One of my concerns about the rush towards spending transparency for councils (Wandsworth publishes spending by vendor by month) are the unintended consequences. The We Love Local Government blog raises the question of whether it is actually more likely to lead to bad, rather than good, spending decisions.

The rationale is fairly simple; because there is a fear of published spending being criticised councils go for options that may be cheaper, but worse value. The example cited is of using a cheaper hotel, but then losing the saving in transport costs because of the hotel’s location. While I’ll use this example in this post but there will be many many similar situations across the country. I know that £500 has become a psychology spending limit for many, not because of any explicit instruction, but because of the knowledge that spending will be published.The result risks false economies. £510 on hotels hits the limit and is published. But £490 on hotels and £100 on taxis does not.

I think there’s a very simple way to tackle this and retain transparency: lower the publishing limit to zero. Then there aren’t the unintended consequences of people trying to spend below arbitrary limits on single items and all spending may need justifying to the public. This moves the whole thought process from “how can I keep all the individual spending below the publishing radar” to “how can I justify the total cost.”

And while it will require a culture change (for a time the Taxpayers Alliance will have a field day) when that happens I’m optimistic enough to think there will be scope for much more intelligent debate about the role and quality of local government. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to council officials living a ‘high-life’ in a hotels would it be too much for the reaction not to about whether the trip brought as much value to the borough as it cost?

It is only marginally related, but Greater Manchester Police’s decision to tweet all their calls is an example of this. There were, predictably, outbursts that such activity was a waste of money and the police should have been on the streets (no prizes for guessing it was the Taxpayer’s Alliance seeing their blood pressure rise again). But at the end there were huge numbers of people aware of what a police force actually finds itself doing, and I suspect a lot of people in Manchester suddenly much better informed about the true level of crime and disorder in their city. It’s a fair bet that a reduction in unnecessary calls will pay for the ‘experiment’ many times over. But most

I can’t help thinking that while the initial transition may be hard – resisted by some and lead to criticism from others – the more transparency and openness there is the better for everyone.

2 thoughts on “How openness helps everyone

  1. Thanks for the link! It’s an interesting idea you mention, and would certainly provide a degree of transparency that would make lazy journalists work a lot harder for their stories!

    It would still require a bit of a shift though, both from local government and the public. Local government would have to get into the habit fo releasing this data in a simple to understand format and not feel threatened when doing so, and the public would need to both trawl through it and then not kick up a stink every time a penny is spent.

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