The Prime Minister and CLG Ministers wish to see local authorities publish granular local spending data. The Public Sector Transparency Board has been set up to drive an open data agenda. The Prime Minister has made a specific commitment that new items of local government spending over £500 be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011. http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/statements-and-articles/2010/05/letter-to-government-departments-on-opening-up-data-51204 Many local authorities also wish to publish such data. Camden Council asked the Panel for advice on publishing information about payments to suppliers greater than £500 in value.
The Panel publishes the following advice as a first step – we recognise that it may contain errors or omissions and we welcome comments to correct those. Please comment on this blog post and in the discussion forum. The Panel will publish further advice in due course on this website, we shall also schedule workshops to provide practical advice and guidance and share best practice. We recognise that this advice is applicable more broadly than local authorities and welcome suggestions for other areas where with modification, the advice could apply.
Our advice broadly follows Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s paper, ‘Putting Government Data Online’ http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/GovData.html. Publishing raw data quickly is an immediate priority, but in the medium term local authorities should work towards structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards. Subject to other issues below, 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.
There are a range of other issues to consider. Reflecting the experience of local authorities that already publish expenditure data such as the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (http://www.rbwm.gov.uk/web/finance_payments_to_suppliers.htm) and the London Datastore the Panel makes the following observations:
Publication: all payments to suppliers for goods and services and grants over £500 should be published. There are limited exceptions surrounding personal information that falls under the Data Protection Act: any deleted data entry should be replaced with the word REDACTED. We can’t think of circumstances in Local Authorities where payment amounts and the record of the payment itself should be redacted as a whole.
Dissemination: Local authorities should make it clear that they are publishing data. We recommend that Local Authorities register their data on data.gov.uk both to give the data its widest audience, but also to act as proof of publication. The first step is to get in contact with data.gov.uk and let them know you have some data. Where regional data stores exist such as the London Datastore and the West Midlands Observatory http://www.wmro.org/homeTemplate.aspx/Home they should also be informed.
Accounting systems: a local authority should be able to produce at a negligible cost an electronic list of payments from their accounting system and then sort that for payments greater than £500. It should be possible to meet this expenditure through internal resources.
Context: local authorities should provide sufficient context so that people can understand what expenditure codes mean. At the outset, this should not hold up publication of data while a huge list is ‘cleared’ around the organisation. There will be an internal list of codes – publish that. Also let users explore the data and respond with what they need to know, rather than trying to guess this in advance or engage through meetings. RBWM provides an email address to respond to queries about expenditure items. The London Datastore publishes GLA expenditure over £1,000 with a simple descriptor http://www.london.gov.uk/who-runs-london/greater-london-authority/expenditure-over-1000
Supplier Identification: to support transparency we need to be able to identify suppliers. This is often not possible from the name alone, or from the accounting system's internal ID. Ideally publication would include the Companies House number (or equivalent in the case of foreign companies) or Charity registration number, or failing that because it's a partnership or similar, or because it isn't stored in the accounts system, you should publish whatever there is. In all accounts systems this would be address/telephone number, and also VAT number for those suppliers that are registered.
Timeliness: data should be published in a timely manner, for instance within a month of month end.
Payroll and benefits payments to individuals: We take it that in general local authorities do not yet wish to publish their payroll nor benefits payments to individuals so they should not be in the data set. However, these are major items of expenditure and it should be possible to publish basic anonymised statistical information such as distributions of payments etc. This requires further discussion.
Public protection: Information about the vulnerable and children requires proper protection. Names of payment beneficiaries for goods and services and possibly even account codes might reveal sensitive information about vulnerable people or children in the council’s care unless risk management processes are put in place. We expect that such risks are already managed by internal processes, but information that puts people at risk should not be published.
Personal information and data protection: some people who are sole traders being paid for goods and services by a local authority might have their name in published data as a beneficiary. There is a clear public interest in such payments being public and transparent. We are not data protection experts and would urge the Information Commissioner to examine this.
Confidentiality agreements in contracts: Local authorities will wish to make their own judgement on the relative efficiencies of simply publishing payment amounts to companies that may be covered by confidentiality agreements versus responding to repeated FOI requests for the same information. We note the judgements by the Information Commissioner on the public interest over-riding standard confidentiality clauses in agreements between public bodies and companies. We support the government’s position that contracts should be published.
Nigel Shadbolt (Chair)
On behalf of the Local Public Data Panel 02 June 2010