On transparency in government expenditure

We hear today that Department for Communities and Local Government have published ”details” of all spending above £500.  The Minister responsible for the department, Eric Pickles, claiming that this move will encourage an ”army of armchair auditors” to examine the spending and hold his department to account.  It also allows him to apply pressure to local authorities to do similar.

Whilst openness in general is a fair aspiration I have some concerns about the impact, particularly where the openness isn’t thought through.  There are some risks about the effect on future competition, but the market should adapt to that and while it may cause difficulties in the short term the effect should settle down.  The intent is to open up the market to Small and Medium sized Enterprises, but by exposing their commercial arrangements to larger competitors it could have the opposite effect.  That’s both a risk and an opportunity for anyone in the market, so we’ll see what happens.

My main issue with this headlong rush into transparency is the half baked way that it’s being done.  What we’re seeing from DCLG is little more than the amount, the supplier and the dates.  There is no supporting detail that allows this to become useful, and indeed there is no clarity around what the money was spent on.  I’m sure that some judicious use of Freedom of Information Act requests would flush out some detail, but that ends up costing money itself, and in FOIA-land the question asked very much defines the response received, if one is received at all.  What the release doesn’t give us is detail around the service, whether what was paid for that service was in any way discounted, what comparisons to other alternative suppliers may have been made, what route was used to source the service,what the rationale for the expenditure was in the first place.  As an example £1359 spent at Manchester United might just be for the a conference room and catering, the fact that Manchester United is the service provider may be tangential.

There is plenty fodder in the release for media outrage, foaming at the mouth about Jazz workshops and trips to Blackpool, but there is a lot of potentially useful material that Mr Pickles’ reliance on his armchair auditors won’t really allow.  DCLG spent a reasonable amount of Money on hotels, the Telegraph picks out a couple in London, again this may have been for conference facilities, indicating possibly one of two things; there aren’t enough conference facilities in the government estate to meet the demand, or that the conference facilities that do exist are expensive in comparison to private sector provision in London.  The extensive facilities in The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Victoria Street charge other departments at market rates, and might be driving this behaviour.  On the other hand it could quite easily be questionable use of public funds for accommodation, but with the information to hand, we can’t know that.

Apparently the department spent £3670 with Halfords, again one wonders what that was for?  Halfords are one of the service providers for the Cycle to Work scheme where the employer acts as an intermediary, buying bikes that employees then pay for through salary sacrifice.  So the department could easily have recovered all of that money anyway.

So, nice try, more effort required from Mr Pickles and his colleagues in Cabinet.  Rather than rushing headlong perhaps a little thought and preparation would have been a useful exercise.  Similarly a lot of this data is of limited value in isolation, we need to see the same information, in meaningful formats, from all departments.  And we need to see ”why” the money was spent, not just how much and where.

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One Response to On transparency in government expenditure

  1. Pingback: Open data: What does it mean for freedom of information? | eDemocracyBlog.com

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