The deadline has just gone whooshing by for all local councils in England to publish online all spending over £500. They aren’t all there yet but enough have started doing it to make life interesting. The Department of Communities and Local Government is keeping track here http://www.communities.gov.uk/localgovernment/transparency/localgovernmentexpenditure/timeline/
Inspired by US experiments, such as the rather amazing Missouri Accountability Portal you can see here http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov/MAP/Portal/Default.aspx, the government is banking on a wonderfully alliterative ‘army of armchair auditors’ to monitor and drive down local authorities spending. It is also hoped that publication will improve transparency and public trust.
In our interviews for our local government project local authorities have expressed a range of views about the publication of £500 spending. Everyone supports openness and transparency. Some felt it was significant step forward and one that might even help reduce the number of FOI requests. Others are worried, one, that it will be expensive and two, that without explanation spending will be misunderstood. There are concerns that it would play into an existing view that local authorities are wasteful.
As of yet, we shall have to wait and see if the ‘army of auditors’ arrives. Research on E-government has shown that online government does reduce costs but does not necessarily improve public participation or trust. Anecdotal evidence from our own project has found low levels of use as yet but, as with FOI, it may take time (and publicity) before we begin to see wider public use and impact. It may also work alongside transparency sites such as Openly Local http://openlylocal.com/councils/spending
Some journalists have already begun to explore its potential and David Higgerson, who does the fascinating FOI Friday news digest, has offered some advice as to how it could be done http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/council-spending-data-10-tips-for-journalists-looking-for-stories/
The Manchester Evening News and Kent Messenger have already begun investigating what’s been published http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/politics/s/1406701_revealed_how_greater_manchester_councils_spent_300m_of_your_money
You can see some of our preliminary findings from our project on FOI and local government here