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.

We’re all useless. The Guardian says so. It’s the silly season.

Guardian piece

Local Government spends far too much on web site design when it could all be done for £15,000. That’s the gist of a couple of conjoined reports from the Telegraph and the Guardian this week here and here.

The Guardian drew these conclusions and figures from a piece of work by a journalist, a “datajournalist” no less, who, after sending an FOI request to all councils, ‘discovered’ councils spend money on talking to their clients via a cheaper  more cost effective channel.

Birmingham, it seems, spent over £2m on their new web site design. By analysing data the Guardian’s researchers deduced it could be done for £15k on average. So why the excessive spend?

I’m not here to defend Birmingham’s spend ( though as a rabid Brummie I have a view) but the set of questions sent out in the FOI was flawed as it allowed folks to provide answers – or not, as the case may be – which made it impossible to compare like with like.

The Guardians conclusions  seemed to depend on how much we each spent on external suppliers. If you didn’t use one then it showed your costs as nil. And if you did… well the slewed results are obvious.
No mention was made, because the question wasn’t asked, of how much was spent internally on staff to design, construct and manage the site (not the content). I heard recently of a council who has 5 full time members of staff working on their site and developing it to meet changing needs. That has to be £125,000 a year in anybody’s money.

Telegraph piece

Telegraph piece

This shows  it’s simply not possible to compare Apples with Apples from the data collected. Comparisons can be made but will be flawed.

It got worse as  inaccuracies in the way the data was used became evident. For Example the data provide by my own council showed a cost of new web site design (one of the questions asked) as being about 18p per head of population. The guardian declared it as being £1.11 per head using  a population of over 1million. We don’t have a population of over a million, let alone that sort of budget. I thought journalists, especially data ones, checked their facts. To get the facts wrong and then to compound that with arithmetical errors is simply sloppy. All they had to do was divide the amount of spend by the population.

Our comm’s department complained to the Guardian so they corrected the offending figure. To £18.20. What!

Our comm’s department complained again and this time the Guardian, after much red faced appologies, got it right. I wonder how much of the manipulation of others data was similarly mishandled?

I’m not against FOI requests per se. They do lend a transparency to the processes in Local Government which should be welcomed but when they are used in such a confusing, dogmatic, and yet, inept manner I find it difficult to defend their use; and indeed defend the masses of time spent on making the replies.

Looking at the gaps in the Guardian’s listings; surely the real story is how many Local Authorities didn’t answer the FOI at all. That would be 96%.  No.09%. Argh… I give up. I’ll leave you to work it out for yourself in true Guardian style.

One comment on the Guardian page seems to grasp the issues we face

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pauldjones

17 Aug 2010, 12:58PM
This information is not only wrong, it is very missleading – the results of FOI questions that were not specific and the answers to which have been adapted and false representation has resulted in wrong details being printed.

Local authorities have to follow very strict rules on use and access to all, accessability guidelines are among the toughest in the world in the UK for authorities.

To display the hoem made site for Birmingham council as being cheaper and better value is wrong, a simple look at the site shows errors all over, a poor amaturish look and not developer skill anywhere. There is no usability, accessability or user experience considerations at all…
The site has 3 errors making this site at present illegal under DDA laws and would be served a 90 day penalty notice to close. Newspapers seem to liek to glamorise facts and figures, but the wrong ones.

As a designer/developer I am fully aware of these laws and considerations that MUST be taken daily by LA web staff.

Local Authority websitea have the widest target audience anywhere – everyone!
The laws in place make it a requirement to develop and redesign sites on average every 3 years -this is never mentioned!

Why not print the truth and the reallity of this?

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I have only a miniscule amount of knowledge of publisher  websites but from the little I know perhaps I could suggest these journalists discover how much their own sites cost to design construct and manage before taking a shot at a sector which probably ‘talks’ meaningfully  to more people on a daily basis than the whole of the sites in the newspaper sector. If they were to do that they may begin to put local government spending on web sites into perspective, but of course that wouldn’t sell newspapers.

Lets turn off the web

p.s for a considered look at how spending on Local Government web sites benefits councils and their clients  take a look here.