This may be old news but what are you doing about the £501 question?

Way back in May 2010 in an open letter (you can see it  here ), the Prime Minister, David Cameron, laid out his requirement for Central and Local Government to become more transparent by publishing their data on expenditure. In the case of Local government, everything over £500 must be shown.

Francis Maude will be heading up the Public Sector Transparency Board overseeing the Salome like removal of the veils covering the mysteries of public sector procurement. Added to this is the “responsibility for setting open data standards across the public sector, publishing further datasets on the basis of public demand, and – in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice – will further develop the Right to Data and advise on its implementation”. So the right to this data will become enshrined in law it seems. All very laudable. And to be specific this is what Cameron expects from Local Government in his drive towards transparency:

  • “New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.
  • New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011”.

And how does that translate into what Councils should be providing? The Government web site data.gov.uk made these recommendations back in June 2010

“… our immediate advice to local authorities is:

  • Users will be interested in the core information held in the accounts system – such as expenditure code, amount paid, transaction date, beneficiary, and payment reference number. The expenditure code has to be explained and steps taken to help users identify the beneficiary
  • As a first stage, publish the raw data and any lookup table needed to interpret it in a spreadsheet as a CSV or XML file as soon as possible. This should be put on the council’s website as a document for anyone to download. Or even published in a service such as Google Docs
  • There is not yet a national approach for publishing local authority expenditure data. This should not stop publication of data in its raw, machine-readable form. Observing such raw data being used is the only route to a national approach, should one be required
  • Publishing raw data will allow the panel and others to assess how that data could/should be presented to users. Sight of the data is worth a hundred meetings. Members of the panel will study the data, take part in the discussion and revise this advice.
  • As a second stage, informed by the discussion, the panel and users can then give feedback about publishing data (RDF, CSV, etc) in a way that can be consistent across all local authorities involving structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards”.

You can read the full article  here. And the original comments from Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s paper, ‘Putting Government Data Online’ which seemed to kick all of this off, is here.

From this can be seen at worst its suggested, nay required, to place all information about expenditure over £500 on line in something as simple as a CSV file from January 2011.

In saying “…our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account” Cameron’s intention is clear. It’s about the accountability of Councils for their spending to the public they serve.

It’s long been the case that politicians hide their doings using a chamber full of excuses like it’s too difficult, too complicated, too expensive or the public won’t understand etc. And even now, despite this forced openness, some are obfuscating by merely uploading a spreadsheet or even a pdf, neither of which is very helpful and does not meet the sprit of the request from central Government.

And yet, despite the lack of a clear instruction from the government on just how the data should be produced – come on Francis spell it out – some are turning searchlights on the birds nest of data they hold simplifying it and  bringing it into sharp focus for the ordinary man in the street.

One such is Lichfield District Council  which has produced a really useful system of its own in order to put a more friendly face on the otherwise confusing data produced in their ( or anybody else’s)  CSV.

Lichfield’s web manager, Stuart Harrison, takes the CSV produced by the internal accounting systems and uploads it to his own purpose built application which he wrote for the task in PHP.

Talking of the data produced he said “the intention of the CX and myself was to make it easier for people to understand” .

The CSV files are still there for anyone wishing to download the full fat version but from what I’ve seen Harrison’s purpose built simplifier does an excellent job.

Harrison says he is prepared to share the code, which he is going to make available in the near future. Contact him for details on:- Stuart.Harrison  at  lichfielddc.gov.uk

As I write this, Lichfield’s figures are not currently up – taken down for some tweaking – but they will return here. In the near future.

As an aside – it will be interesting to see how Socitm view any lack of these figures during their upcoming annual “better Connected” review of local government web sites.

The deadline to get this all out there seems to be the 1st January folks so, if you haven’t sorted this out yet, best get your skates on.

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