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





Government Business Plans

29 11 2010

On 8 November the government published business plans that set out in detail the work of Government for the next four years. The plans include information on department vision, how this fits with coalition priorities, structural reform plans, department expenditure and information on transparency. Taken together these lie at the very heart of the coalition’s radical agenda for accountability and transparency.

In launching the plans David Cameron spoke both of a ‘horizon shift’ and a ‘power shift’ that would “change the way that government works”.

“Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these business plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people.” This means a horizon shift to long-term government planning for the people rather than short-term political goals.

The Prime Minister also lauded the plans as a move towards greater transparency in Whitehall, part of a “power shift” giving people enough information to hold government to account.

Under the new initiative each department will have to produce a monthly progress report – and the secretary of state will have to account to the prime minister if they are not on track.

The most significant development that differentiates these from the previous government’s public service agreements is that the departments’ business plans show when they are due to start, due to end and what progress has been made.

In an example of how they can work, and create a “rod for (the governments) back”, they  also shows that three projects are already overdue – two at the Cabinet Office relating to publishing details of big IT projects and guidance about the cost of IT projects, and a Ministry of Justice strategy to reduce re-offending and improve rehabilitation – which was due in October.

The potential provided by the business plans for improved accountability and continued increases in transparency is considerable. It will be interesting to see how civic society makes use of these opportunities.

Sean Kirwan





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





New Open Government License

6 10 2010

On 30 September the government launched the new Open Government License (OGL), opening up public information for reuse by all – businesses, individuals, charities or community groups – without the need to pay or get permission. This is a crucial step in the rolling out of the Prime Minister’s Transparency Agenda, providing a simple way in which everyone can benefit from the amount of government information currently being published.

Based on the world-leading Creative Commons family of licenses, it will replace the existing Click-use license on central government (‘Crown’) works and will cover an extensive range of information, including Crown Copyright, databases and source codes. Furthermore, this is heralded as only the start with the Local Data Panel recommending to Local Authorities that they use the OGL when publishing all their data, spearheading the drive to place the UK ‘at the forefront’ of the world’s open data revolution.

Two rationales drive this project. An emphasis on transparency and accountability as a crucial part of the government commitment in the coalitions ‘Big Society’, and on the enabling of innovative new uses of data as part of the parallel commitment for greatly extended civic involvement  within society.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude encapsulates this ambition: “Greater transparency is at the heart of this government’s program. We believe it is the best way for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account, encourage innovation and deliver better value for money in public spending”.

The OGL forms the vital enabling legislation to provide the environment in which this can happen and is encouraging evidence that this government has recognised that free and open data maximises both the social and economic value of information.

Sean Kirwan





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)