A picture of confusion surrounding the government’s requirement for councils to publish details of spending of more than £500 has emerged from correspondence between officials and councils obtained by LGC.
Letters and e-mails provided by the Department for Communities & Local Government under the Freedom of Information Act show the extent to which councils were left in the dark over the format for publishing the spending data.
The DCLG’s relaxed attitude to ‘naming and shaming’ laggard councils was demonstrated by one senior civil servant who admitted they were following a “mantra” of “get it out quickly, get it out messy”. Ministers also had “no plans” to require councils to meet minimum standards of data quality.
Much of the confusion related to uncertainty as to whether the department would produce its own guidance before the original 31 January deadline for publishing expenditure data.
Councils were routinely referred to the Local Government Association/Local Public Data Panel guidance. However, the department was non-committal on whether it would release its own guidance. A draft code of practice was eventually published seven days after the January deadline.
The documents also reveal anger among councils who were left off the department’s “early adopter” list and were criticised by communities secretary Eric Pickles for “lagging behind”.
After one county chief executive claimed his authority had been a front-runner in publishing data, he received a bizarre apology from Hulya Mustafa, deputy director for Big Society policy.
“We are very much victims of our ‘get it out quickly, get it out messy’ mantra,” she said. Ms Mustafa added that the DCLG was “desperate to hear of good case studies where data/info was being used for Big Society ends”.
Elsewhere, the documents reveal that the department’s high-profile demands for maximum openness and accessibility of council data masked a more relaxed approach to local variations.
In February, Westminster City Council opposition leader Paul Dimoldenberg (Lab) wrote to Mr Pickles complaining that, compared with other councils, the authority provided little supporting information about its invoices, and called on him to act.
One month later junior minister Baroness Hanham replied that the department had “no plans to order councils to improve content”.
A DCLG spokeswoman said that Mr Pickles had written to councils in June clearly telling them not to wait for instructions from the department before taking action to publish their spending data.
Meanwhile, the Local Government Association has called for DCLG’s draft code of practice on data transparency to be revisited.
Its response to the proposals said it was “fundamentally inconsistent and wrong to create legal or quasi-legal codes for transparency and open data that are more prescriptive and detailed for local government than those required of the public services more widely”.
Instead it called for a non-legislative co-operative approach to making data available to the public and businesses, building on work so far with the Local Public Data Panel.