Government spending data released

29 11 2010

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.

Sean Kirwan





COI letter regarding the Government Transparency Agenda

22 10 2010

Dear Supplier

Government Transparency Agenda

In ‘The Coalition: our programme for Government’ the government set out the need for greater transparency across its operations so that the public could hold to account public bodies and politicians.

To help achieve greater transparency in how central government spends public funds and to help deliver better value for money, the Prime Minister has set out specific commitments in procurement and contracting:

  • All new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • All new central government contracts over £10,000 to be published in full from January 2011.

The commitment to publish contract documentation applies to the result of all competitive tenders from existing framework agreements which means that the majority of COI’s procurement activity is within the scope of this commitment. COI is awaiting further guidance as to whether the contracts will be published on COI’s website or on a single government website. Further information regarding which website will be used will be published on the COI website as soon as it is available.

Under the terms of this commitment, certain redactions may be required prior to publication in order to protect certain types of information which may be considered exempt from publication. Redactions of contractual text will be permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act.

For new framework agreements, COI will include two new clauses covering our right to publish and redactions. However, as COI frameworks operate on a four-year cycle, this exercise will not be complete until 2012. Therefore, the decision has been taken to introduce the following two clauses in all existing framework agreement terms and conditions, effective from the date of this letter:

RIGHT TO PUBLISH

1) The parties acknowledge that; except for any information which is declared by COI to fall within one or more of the exceptions in the Redactions Clause; the content of any Contract is not Confidential Information. Notwithstanding any other clause of this Agreement, the Contractor hereby gives his consent for COI to publish a Contract in its entirety, including from time to time agreed changes, to the general public.

2) The Contractor shall assist and cooperate with COI to publish any Contract content.

 

REDACTIONS

COI may, at its sole discretion, redact information from the Contract prior to publishing for one or more of the following reasons:

  • national security;
  • personal data;
  • information protected by intellectual property law;
  • information which is not in the public interest to disclose ( under a Freedom of Information Act analysis)
    • third party confidential information;
    • IT security; or
    • prevention of fraud

 

These clauses are not considered contentious and should be acceptable, however, if you wish to discuss them or the wider transparency agenda, please feel free to contact me.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Bob Ager

Head of Procurement





Policing in the 21st Century: the role of transparency in Big Society

8 10 2010

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October, Theresa May placed great emphasis on the coalition’s vision for the future of policing in the UK. This vision has two core elements: to restore democratic accountability and to dramatically increase effectiveness through localism, innovation and a removal of bureaucratic constraints. For policing this represents among the most significant reforms since Robert Peel inaugurated the institution in 1829. In a wider context these elements lie at the very heart the Prime Minister’s ‘radical’ agenda for government (see statements on localism).  

What then does this mean in real terms for the police service? Theresa May has committed to the establishment of beat meetings, the publication of crime maps and the election of police and crime commissioners. At the heart of this, is a fundamental shift of power from the centre and the government to the peripheries and the people- the ‘radical heart’ of coalition policy that the Prime Minister speaks of.

However, if this is the coalition’s policy ambition, transparency and the opening up of data must be the vehicle by which it gets there.  Freely available data and information about policing, public safety and criminal justice are essential to enable local and civic engagement and ownership and to ensure democratic accountability of police forces and the wider criminal justice system.

The fulfillment of the Home Secretary’s pledge that ‘from next year, the police will have to publish detailed, street-level crime statistics’, while not ensuring success,  will be vital in defining the scope for success of failure of this reform. In a radical overhaul of traditional, target-centred, bureaucratically accountable public services, the release of data will allow a growing and increasingly diverse network of scrutinisers, both elected and unelected to investigate problems and issues from the point of view of people and contribute to their solutions, both locally and strategically-releasing the Prime Minister’s ‘big society’.

By opening up information and committing to its transparency agenda within a sector that has for decades been more insular and centre facing then open and local, the coalition government can maintain a powerful momentum for reform and build a strong base for it’s vision of a more active and engaged society.

Sean Kirwan





First report – and first test – of the PBA

8 09 2010

We shall soon see who is more powerful in this country, the elected government or the civil service.

The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age today publishes its first detailed report on one way we can get better-for-less. This has been put together by some of the UK’s best thinkers on the subject, led by Liam Maxwell, IT specialist and Councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. It presents examples of where their approach has succeeded and a clear plan – a playbook – for implementation. But will government actually be able to put this into action, or will it be blocked?

The report – ‘Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings’  (iBook here)- investigates the quagmire of government IT.

The British government currently spends somewhere between £16 billion and £23 billion on IT every year. The astonishing lack of clarity over expenditure is symptomatic of appalling failures in IT strategy, procurement, and process. This cannot be allowed to continue, especially during a time of spending cuts in frontline services. The annual cost dwarfs some government departments. It is three times the amount we spend on the army, more than the Department for Transport. Worse, it has been designed badly and, unfortunately this time, the process has been built to last. The problems come from ineffective procurement – much of which is waste.

Each year about the same amount of money is spent on the procurement process (the jumping through hoops to secure contracts) as is used to run the Foreign Office. Savings just in the procurement process – without even counting the savings from better IT –  could finance the entire Sure Start programme, they could fund 50% more school building. And even when the form-filling is done only 30% of projects work. Indeed government productivity has actually declined since IT was introduced. At a time when dynamic change is required –  to reduce cost and deliver better services – one of the principle barriers to that change has become government IT.

Liam and his co-authors are dedicated to bringing government into the information age, and have looked in detail about what should be done to deliver government IT more effectively, and at a much lower cost to taxpayers. The paper spells out exactly how government can deliver a better service for less money – a very different proposition to proposing mere ‘cuts’, where less money means poorer service.

The full report is available at http://pbage.org, directly here and as an ibook here.

We would really appreciate any comments from anybody who reads the paper: one of the central tenets of the post-bureaucratic age is that knowledge and skills exist within informal networks, not just companies and departments. We recognise this and encourage anyone to comment below, regardless of their political affiliations.

Stephan Shakespeare

Note: Stephan Shakespeare chairs an informal network of people who are interested in the development of policy towards a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and has written about what this means  here and here





100 days of the Coalition: Milestones so far

18 08 2010

As the Coalition passes its first 100 days, here are some of the key milestones reached in the agenda for transparency and open government.

31st May: kick-starting the drive for greater transparency, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude oversaw the publication of the salaries of the 172 highest-paid civil servants earning over £150,000.

4th June: under a week later, the government arguably took its boldest step yet and published the entire contents of the Combined Online Information System (COINS) of government expenditure for the previous two financial years. This has now been extended so the data from every financial year from 2005/06 to 2009/10 is available.

10th June: the government published a list of the names and salaries of all special advisers and civil servants earning over £58,000.

24th June: PM David Cameron held the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board and agreed a set of public data principles.

1st July: the government released details of everyone currently employed by a Non Departmental Public Bodies (or ‘Quango’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. On the same day, Deputy PM Nick Clegg launched the ‘Your Freedom’ website , calling for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’.

5th August: Making good on their previous commitment, the UK government’s energy use was made available to view in real time online, with half-hourly updates of the energy consumption of all 18 departments.

Charlotte Jee        (@charlottejee)





Government response to comments on the Coalition Programme

2 08 2010

On Friday 30th July, the government published responses, by department, to the public opinions expressed on ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’ website. In the past three weeks, the website published over 9,500 comments from the public on the Coalition programme on subjects as wide-ranging as defence, civil liberties and banking. In a video posted to the Number 10 website, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, hailed the latest developments thus:

‘The response has been fantastic and I’m pleased to see people have really engaged with this process. I hope people will see that this is different, it’s a permanent change to the way we run government, and that it is worthwhile engaging in this kind of process in the future. It’s important for us in government to remember we don’t have all the answers.’

His comments were echoed by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office:

‘At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas. Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open.’

In a statement on the Cabinet Office website, the government thanked those who chose to comment on the programme for government and reiterated its commitment to the use of open standards and transparency. Furthermore, the government hailed the opportunity for open source software to drive down procurement prices and avoid dependence on inefficient vendors. The government also announced that ‘Guidance for Procurers’ will be published in September 2010. The aim of this guidance is to ensure that new IT procurements for government offer the best value for money possible.

Charlotte Jee       (@charlottejee)





Which government datasets do you want to see released?

23 07 2010

In the latest development in the government transparency drive, today Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) called for the British public to identify which new government datasets they wish to see made public on data.gov.uk.

This decision was made in the light of a recent meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board, tasked by the Prime Minister to ensure transparency is at the heart of the governments’ dealings.

As part of this the Transparency Board has identified some frequently requested datasets which include:

  • Land Registry
  • Companies House
  • Integrated Business Register
  • Transport Data include timetables, fare and real time running information
  • Weather information including observations and forecasts
  • Environment Agency data
  • Address register
  • Footpaths

Commenting on today’s developments, Francis Maude said:

“We promised a new approach to government – one that puts transparency at the very heart of everything we do. As part of our commitment to transparency this Government has already published a series of datasets which have never been available to the public before. But it’s not just a one way process: I want people to give their ideas on what datasets they want to see released and not just wait for us to publish.

“As the saying goes, information is power. By making datasets freely available people are more able to hold public bodies to account and challenge them. This is just the start of process which will only end when transparency and openness are an integral part of the way public bodies operate and serve their customers.”

The government has furthermore published procurement spending by English local authorities and the Department of Health for the first time, as an addition to the data made available in the Office of Government Commerce’s Public Sector Procurement Expenditure Survey. This is a survey of central government organisations’ expenditure and provides £86bn of operational data, on what over 130 Central Government Organisations plus English Local Authorities spend in over 120 common categories of procurement. The full data is available here.

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)





Race Online 2012 launched today: future challenges and ideas

12 07 2010

Today Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion, launched the ‘Race Online 2012’ manifesto, the aim of which is to get millions online by the end of 2012. 10 million UK citizens (the combined population of our five largest cities) have never used the internet, and with this in mind, the manifesto aims to get everyone of working age online by the end of this parliament, to ensure that all may enjoy the benefits of the web upon retirement.

This recent development raises some pertinent questions- for example, should internet access be a human right? According to a BBC World Service poll of more than 27,000 adults in over 26 countries, almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. Access has already been ruled as a human right in Estonia and Finland, and according to the aforementioned BBC research, 75% of Britons would like to see internet access as a fundamental right, perhaps indicating that steps to enshrine access as a right in law would be welcomed by the majority. This would furthermore send a strong signal from the top that internet access is no longer viewed as a luxury but as a necessity for citizens to fully participate in modern UK society.

In addition, these developments raise further possibilities for the Coalition government’s drive to cut costs and improve efficiency- there is a plethora of evidence that by, where possible, moving government functions online, a huge amount of money could be saved. The manifesto launched today, the full version of which is here, estimates that ‘if all currently offline adults began using the internet and made just one online contact each month with government instead of a telephone or face-to-face contact it would save an estimated £900m per annum’.

Questions have been raised over whether these pledges can be supported by the current broadband infrastructure, and although roughly 90% of homes can readily get a broadband connection at 2Mbps or higher and UK prices are now among the lowest in the world, questions remain about how much the government can do, beyond supporting commitments to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps as the very minimum that should be available. While it is true that it is impossible (and indeed, undesirable) to force people to go online, the focus of Race Online 2012 is far more on positively encouraging this group to explore the huge benefits that the internet can bring- for example, ‘older women who have family overseas’ or ‘men over 45 who like football’. One of the key challenges, as raised by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, is how these pledges can be fulfilled without government money.

Charlotte Jee                (@charlottejee)





Response to Matthew Taylor’s ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’

11 07 2010

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA since 2006, has written an essay entitled ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, which presents the thinking behind the RSA’s new strapline. It invites us to ‘return to core principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism, restoring dimensions which have been lost and seeing new ways to fulfil these ideals.’

The essay contains a (great) number of well-presented mini-summaries of current thinking. We get Matt Ridley, Tsvetan Todorov, Jonathan Israel, David Halpern, David Willetts, Mark Lilla, Antonio Damasio, Anthony Giddens, Robert Kegan, Manuel Eisner, Paul Collier, Evgeny Morozov, Marc Hauser, Scott Atran and Mary Douglas. Essayist staples Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault unsurprisingly also get cameos.

The Strengths

Taylor’s section on ‘self-aware autonomy’ is the strongest in the article, nicely reflecting Kant’s 1784 view of the goal of the enlightenment: ‘Know thyself!’ . He cites recent research which suggests how the eighteenth-century model of human autonomy we have inherited is deficient, or at times simply wrong. He recognises that most of our behaviour is the result of our brain responding to the world around us, and it is easier to change things by changing contexts, rather than by trying wilfully override our brain’s activities. Taylor’s ‘championing of a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy” makes a convincing case.

Furthermore, the three areas Taylor outlines which need development in order to close the ‘social aspiration gap’ (between where ‘we are going’ and ‘where we want to go’) make interesting reading. This encompasses engagement – recognising your own role in changing things; self-sufficiency and resourcefulness – managing your own life and taking the initiative to change things; and being pro-social – building social capital. Some readers may see a close parallel with some of the ideas the coalition government has developed as part of its Big Society agenda.

The Weaknesses

Taylor refers to ‘the Enlightenment project’ throughout the essay, although he himself recognises that there was not really a ‘project’ in any meaningful sense. He also displays the same desire to pull diverse, even divergent, themes and issues into a single narrative: ‘there is a general consensus on the key challenges facing national and global society’. Really? We all agree poverty and disease are bad, but other than that there does not appear to be anything approaching a genuine ‘general consensus’. Perhaps Taylor means ‘among the fellows of the RSA’; but even there I suspect he might struggle.

This leads us to the main problem with the essay, and indeed, the RSA’s new strapline. ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is a lovely piece of branding; it is not a good piece of thinking. In another blogpost on the topic, Taylor calls for ‘a return to core enlightenment values’, even though (and if he has read Israel he must know this) no such ‘core values’ ever existed.

The phrase ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is symptomatic of Taylor’s desire to simplify and narrate a version of history to suit his ends, which undermines  the more astute pieces of analysis in the essay. For example, we have a rose-tinted version of the pre-industrial period as enjoying ‘shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds’; ‘many Enlightenment thinkers’ believing that religion would decline in the face of scientific rationalism – this was not the case; and a confusing model of ’empathy stock’ which seems to argue at one point that ‘the stock of human empathy’ is ‘just as important’ as worldwide  education.

Taylor also distrusts ‘competition’ as a means of galvanising meaningful social change, and relies too heaving on top-down initiatives like ‘institutions of global governance’ to effect change in a post-bureaucratic world. The notion of being critical of established norms, and constantly revisiting the questions ‘where are we going, and why’ is exactly the kind of activity the RSA should be engaging in; creating grand, but flimsy, historical narratives to tie in with neat straplines is not.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )





Recent news on transparency

5 07 2010

On 1st July the Cabinet Office released details of everyone currently working for Non Departmental Public Bodies (known as ‘Quangos’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. This data will be added to the list published last month setting out the highest earning civil servants and special advisers. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and chair of the newly created Public Sector Transparency Board, hailed the recent developments:

‘Yet again we have shown we are absolutely committed to acting quickly on pledges in our Coalition Agreement to release information that will allow everyone to hold their politicians and public bodies to account. Today’s release, along with previous publications listing high earning civil servants and salaries of special advisers, shows that transparency is fast becoming an integral part of everything we do.  I believe this will not only increase accountability, but will lead to more efficient public service organisations.’

On the same day Deputy PM Nick Clegg called for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’. This is part of a consultative process where the government will try to ascertain which laws the public wish to see repealed, and try to ‘redress the balance between the citizen and the state’. The three key questions for consideration, as set out by Mr Clegg in his speech at the launch of the Your Freedom website, are as follows:

  • Restoring civil liberties: which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?
  • Cutting business and charity regulations: which regulations do you think should be removed or changed to make running your business or organisation as simple as possible?
  • Repealing unnecessary laws: which offences do you think we should remove or change and why?

In his speech Mr Clegg praised the initiative thus: ‘What I find especially exciting about this project is that, now we have got the ball rolling, the debate is totally out of government’s control. Real democracy is unspun -it is the raucous, unscripted debates that always throw up the best ideas. So be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom, and this is your chance to have your say.’

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)