeshire’s systems are susceptible to the same type of fraud saying “internal audit has asked us not to give out supplier numbers when asked for the same reason”.

    Cllr Renyolds said “We will explore other ways of achieving this aim, but further guidance from government is expected in the new year which may prescribe a way forwards for all authorities”

    Can the criteria under which commercial entities have had their identities redacted be supplied?

    Cabinet member Conservative Cllr John Renyolds said the redacted data to-date all related to care establishments where vulnerable and abused children / young people have been placed. He explained publishing the name of the entity might mean the locations of the establishments could be identified. Cllr Renyolds said this would “inevitably” put the children / young people “at risk”.

    Can we have a “changelog”

    Cllr Renyolds said this would be explored further, and said changes to-date have been to the structure of the files as more guidance comes out. He added: “Government guidance awaited in the new year may be prescriptive on this so we will await this before finalising a solution,

    Can the postcode of the entity be added to the data feeds?

    Cllr Renyolds’s response started: “Information governance are considering this further however audit specifically advise against adding postcodes where the supplier name is redacted. Government guidance may be prescriptive on this in the next through months.”

    (I think this is a terrible answer as clearly the request relates mainly to lines where addresses are un-redacted).

    Can the total amount, not the breakdown, of spend under £500 be published as part of the feed?

    Cllr Renyolds said: “A single line totalling all spend under £500 will be provided with the November data.”

  13. Richard Taylor Article author

    Andy Allsopp, Cambridgeshire County Council’s Alistair Campbell, has recently been tweeting complaining about journalists making FOI requests for details of items of spending released.

    He wrote:

    Ace sleuthing from a Sunday Times reporter on the phone just now who’s looking at Cambs CC’s spending of over £500.
    The chap concerned wanted to know why we’d spent £900 with a well-know Cambridge laundry, among other queries. 5:15 PM Jan 7th via web
    Your hard-earned taxpayers money was spent laundering bedlinen at a home providing respite care for children with disabilities.
    Pointed out to the reporter a bigger scandal would be disabled kids having to sleep on dirty sheets in case he thought we were wasting cash.

    http://twitter.com/andyallsopp/status/23427617424154624

    I suspect the item enquired about might have been:

    http://openlylocal.com/suppliers/41109-dream-clean-services-ltd

    If it was that one, or one like it, doesn’t matter; the point is that had a description field been included then such enquiries would not be necessary and the data released much more informative.

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