(Local) Information is power? Localism and local transparency

Dr Benjamin Worthy reflects on the Centre’s recent seminar on localism and local transparency.

One of the Coalition’s flagship transparency policies is now in place. Every local authority in England is publishing all their spending over £500 (see an example local authority here). Some are also publishing a host of other information from salaries to contracts and grants. Our seminar on Thursday discussed how this is developing and what impact it may have on the future.

In late September 2012 the Local Government Association surveyed 128 local authorities to find out what was happening (see here). The first finding was that everyone is publishing spending data, though there is variation in other information being published; 100% of councils that responded published spending data, 96% published salaries but only 54% published details of grants to community groups. There are also various strategies with which this links up – some authorities link it to FOI policy or communication, though some to none at all.

In terms of use, it seems that there is very little public interest as yet, with a sense there was no ‘demand’ for the data. The information is still seen as too ‘raw’ and is not yet useful, localised or contextualised enough to attract or interest local people. Local authorities indicated the biggest impact of the data had been to increase their accountability, with 80% feeling it helped ‘external accountability’ with the added benefit, from 50 % of those asked, of reducing the volume of FOI requests.

Discussion in the seminar focused on the ‘Armchair Auditors’; the idea, championed by Eric Pickles, that citizens will be the new auditors of their own authorities. Though there are some appearing, it may take time, particular skills and a certain enthusiasm (and stubbornness) to become one and not everyone is convinced. See this example and an interesting comment here.

However, one of the most important developments is not the data local authorities are releasing but the innovations. This can be developments such as Chris Taggart’s Openly Local where you can assess council spending at the push of a button or the wonderful ‘Where Does My Money Go’.

Data also becomes more useful when data is linked to other data. The survey points to some emerging use by community groups and other public bodies, with a great deal of interest in further ‘joining up’ of information across bodies and council boundaries and in the pushing of more innovative developments.

The future is likely to lie with initiatives such as this DCLG experiment where different kinds of data can be linked and made relevant, both for people and policy-makers themselves. These initiatives can move in many unexpected directs from prescription analysis that can save money to this amazing site in India, recommended by an audience member, which enables citizens to report who they paid a bribe to. The future of data is local, linked and may be unexpected.

Thank you to everyone who took part.

Lies, Statistics and Eric Pickles on Transparency

By Professor Deborah Mabbett

Transparency in government sounds like a good thing. Surely more information is better than less, and an informed public will make more accurate judgments about government policy. However, in complex policy areas, transparency often means selecting and highlighting some presentable facts, while omitting the contextual information needed to interpret those facts. In extremis, the facts become so decontextualised that the public is likely to be misled.

Consider the efforts of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), to enhance transparency about local government finance. This has brought us some eye-catching statistics. Perhaps one of the most striking was the claim that funding per head for Hackney in 2011-12 will amount to £1043 per person, while in Wokingham it will be a mere £125. Google ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ and you can see how many newspapers found this factoid worth repeating from the DCLG press release.

How is this figure arrived at? Using detailed information available for 2010/11, we can get some idea. Hackney spent more per person than Wokingham: 33% more on education, twice as much on social care, 80% more in expenditure on services overall. With various convoluted  pluses and minuses to get to the important if oxymoronic figure of ‘Revenue Expenditure’ (translation: expenditure that has to be financed out of local authority revenue), the gap widens further: Hackney spends 95% more overall. A substantial difference, but not enough to explain why Hackney would get more than eight times the central government funding allocated to Wokingham.

But of course Hackney is not only needier than Wokingham, with more children in local authority schools and more elderly people needing care; it is also poorer, so we would expect lower council tax receipts. Sure enough, council tax per capita in Hackney was about £340, in Wokingham just over £500. The difference which had to be financed by central government in 2010/11 was £2,260 per person in Hackney and £830 in Wokingham. You’ll notice that these figures are higher than those given out by DCLG, and nowhere near as disproportionate: it would seem that Hackney got 2.7 times as much funding from central government as Wokingham, not 8.3 times.

So what accounts for the difference? Funding for local authorities from central government comes in two main forms: specific grants routed via departments, and ‘formula funding’. Mr Pickles’ version of transparency is to shine the light on formula funding, and cast a veil over specific grants. What should we make of this? It is tempting to say that ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ is not so much a factoid as a lie: one element of funding was left out in order to deliver a strong message with the other element.

But Mr Pickles is an astute operator, and I assume that he has a defence, which might go like this. A complete measure of central government support for an area would be difficult to produce. It would be difficult to include NHS and Social Security spending, for example, because these are not allocated by local authority area. For transparency aficionados, this is a well-known strategy: selectivity in presenting the data is rationalised by pointing to the difficulty of giving a comprehensive view.

Comprehensiveness is indeed difficult and complicated, so transparency has to be pursued in good faith. The selection of the formula funding number looks like bad faith. DCLG routinely produces statistics on the financing of local authority expenditure broken down into the three elements of council tax, specific grants and formula funding, so why leave specific grants out on this occasion? Perhaps DCLG has not yet got the estimates from other departments for specific grants in 2011/12, but in that case, the honest announcement would have been that Mr Pickles did not know how much support from central government would be received by each local authority. Perhaps the temptation to pacify the LibDems by highlighting the formula funding figure was too great, but it is risky: they will tumble to the fuller story sooner or later. In the meantime, the Tory heartlands are cultivating their grievances against the sponging inner cities. Mr Pickles’ selective illumination has not  helped the quality of public debate.