29 November 2011

Data Transparency - an armchair audit

Over on the Famous Five Barnet Bloggers website is the complete Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency. 
Barnet's councillors like to waffle on about how open and transparent they are. 

It's time for an armchair audit
to see if they are 100% speaking the truth or if it is just spin. Here is the minimum that the Communities & Local Government Department recommends ( Uncle Eric in effect says "do at least this" ). Comment in red by Mr Mustard

Picture credit : Ventnor Blog

12. As a minimum, the public data that should be released are:

Expenditure over £500, (including costs, supplier and transaction information). Any sole trader or body acting in a business capacity in receipt of payments of at least £500 of public money should expect such payments to be transparent. 
Barnet Council are half way there on this item. They redact far more data than they should. There is no need, for example, to redact the name of a firm of Solicitors when the details of the case are not listed. More seriously it appears that they leave off data which they do not want in the public domain, such as the £1,000 a day payment to the Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Travers.
Senior employee salaries, names (with the option for individuals to refuse to consent for their name to be published), job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff. 'Senior employee salaries' is defined as all salaries which are above £58,200 and above (irrespective of post), which is the Senior Civil Service minimum pay band. Budgets should include the overall salary cost of staff reporting to each senior employee.
This is published once a year for the council tax year ended 31 March as a note to the Accounts of the council. The information is therefore always at least 4 months out of date. The names, except for the Directors, are not published although the public can usually link names to positions. The main problem is that Barnet Council are a bit sloppy with titles, which are often confusingly similar, so it is easy to err and they have more reshuffles than the PM. Some stability in the management structure should lead to improved management.

The information is also on the council website although it is for 1 October 2010 so not exactly up to date (like much of the website - probably due to the new one being worked on and that is well behind schedule)

An organisational chart of the staff structure of the local authority including salary bands and details of currently vacant posts.
Only the top levels are published. The requirement seems to be of the entire council staff. Now that would be be interesting and a lot smaller once everything has been outsourced.

The 'pay multiple' - the ratio between the highest paid salary and the median average salary of the whole of the authority's workforce. Mr Mustard has not seen this information. Just to remind you of your schooldays, the median is the value which separates the bottom half of a set of numbers from the top i.e. of the 3,000 council workers 1.500 will earn more than the median and 1,500 will earn less than the median.

Councillor allowances and expenses. These allowances, the subject of controversy as they were increased markedly at the same time as the budget was being cut for service users, are published here at item 9.

Copies of contracts and tenders to businesses and to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector.  
Many contracts were found to be missing earlier in the year when it was discovered, by bloggers, that the council's externally provided security guards, including those working with vulnerable children, did not have a contract or Security Industry Association registration, or CRB checks etc etc etc. That didn't stop the council from paying a succession of MetPro companies £1.4m The council has had to mount a rearguard action to get contracts in place and Mr Mustard has seen many Delegated Powers Reports authorising new contracts to be entered into for computer related services where contracts had expired.

Contracts are not published and if you do ask for them they come with so many redactions ( crossings out) that they are a confusing read and not transparent. Mr Mustard is going to have to have further recourse to the Information Commissioner who so far has found twice in favour of Mr Mustard and not all all in favour of the council, to get the redacted information supplied for the May Gurney contract. By contrast Mr Mustard asked Hackney Council for a copy of their contract with May Gurney and received it without a single crossing out. Well done Hackney Council, boo hiss to Barnet.

Barnet Council are resisting the release of a contract to local resident John Dix, see the whatdotheyknow site here. You will know John better as Mr Reasonable. Someone at Barnet Council is having a little joke, it looks like a Lustigism to Mr Mustard, in describing his request as manifestly unreasonable. Mr Reasonable is reasonable as well as polite and intelligent and he probably knows more about Barnet Council than most councillors so best be careful Barnet Council.

Grants to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector should be clearly itemised and listed. 
Now Mr Mustard has seen details of recent grants listed in DPRs but can't easily find on the council website one page giving a nice breakdown of the grants by year. Would the blog monitoring officer please let Mr Mustard know if he is wrong.

Policies, performance, external audits and key inspections and key indicators on the authorities' fiscal and financial position. 
If you flail around the council website for long enough these are there somewhere.

The location of public land and building assets and key attribute information that is normally recorded on asset registers and 
Now this is a tricky one. The council own a vast amount of public land and building assets. Mr Mustard has not seen a register of it anywhere and searching for "asset register" on the council website didn't help. This document gets shorter every day mind you as schools become academies, as the council close libraries and museums, sells off playing fields, properties within parks and anything that isn't nailed down. The council would sell the bloggers if they could but we can't be bought.

Data of democratic running of the local authority including the constitution, election results, committee minutes, decision - making processes and records of decisions.
This is on the website although it takes some finding if you don't know where to look. Mrs Angry would probably say that by definition the council fail this item because it isn't democratic. 

It looks like there is some way to go before Barnet Council can say it is open and transparent. Mr Mustard's armchair audit awards you a 2/10. Must try a lot harder. 

Note to councillors. Stop saying how open and transparent the council is. It is not a true statement

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

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