Well, here’s a rum one.
During today’s Full Council, Cllr Collins answered a question from the Tories about whether Nottingham City Council would respond to the pressure coming from central government to join “Google Government” and automatically publish details of all spending over £500.
The response wasn’t quite “over my dead body” but it wasn’t far away. According to the Leader of the Council, Nottingham City will only publish the data if it becomes a legal duty.
In justifying that, he said that about half of all councils had decided to publish the data, about half were yet to do so. Comparable authorities to Nottingham had discovered that publishing the data proved pretty expensive: Newcastle and Manchester were mentioned, as was the figure £100,000 – not to publish the data itself, but in terms of additional queries generated from the public as a result of the greater transparency. FOI requests are already costing the city half a million a year to answer.
Those FOI requests are certainly interesting. Someone has already asked for the financial data, in the correct format, using an FOI request rather than wait for it to be published. It will be interesting to see if this is refused on cost grounds. Another interesting one was this management structure chart – which is more detailed than anything I’ve seen for ages! (hat tip NCCLOLs)
Anyway this blog from the BBC is suggesting, far from 200 councils taking Nottingham’s side, Nottingham is alone in the world in holding out and not publishing.
I’m personally a bit ambivalent about the value of doing so. Nottingham spends hundreds of millions of pounds, so you’re looking at millions of pieces of data. I’ve had a look at the County Council’s equivalent data and I’m not immediately bowled over by the usefulness of it. And there certainly is a lot of it – Cllr Collins had printed it out and brought a paper copy with him and it wouldn’t take many months before you had a telephone-directory-sworth of paper.
I first came across the idea of “Google Government in a David Cameron speech to Local Government Assoc annual conference, and I blogged about it then for LDV. I do stand by what I said then.
I do think that the political process in Nottingham is well served by having opposition councillors holding the executive to account. The Labour party would much rather that Nottingham were even more of a one party state than it is now. But it’s not just the job of us oppo cllrs. There is a small but perfectly formed community of local political bloggers and political journalists who are all contributing value to the process. Step forward The Evening Post, NCC LOLs and Nottingham Graffiti. Do any of you think you will be able to use data like the County Council provides in a meaningful way?
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I have to agree that the format that the County is using is less than user friendly and their tendency to quote all individual payments which in total make up £500 adds to the forest of numbers that they generate. Of course, lack of user friendliness makes it less likely that people will look that closely at the data…
I personally can’t imagine that it’s impossible to design a system where the data is automatically produced in a meaningful way. The information is already recorded all. And the presumed extra FoI requests will be offset by a reduction due to the info already being out there. The Head of Info Governance told the O+S Committee that publishing more data routinely was likely to reduce the number of FoI requests.
You don’t have to look far on my blog to find an account of a situation where NCC has tried to get out of providing information that I’ve asked for and my worry is that they would simply exclude anything dodgy from publication, probably combined with generous use of sch 12A of LGA 1972 which is already abused.
In the end it’s hardly a good reason to give for refusing to publish data, i.e. “we don’t want to because people might ask about it” and Collins is onto a loser relying on that one. Somebody needs to have a think about how to do it well rather than bleating about the prospect of extra work. That is, of course, if there really is nothing to hide.
The point for me about publishing this data is that it gives a starting point for questions we might want to ask our local authorities about how our money is being spent. When this was first suggested I never expected to get chapter and verse on spending (and I haven’t been disappointed) but at least – to paraphrase Donald Rumsveld – we’ll know what we don’t know once we see the figures and we can then ask more questions where it seems warranted to do so.
This might appear to play into the hands of JoCo’s argument that it will increase expenditure on providing information to the public but (a) I don’t think it will (most people won’t be that interested) and (b) how do you put a price on proper accountability in a democratic society?