Posted by:10 February, 2011
Having read the email and checked our figures, we have found that one figure in the story – relating to expenditure on HR consultancy – is inaccurate as a result of a data-entry error.
This was an honest mistake but is nevertheless unfortunate and shouldn’t have happened. We are committed to accurate reporting and have corrected the article to read as follows:
“The communities secretary has also overseen a £187k bill for human resource consultancy over the period May-Dec, compared to a total spend of just £110k in all of 2009-10. If the 2009-10 figure is scaled down to just eight months then the expenditure on HR consultants since May is equivalent to a 150% rise.”
Despite DCLG’s claim to the contrary, the remainder of the story was correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication. The article was written in good faith, based on DCLG figures. DCLG was, unusually, given full sight of the story text in advance of publication to ensure the department had an opportunity to respond.
The department’s press release later acknowledged that its original data contained errors. The release stated that “incorrect coding” was responsible for inaccuracies in spending data on financial consultancy and IT consultancy. The release also claims that other items of expenditure – on legal costs and office furniture – are attributed, at least in part, to expenditure that originated under the previous administration. This was acknowledged in LGC’s report. It also disputes that “excess fares” were for travel without a valid ticket. It has so far been unable to clarify what cost this does constitute.
DCLG had the opportunity to alert us to the inaccuracies in its data and raise the other concerns prior to publication of the LGC story. No such concerns were raised and the response that DCLG provided was included in the story.
LGC cannot be held responsible for errors published by the department and checked with department staff before publication.
Now that these concerns have been raised, LGC will certainly investigate further. We have sought clarification on a number of details, including the nature of expenditure on ‘excess fares’.
It is clear that the incident raises a serious point about transparency and the difficulties councils and DCLG face in meeting ministers’ desire for all spend above £500 to be published online. Mr Pickles has said in Parliament that the publication of expenditure information is a simple matter for a public body to do. “With a simple spreadsheet it is very easy to do,” he said on 17 January, claiming that there would only be costs associated if a council “was using an abacus for their data collection” or “publishing it on vellum”.
However, as this example shows, without context data is simple ‘numbers’ and not information.
LGC has consistently advocated the publication of information on expenditure and will continue to do so. Our editorial line is summarised here. I also commented in my editorial this week, written before DCLG’s complaint.
The point that we have consistently made is that there are costs and complexities associated with publishing data. To ignore these will lead to the publication of inaccurate information and this is unlikely to be beneficial to informed debate.
In the interests of informed debate, we will continue to probe DCLG’s spending and we hope to engage more fully with DCLG to inform our readers.