Open local public spending data – a potential hitch

There is — quite rightly, in my autocratic and what-does-humble-mean-anyway opinion — a move to have public bodies publish details of every item of spending over £500. I won’t go into the arguments about this, nor the technical issues, because that’s already been done by wiser heads than mine, Oh, OK, wise heads including mine (see comments on the latter document).

However, one thing in particular concerns me. Sometimes, a body — a local council, say, like, but not specifically, the one I work for — will receive grant funding for a project or activity. Such money usually comes with conditions attached.

Now, suppose this funding has two parts: £99,000 to do something which benefits the community as a whole, and £1,000 which must be spent on something seemingly trivial; say, publicising the activity by producing beermats. No beermats; no £99,000 to spend on a worthwhile activity. Such things do happen, if not literally demanding beermats.

Suppose that £1,000 spend is then published, along with hundreds of other items of expenditure. The finance office of the council will not know about the grant funding, or the conditions attached to it, nor do they need to. They will just add an entry to a database, saying “Acme Beer Mats, 1 April 2011: £1,000”, which will then be made available with all the other enteries in that database, as open data

Along come the Daily FMail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and before you know it, the media and (ironically, given my frivolous example) bar-rooms up and down the country are full of “Borsetshire Council wastes money on beermats extravaganza on the rates[sic]” headlines.

No doubt the authority will put out a subsequent press statement pointing out the £99,000 of benefits, the unavoidability of the attached conditions, and so on. And no doubt it will receive little if any press attention.

What can council’s do to prevent this scenario? Annotate every spend item in their published data? Surely impractical. List such items separately? I don’t know (and don’t get me wrong, I’m an open-data advocate; and this is a relatively minor matter, which shouldn’t stop such data from being published), but do I hope somebody has an answer.

Over to you…

Footnote: thanks to for encouraging me to blog my rambling comments on this, made during our earlier discussion.

About Andy Mabbett

Enjoying my freelance career, helping organisations to understand on-line communities, open content, and related issues; often as a Wikimedian (or Wikipedian) in Residence.
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3 Responses to Open local public spending data – a potential hitch

  1. It’s an interesting point – and maybe should be included as a health warning to accompany the publication of all the spending – i.e. Each item of spending in this declaration has its own history and context which cannot be detailed here.

    I guess the best way of dealing with this is to try to foster a good relationship with the people who are most likely to spend the most time using and disseminating the data. Part of that is about the way its published and part of it is about the way the council behaves. The more transparent the better, I’d say, because if an organisation is transparent then it’s that much easier to get hold of the context in which that spending has been made.

    I know, from my own experience as a journalist, that if I’ve got a good relationship with a council officer, who is open and forthcoming, I’m much more likely to provide more context and present a more balanced picture – it’s just a great deal easier, if nothing else.

  2. A very good point.

    My understanding of local government spend analysis is that civil society Grant awards payments are not classified in the same way as other Expenditure, nor are Grantees considered Suppliers in the same sense.

    They way to resolve the failure to provide meaningful information about the context of the payment is to provide the data as Open Linked Data, and to publish Grants, grant Applications, Grant Awarded, Grants Not Awarded and Grantees data.

    Kindest regards,

    David Pidsley

  3. Andy Mabbett says:

    QED: The Telegraph, 27 May 2011:

    [Council] credit cards were used to buy a bizarre array of miscellaneous items including beer mats…

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