Open data and public expenditure
Whilst public finance transparency is better in Britain than many other countries, poor quality, inaccessible and redacted data is preventing effective scrutiny of government spending, Transparency International UK reported.
[‘Counting the pennies’ [extract], Transparency International UK, September 2016]
Successive governments have made open data a priority and more recently this has included an emphasis on public finance disclosures. Since 2010, public bodies in both central and local government have been encouraged to publish the details of certain financial information on a regular basis. From 2015, this has been a mandatory requirement. As a result of this initiative, there are now millions of records of tenders, contracts and transactions spanning the last five years that had hitherto been undisclosed to the outside world. Across central and local government, this covers over £2.312 trillion worth of transactions, and for local government in England alone, there are almost 63 million individual lines of data on items of spending.
According to the latest Open Data Index, this initiative helps put the UK in the top tier for publishing tender and transaction level data about public finances. These efforts to increase transparency about public finances can only be welcomed. Public procurement is internationally recognised as a corruption risk and is included under Article 9 of the UN Convention Against Corruption. Providing greater scrutiny over this process can help detect and deter attempts to abuse entrusted power for private gain in the UK. There are also several other benefits of public finance transparency beyond fighting corruption. These include helping the public sector as a whole understand who it does business with and increasing value for money in procurement, providing the private sector with more insights into potential business opportunities, and giving greater information to citizens about how public bodies spend taxpayers’ money. This may lead many to conclude that the UK’s job is done and that it should hold itself up as a model for other countries to follow.
However, our research has found there are still a number of issues with how the government’s framework for public finance transparency is implemented in practice. If unchecked, these could fundamentally undermine the utility of this initiative. For both the layperson and expert the data are relatively inaccessible, with there being no single location where it can be accessed. The data often contains inaccuracies, anomalies and omissions. A lack of standardisation in how the data are published also means that in-depth analysis is inhibited, and the level of detail and contextual information provided undermines the meaningfulness of this resource. And not every citizen has the time or skills necessary to analyse and interpret the data as it is being published in its current form.
The UK Government has announced a number of important commitments that could help the UK make progress on improving the quality of public finance data. This includes rolling-out open contracting – the new gold standard for procurement transparency – across central government and engaging data users in how to improve the management, use and availability of public data. These pledges are timely, but also show an implicit acknowledgement that there is still work to be done before the UK can truly say its finances are the most transparent in the world.
In 2010, the coalition government proclaimed a ‘New era of transparency’ would bring about ‘a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’.
[‘New era of transparency will bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’, gov.uk, 4 June 2010]
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Local Government Association Chair Baroness Eaton joined forces today to urge all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online as part of wider action to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability.
As a result, local authorities began to publish lists of spending of £500 or more, with payees. However, in themselves, these are of extremely limited value. For example, if Local Authority A lists a payment to Contractor X of £100,000, one might well wonder, what was the £100,000 for? And how did Contractor X get the business? Was there a bidding process?
In practice, “publishing details of all spending over £500 in full” has meant publishing next to no details.
Other transparency problems have arisen from the transfer of public funds to ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships’ to spend, supposedly on behalf of the public. LEPs tend to function as private fiefdoms, controlled by big business, and untroubled by the Freedom of Information Act.