'There's no end of trouble'

From January local councils will be forced to declare spending over £500, while improving transparency has been broadly welcomed - some think a more targeted release of data is more desirable
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The gloves are off. From 1 January local government will be expected to release all their financial data online. Photograph: Getty

"While I was still experimenting, I saw only the advantages of the thing. But there are disadvantages, I can tell you." The words of Griffin, the hero of HG Wells's The Invisible Man, and something of an authority on the equivocal benefits of transparency.

Local government will soon understand what he means, following the announcement in June by communities secretary Eric Pickles that from 1 January councils will be expected to publish details of all expenditure above £500.

As an exercise in improving openness and accountability, the move has been broadly welcomed. In terms of the sheer amount of information that must be disclosed next year – not only new items of local government spending, contracts and tenders over £500, but also frontline service data including allowances, expenses and senior salaries – councils may find themselves agreeing with Griffin's neat summation of what it means to be seen through: "There is no end of trouble."

John Simmonds, cabinet member for finance at Kent county council, agrees with the move but would prefer a more targeted release of data.

He raises the "huge number of spurious" Freedom of Information requests the council receives, "which require a huge amount of work for no purpose".

It's easy to toss it all on to a website but more difficult to do so in a meaningful form

"I understand people wanting to know where their council tax is being spent, but would have hoped to consult with the public about the best framework to disseminate this information in terms of its intelligibility – it's easy to toss it all on to a website but more difficult to do so in a meaningful form.

I'm not sure publishing 3,000 separate pieces of expenditure information each week will tell anybody anything. We'll have no problem meeting the deadline, but may need simply to put it up on our website and refine it as we go along."

The Conservative-led Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, from whom the Tory government drew inspiration for the scheme while in opposition, has been declaring all spend above £500 since March 2009.

It takes a matter of minutes to publish the information in simple CSB format, says chief executive Ian Trenholm; it's for third parties to mine the data and come up with conclusions.

He adds that this "lever for change" has seen residents' satisfaction with the council rocket by 25%.

"Being prepared to expose our data to the public gives people confidence that we're making sensible spending decisions," he says.

"It's like doing business on a trestle table outside the town hall, which alters the way you operate and how people perceive you. Knowing purchasing decisions will be online forces us to think clearly about them – if we're happy to defend them, we'll go ahead. It will stop people making debatable decisions, but not stop them spending money on important things."

Trenholm concedes the biggest problem may be managing queries prompted by the data, rather than the release of data itself, but says initial concerns the council would be inundated have proved unfounded. One of the main risks for councils new to the process, he says, is accidentally publishing personal data – compliance with data protection legislation and general data publishing standards is of paramount importance.

Dr Steve McCabe of Birmingham City University considers it "an interesting exercise [but] another distraction".

"No one can have a problem with openness and transparency, but I wonder how much money the government thinks it will save through this initiative, especially given the scale of the financial crisis?

"There is an argument for reducing waste and expenditure, but despite the image in the press of profligate local government bureaucrats who have no idea where the money goes, in the vast majority of cases there are perfectly valid reasons for spending. Are we going to get to the stage where we get to vote on every aspect of public expenditure?"

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