Open data and all that

Opening up council accounts… and open procurement

with 8 comments

Since OpenlyLocal started pulling in council spending data, it’s niggled at me that it’s only half the story. Yes, as more and more data is published you’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of who’s paid what. And if councils publish it at a sufficient level of detail and consistently categorised, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s spent on too.

However, useful though that is, that’s like taking a peak at a company’s bank statement and thinking it tells the whole story. Many of the payments relate to goods or services delivered some time in the past, some for things that have not yet been delivered, and there are all sorts of things (depreciation, movements between accounts, accruals for invoices not yet received) that won’t appear on there.

That’s what the council’s accounts are for — you know, those impenetrable things locked up in PDFs in some dusty corner of the council’s website, all sufficiently different from each other to make comparison difficult:

For some time, the holy grail for projects like OpenlyLocal and Where Does My Money Go has been to get the accounts in a standardized form to make comparison easy not just for accountants but for regular people too.

The thing is, such a thing does exist, and it’s sent by councils to central Government (the Department for Communities and Local Government to be precise) for them to use in their own figures. It’s a fairly hellishly complex spreadsheet called the Revenue Outturn form that must be filled in by the council (to get an idea have a look at the template here).

They’re not published anywhere by the DCLG, but they contain no state secrets or sensitive information; it’s just that the procedure being followed is the same one as they’ve always followed, and so they are not published, even after the statistics have been calculated from the data (the Statistics Act apparently prohibit publication until the stats have been published).

So I had an idea: wouldn’t it be great if we could pull the data that’s sitting in all these spreadsheets into a database and so allow comparison between councils’ accounts, thus freeing it from those forgotten corners of government computers.

This would seem to be a project that would be just about simple enough to be doable (though it’s trickier than it seems) and could allow ordinary people to understand their council’s spending in all sorts of ways (particularly if we add some of those sexy Where Does My Money Go visualisations). It could also be useful in ways that we can barely imagine  – some of the participatory budget experiments going in on in Redbridge and other councils would be even more useful if the context of similar councils spending was added to the mix.

So how would this be funded. Well, the usual route would be for DCLG or perhaps the one of the Local Government Association bodies such as IDeA to scope out a proposal, involving many hours of meetings, reams of paper, and running up thousands of pounds in costs, even before it’s started.

They’d then put the process out to tender, involving many more thousands in admin, and designed to attract those companies who specialise in tendering for public sector work. Each of those would want to ensure they make a profit, and so would work out how they’re going to do it before quoting, running up their own costs, and inflating the final price.

So here’s part two of my plan, instead going down that route, I’d come up with a proposal that would:

  • be a fraction of that cost
  • be specified on a single sheet of paper
  • paid for only if I delivered

Obviously there’s a clear potential conflict of interest here – I sit on the government’s Local Public Data Panel and am pushing strongly for open data, and also stand to benefit (depending on how good I am at getting the information out of those hundreds of spreadsheets, each with multiple worksheets, and matching the classification systems). The solution to that – I think – is to do the whole thing transparently, hence this blog post.

In a sense, what I’m proposing is that I scope out the project, solving those difficult problems of how to do it, with the bonus of instead of delivering a report, I deliver the project.

Is it a good thing to have all this data imported into a database, and shown not just on a website in a way non-accountants can understand, but also available to be combined with other data in mashups and visualisations? Definitely.

Is it a good deal for the taxpayer, and is this open procurement a useful way of doing things? Well you can read the proposal for yourself here, and I’d be really interested in comments both on the proposal and the novel procurement model.

8 Responses

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  1. I live in South Africa so it’s not directly relevant to me, however I just wanted to say that this seems like an outstanding idea. Infact I’ve always thought that the antidote to corruption is transparency, and I’d love to see this kind of thing happen throughout the world. 🙂

    Eric Alan Solo

    October 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

  2. If you could pull this off it would be fantastic – for years I have pushed and influenced at both the IDeA and DCLG for better and more standardised access to council accounts. One of my roles over the years has been to help councils benchmark service costs – it is ALWAYS a nightmare. Not least because they dont have standardised ledger classifications even though CIPFA advocate such in their Best Value Accounting Code of Practice. Whilst such data in the out-turns would always be historic it would certainly offer huge potential for benchmarking costs. Now, if we could get them to publish data on volumes of transactions too we could really start to identify who the lean operators are.


    October 20, 2010 at 9:24 am

  3. Very interesting! About 8 years ago as a consultant I used to trawl through local authority AP data looking for HR spend. What struck me was that so much of it was so badly or incorrectly coded and secondly the amount of ridiculous things the councils were spending money on: I think at one County Council I found a subscription to the ‘Pink Pussycat Club’ and some details of a trip to Barbados which I queried – apparently social services sent delinquent children there. I didn’t enquire any further…

    Hedley Lamarr

    October 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm

  4. Chris – I think this would be incredibly useful and is certainly needed. There is clearly an issue of conflict of interest which you’ve gone some way to addressing by being so transparent about everything and absenting yourself from a decision. Though there’s still bound to be those who say ‘hang on a minute, itn’t…?’. In which case your choices seem to be (a) keep going as you have (b) step down – fully or temporarily from the transparency board to do this, or (c) write this up as a brief rather than a proposal and get someone else to do it

    Martin Moore

    October 21, 2010 at 7:58 am

  5. I know several people within Local Government who are concerned at the time and cost of responding to FoI requests.

    Publishing as much as possible of LG financial information in a searchable format would enable people to self serve their information requests.

    Oh! Opening up Local Government data will increase transparency and accountability and reduce costs, sounds like a win/win.

    steven feldman

    October 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

  6. Chris: brilliant idea. As I think you know anything that contributes to improved communication of financial information to the public, interest groups and the like is to be applauded. In particular anything that makes a direct accountability link between authorities and the public is a ‘good thing’.

    The £500 transaction level data is interesting but not useful. As you note the transactions that are excluded are needed to give a full picture of the financial position and performance of an authority. The content of the RO forms does provide a full picture of all financial transactions.The information is however not going to be easy to present in a format useful to non-experts. Providing the output of your project as open data that can be used by people skilled in interpretation is important. For example there exists a possibility to link the RO data to the transaction data.

    There is one other point: doing this effectively means that there is no need for authorities to publish any accounts other than the RO forms. The whole financial reporting system disappears along with the cost of producing the reports. This won’t be popular with some!

    Dan Herbert

    October 21, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  7. Hi! I like your idea! It is a good way to efficiently retrieve public data. Hope it works in the way you are planning. Talking about open procurement, maybe you are interested in a spanish site (prototype) which contains national (not local) public contracts so, basically another way of accounting your government…

    Ruth del Campo

    November 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm

  8. Chris

    In France, thanks to Napoleon, accounting is standardised, codified and you must follow the code.

    In Germany accounting is so precise that the tax due drops out of the accounts. No need for the 1000’s of reconciling differences and tax avoidance schemes for the Big 4 over there.

    In Britain it is muddle along and fail everyone.

    If Mr Pickles at DCLG took the time to do some ” systems thinking ” and some ” preventative spend “, he might

    1) follow your suggestions
    2) support SME s with their other ideas
    3) tell CIPFA that accounting for the public sector must follow set codes and transparency

    At the moment the UK is a by-word for obfuscation and cover up. There is no transparency although Baroness Hanham did say she would ask her officials to look into it with Frances and the Cabinet Office.

    I am still waiting for their reply.


    December 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm

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