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.

The worldly wise know the truth…

picture of Selfridges Birmingham

Selfridges

No matter what the economic climate – and in Local Government it’s witheringly bleak ( like the weather here tonight at minus 9degC) – there is always opportunity.

In this case the opportunity is to improve your web offerings even when budgets are being butchered by the politicos occupying the upper branches of the Government/Local Government forests.

However, you are going to have to be brave; turn your current thinking on it’s head, measure results, prove your effectiveness and above all hold your nerve.

Collective Responsibility is running a session in Birmingham ( the centre of the universe for us Brummies ) designed to offer advice, support and illustrations of just how others are doing it. Well worth a look.

The event is scheduled for January the 25th 2011 It’s called…

Council Websites: Creating & Finding Opportunities in an Arduous Market.

You can read all about it here

You have to attend to help  you and yours survive the next few years and of course to see this amazing building.

The age of the “Git Citizen”

I was at the “building perfect council web sites” event  at Olympia today.

Interesting opening talk by Jos Creese who is Head of IT at Hampshire CC and President of Socitm for the year.

Lots of stuff I didn’t agree with but more that I did, so on balance a good talk. I bumped into another head of web service at another council who ”thought it was the best speech by a Socitm president she had heard.”  “He was saying all the things we have known for years”  she said. I’m not certain about that but he certainly pressed some of the buttons.

He talked about re-shaping council offerings for the digital age and how sites should be developed in line with customer demand. He encouraged a degree of personalisation of the sites but that personalisation should be under users control.

One aspect of his talk I agreed with was his view that  Partnership web site construction is a good thing. He said that Hampshire shared with over  1000 sites of different sorts.

When asked a question about costs of all this he said “We are not able to do it on our own” whilst talking of shared services.

He made it clear we were set for radical change which we should welcome.   And perhaps some of those changes , with sharing more information and answering social media sites,  may  increase the number of FOI requests. This, he argued, was the inevitable bow-wave resulting from such huge changes and we should be ready for it.

He said we should take a leap of faith with what we are doing, much as we did I suppose at the birth of use of the web and e-mail. There may be political issues but we should press ahead removing the silo mentality in our sites; the public is blind to those silo’s.

Another aspect that chimed with me was his suggestion that we remove the bureaucracy surrounding much of what we do – that is getting rid of  rigid policies and procedures. Perhaps, he suggested, we should allow the managers to be more in control. Hmmm. I cant somehow see UK Local Government releasing the reigns with the alacrity, or for that matter the ease, he is suggesting. Ours is a controlled society, some of that control is political, and I cant see that changing very quickly, can you?

Next there were three talks by people involved in social networking.

First came a talk by  Dr. James Munro from Patient Opinion which seemed to be part of the NHS (Not so. See comments below. PDB. I’ll be elevating James to the peerage next) with a very specific, and in my opinion excellent, intent to make it easy for patients to comment on their NHS.

The service looked good. It allowed people to post up their opinions about NHS service,  good or bad, and he in my experience, unsurprisingly, they get a lot of positive comments. The NHS departments concerned can see these comments and can reply and if they change the service they can tell the complainant what they have changed, Excellent. Really good. Why don’t we have that on our web sites? Anyway go and take a look for yourself and use it if you have good or bad service at the hands of the NHS.

Next came a talk by Jane Postlethwaite  from Brighton and Hove. She is their Social media Officer. Much of what she said, though I didn’t hear a great deal being at the back and her being a tad quiet, seemed obvious but… she did say they are coming up with a social media policy. Despite Jos Creese asking us to be less bureaucratic I would like to have a look at that.

Lastly a piece by Nick Booth from PodNosh and founder of Helpmeinvestigate.com. Now this may be the bane of our local government lives but it was an excellent talk.

Nick suggested this was the age of the “Git Citizen” who would ask the  why, how, where and how much etc. because the web has made it possible for them to do so.

The part I liked was the video showing Nick harassing parking attendants (or maybe policemen) for parking illegally. Ace. Loved it and yes it does help that it was in Birmingham and yes I am a Brummie.

Nick entreated us to:

  • Link to everything with permanent links with RSS feeds to just about everything.
  • Tag it all with place names
  • Produce consumable content on our pages
  • Ensure our content is embed-able ( videos etc)
  • And to share data openly..

Doing this would ensure the volunteers who do all this “stuff”can get at our data and do something with it.

An interesting day and as ever a little like the curates egg… good in parts. Nice little earner for Socitm though so that’s alright then.

Peter Barton

Shark attack?

I read  a piece on Public Sector Forums today by Patrick Barnes at Chester. It appears a  company seems to have hijacked elements of his pages into frames and has published it as if it were theirs.

So I checked here…

http://www.parkandride.net/index.shtml

and sure enough some of our own data was up there. Accessed via the Lincoln.gov.uk pages our “my Lincolnshire” feature is being used.

Just my opinion of course, and what do I know… but it tends towards passing off at best and deceptive at worst. Patrick’s  suggesting we get together and raise both awareness and clamor.

Patricks full piece makes for interesting reading. You can find it here…

http://tinyurl.com/y4enj4u

This issue brings into focus the debate about re-use of local government data. Should we allow its free use? Is this re-use or rip off? Is it right for companies such as this to benefit from taxpayers money  etc etc etc?

I’d be interested in your opinions.