Councils publishing ‘inaccessible’ spending data, say MPs

31 Jul 12
Local authority spending data is being released without town halls ensuring that it is ‘fit for purpose’, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee revealed today.

By Richard Johnstone | 1 August 2012

Local authority spending data is being released without town halls ensuring that it is ‘fit for purpose’, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee revealed today.

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In a report examining the government’s drive to open up public sector information, the committee found there had been a significant increase in the volume and range of information released by both local and central government.

The MPs say progress has been made and the government has met the majority of commitments first set out by Prime Minister David Cameron in May 2010. But further work is needed.

Implementing the transparency agenda warns that it ‘does not help’ the government’s objectives when large quantities of raw data are released without ensuring that the information is ‘accessible, relevant and easy to understand’.

During their inquiry, the MPs were told that all but one local authority were complying with the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Code of Recommended Practice in releasing information. Nottingham City Council is refusing to publish details of all expenditure over £500.

However, the report concludes that the data released on local government spending is ‘very difficult to interpret’, and is not being presented on a consistent basis.

Other data being released across authorities, such as price and performance information on adult social care, is being published with big gaps in information, it adds.

In addition, Whitehall has not yet developed a full understanding of costs and benefits of releasing information. This means that decisions on which data to make available and in what form are not being guided by value for money considerations, the report says..

The MPs urged ministers to ensure there was sufficient disclosure of information by private firms delivering government contracts.

Committee chair Margaret Hodge said that it was ‘of particular concern’ that ‘private providers can hide behind “commercial confidentiality” to block the disclosure of relevant information’.

She added: ‘This committee fully supports the principle of greater openness and its potential to strengthen accountability and drive improvements in public services. But the government has a lot more work to do before that potential is realised.

‘As more and more different providers are involved in providing our public services, there must be a level playing field in terms of transparency.

‘Data is also being issued by government and other public bodies without any clear idea of the costs, benefits and risks of doing so. The government should develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks.’

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