Councillors be warned, publish or be damned

First it was MPs, then Lords, followed by MEPs and last but not least councillors. Local government is no less accountable as to how it spends taxpayers' money - and the governance of such information is becoming an issue
MPs expenses

Over the past months stories about MPs and their expenses have been rife in the media. Tales of duck houses, moats, trouser presses, second homes and undisclosed outside interests have seemed commonplace and the fact that the money involved has been from the public purse.

Local government is no less paid for by the public, and governance of the availability of that information is starting to emerge as an issue. It's not that people are trying to hide anything for the most part; simply that disclosure is so patchy.

I know of one person who went from working with one council to another and found that her old employer disclosed all councillors' interests and salaries on the web, while people wanting to know the same details of her new employer had to make an appointment and visit.

This meant taking time off work and making an effort to visit somewhere physically – it's not an attempt to hide anything, just not as convenient as sitting in front of a computer screen to access the information.

It's often convenient to suggest information should be easily available electronically, but less simple to achieve in practice.

Simon Lill is head of public service for Open Text, which supplies document management systems to Mid Bedfordshire county council among others. He explains that publishing information on the internet will often start with a look at the technology the authority is using already.

"Some of them are quite far behind," he says. "If you're still using a mainframe, which some of them are, then there's no realistic prospect of putting information from it onto the web in a short time. As people change these systems and bring them up to date it becomes easier to do."

He stresses that nobody is changing the systems just to make the information available but as they introduce upgraded technology for cost savings and efficiencies the data becomes more malleable.

Public interest or not, he cautions that councils will have to be careful that not everything is published on the internet. Before the expenses scandal broke, he comments, "nobody knew the word 'redacted' – but afterwards, when the full details were published through a leak and the official versions were a sea of black ink, people didn't tolerate it".

Councils will have to make decisions about redacting, he says; there will be clear examples such as the location of shelters for victims of violence and information concerning children in which the black ink will be entirely appropriate.

It could be this sort of judicious redacting that gets councils a bad name.
There are all sort off horror stories regarding local authorities and transparency of information.

For example, local authorities refusing to release details of planning permissions, or refusing to divulge information on nuisance neighbours which the complainants believed was in the public domain are examples that would be a candidate for a judgment on whether to redact once it's on its way to the web. Councils electing to publish in this way would have to check every document for sensitivity whether it had been asked for or not.

Open Text's Lill believes the backdrop to information is changing, however. "Social media – things like Twitter and Facebook – mean we're moving away from a need-to-know culture and into a need-to-share culture. You wouldn't have said that only five years ago but attitudes are changing a great deal."

There are authorities out there which make information completely available, really easily. The PR Officer at West Berkshire confirmed that the register of members' interests is a paper document so people would have to come and see it; the public hasn't actually been making more requests since the interest in expenses might have been expected to grow so there has been no need to change.

Others are moving away from this model. Robert-John Tasker is a councillor for the Royal Borough of Kingston, and was in office when the expenses scandal first broke. He noticed attitudes changing slightly over time. "At first it didn't hit us at all, then attention turned from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, then to MEPs and then of course to local councils."

Scrutiny definitely increased, he says. "What we did in the end was just to release everything." Expenses, interests and allowances were sent off to the Kingston website as quickly as was practicable and this meant in less than two months in practice. Individual councillors might have felt a little pressured initially; "I'm going to a conference later this year for the council and of course not paying; I did wonder whether I'd be called to account for that in the local press," says Tasker. The call has yet to come in.

It may never do so; Lill says his clients aren't yet clamouring for more openness of information. "It's likely to be an issue at this year's CEO conference in October," he says. He returns to his theme of culture moving towards shared information, though.

"Young recruits are coming in having used social media and are expecting to be able to use it to share with people behind the council's firewall. Once you've done this, a side issue is being able to publish it outside – it'll happen all over as people change their systems, but only as a side effect."

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