SPEED DATA: Ideas for local government spending transparency

Only the wisest and stupidest men never change.

Confucius said that. Only, thing was he never worked in local government.

Speed of change in open data is blisteringly fast and getting faster.

In the Spring I thought all this would be important in 12 months time. Wrong. It was important TWO months later.

Local government in the UK has been asked to publish spending over £500 line by line.

A few months back Maidenhead and Windsor Council were hailed as a shining example of how to do this.

A few months on and the shine is wearing. Yes, they deserve praise for innovation but bright people have pointed out that you can do so much more if you publish a little bit more than a handful of categories.

Change was one of the themes of a session in Birmingham by Vicky Sergeant of SOCITM and hosted by Birmingham Council on the subject of publishing spending transparency open data.

It was a chance for people to bounce ideas and was an alphabetti spaghetti of a gathering with SOCITM, LGA and LeGSB.

Will Perrin from the Local Data Panel that helps shape data.gov.uk policy delivered a clear message:

There will be no spoon feeding from on high.

Eighty per cent of problems have been solved with blog posts such as this, he says.

It’s now down to councils to be brave and stand on their own two feet.

In the words of social media pioneers: Just Flipping Do It.

The combined efforts of the groups at the meeting are likely to publish at some stage some valuable advice on how best publishing spend can be put on line. These are things that struck me in the meantime.

Here are 12 key pieces of advice I took from the day

1) Publish open data-related FOI requests. Great idea. Further research shows you’ll have to be careful about publishing personal data not just in the name and address field but also in the text of the response.

2) The size of the dataset would double if it included ALL spend.

3) You can run a programme if you are clever to remove – or redact – at source personal data from social care and children’s services data.

4) You may need to make it clear to suppliers that this change is taking place. Not all are following this whole debate. In fact, I’d be amazed if any of them are.

5) Commercial confidentiality is a grey area. As Will said, the Information Commissioner’s presumption is to publish in the public interest but there is worryingly no case law to show where this has been tested.

6) Publish a unique identifier for your authority when you are publishing open data. Finance people will know what this is. It identoifies the line of data as being from a specific council.

7) Put an email address as a first point of contact for residents queries. Maybe people don’t have to go down a 20-day Freedom of Information response route first to get an answer.

8)Set-up an Open Data Panel in your council to keep-up the pace of publication.

9) Use the licence that can be found at data.gov.uk. It’s been looked at by government lawyers. Creative Commons while great hasn’t really been tested in  law in the UK.

10) There are a lot of codes in local government finance. If you don’t know what a CIPFA BVACOP code is make friends with someone who does.

11) Don’t plough a lone furrow. As a council or an officer don’t be alone. The Communities of Practice website is an excellent place to learn and discuss.

12) Guidance maybe getting drawn-up but don’t let this stop you. The LGA, SOCITM and others are looking what would work best. Don’t wait for them, however.

13) Communications is important. You need to explain it internally as well as to elected members, residents and suppliers.

14) Getting management on board. Yes, local government is being asked to do this. Yes, a enthusiastic volunteer is still better than 10 pressed men.

15) Publish monthly. Some in the web community are baffled as to why publication can’t be done at the end of every working day. As a compromise the Local Data Panel are saying publish monthly but within a month of month end.

Ian Carbutt from the LGA made some excellent points at the meeting. He points out there are three main areas that have several sections to them.

  • What and who its for: Local authority ID code, directorate, goods and services, service department.
  • Payment details: invoices, invoice number, net amount, VAT, gross amount, date of payment.
  • Supplier: name, contract title, supplier company number or VAT reference.

Pick from those three paints a better, more complete picture and may lead to fewer FOI requests.

LINKS:

Pezholio blog on the SOCITM Birmingham local data event. A useful summary and some very useful comments.

Creative Commons

Money: Glamlife