On 19 November the government published detailed spending data allowing the public to see for the first time how money is spent. This constitutes an enormous amount of data- some 157 spreadsheets containing every transaction by each one of 24 core departments detailing every item of spending over £25,000 for the last 6 months.
The release represents perhaps the greatest step for government accountability yet made. The idea is for the publication to release a raft of armchair auditors who will hold the government to account on its spending and flag up misdemeanors, as well as producing value-added and useful apps and information.
Maude, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, stated: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. This government should be held to account for every penny it spends and I believe that with the weight of public interest on their shoulders, greater transparency will drive departments to make the right decisions about how they spend taxpayer’s money.”
It has certainly revealed some interesting facts, most prominent of which is the governments struggle to wean itself off high-cost contracts with an elite few companies. For example, the top four private companies together account for £4628.3m of government spending (Capita £3352.4m, Telereal Trillium 569.5m, HP Enterprise 435.3m, Aspire 271.1m).
There are issues though. Despite efforts to ensure uniformity, including the production of a release handbook, the data is still in need of considerable cleanup. Each department has a different terminology for classifying its expenditures, meaning it is difficult to group similar costs across Government. The supplier VAT numbers have been excluded making it difficult to identify the same companies across datasets.
Moreover, the vast majority of spending was transactions between public sector bodies, such as grants to local authorities. As a result, it will remain difficult to see the true impact of public spending on the private sector until smaller public bodies’ spending data becomes available.
There’s also a lot excluded: the NHS, benefit payments, spending by quangos, information removed for “national security” and personally confidential reports, totaling about £80bn of an annual spend of £670bn.
Overall though this represents a considerable step in the governments accountability and transparency agenda. Already questions have been raised about how the government spends its cash, and a whole host of apps have been developed to help make sense of what has been published (spotlightonspend and wheredoesmymoneygo).
The government needs now to maintain this momentum and develop an impetus to improve the quality of what it publishes.