Government reveals Gist of public spending

29 Jul 13
The government is making public a database showing how Whitehall departments spend their money.

Cabinet Office minister Chloë Smith said the Government Interrogating Spending Tool (Gist), launched today, goes further than any other country in opening up the business of government to public scrutiny. In designing the system, ministers had ‘quite deliberately’ not left many places to hide, she said.

‘Greater transparency can help us identify wasteful spending,’ she added.

‘Gist, for the first time, lays open the government’s books and crucially provides a user-friendly tool with which to analyse the data. This puts meaningful information and analysis at the fingertips of all.’

Gist is made up of two sets of data: Online System for Central Accounting (Oscar) and the Quarterly Data Summary (QDS).

Oscar is the financial reporting system used by the Treasury and brings together £710bn worth of accounting data. It replaces the Combined Online Information System (Coins), which the government made public in June 2010.

QDS is collated by the Cabinet Office to give managers a snapshot of £400bn in current spending.

The Gist system is currently in beta, or development, form and Smith said the government welcomed feedback on how it could be improved.

Oscar allows users to view spending data for all four quarters of 2012/13, broken down from a department’s overall budget into Departmental Expenditure Limit spending and Annually Managed Expenditure. Spending is broken down further into areas including pay, procurement, rents and grants to other parts of government.

It shows, for example, that in Quarter 4 of 2012/13, the Department for Work & Pensions was the biggest spending Whitehall department, with expenditure of £41.8bn, while the Cabinet Office spent the least with just £1.6bn.

QDS allows users to track departmental operational costs – such as policy implementation, IT and estates – and transactional costs, such as pay bills and procurement. It excludes some large items of government expenditure such as the NHS and budgets devolved to the Scottish and Welsh governments.

The Cabinet Office said that, as more data were added to Gist, users would be able to make historical comparisons and identify trends.

Smith said Gist was ‘not a substitute for correct and technical audit, but a whole new line of transparency’. However, she told Public Finance that Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge was ‘encouraged’ to take a look at it and pursue any lines of inquiry that emerged. She added that the National Audit Office was working very closely with the Cabinet Office on efforts to improve management information in government. ‘They see the vale of having accessible data,’ she said.

Calls for better management information in Whitehall have been led by Lord Browne, the government’s lead non-executive director, and Martin Read, the former Logica chief executive, whose report on improving the quality of MI was made public last month.


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