Armchair auditors make life less comfy for councils

Photo by Katey Nicosia (Flickr)

As part of a series examining what the digital revolution means for public policy, NMJ talks to the man behind Armchair Auditor

With the spotlight increasingly on public spending, websites like Armchair Auditor and Spotlight on Spend are coming into their own.

The sites aim to make the spending data published by councils accessible to the public in a way that has, in the past, required specialised journalists to dig around and extrapolate the information for a meaningful story.

Adrian Short started Armchair Auditor after the general election, motivated by frustration at the way councils present the public with huge, undigestable tranches of raw data. His site, by contrast, breaks down information from his local council Windsor and Maidenhead into details of specific services and suppliers. ‘Most people are not so interested in the data as a whole, but a particular council service or supplier,’ he says. ‘They not looking at the big picture; they’re looking at the small picture.’

Fired by the idea of making such data nationally available, he also put a piece of opensource software up on the site, which is downloadable and customisable for use in other boroughs. And, while not making any money from this, he has found that as a pioneer in the field, his services have been in demand by those wanting training to install and use the software.

Short had been quietly beavering away with his open data campaign for years, pestering councils to make details of their spending more accessible to the public. And now, with the government’s request that councils put details of all expenditure over £500 online by January 2011 looming, councils have a good reason to jump on the open data bandwagon.

But the trend towards greater transparency brings new problems. Short warns against councils ‘doing it on a tick-box basis because Pickles said they should’. Making data accessible can be a costly process, especially as publication may generate more requests for information. So, he argues, councils need to complement greater transparency with a public engagement process so that the benefits are widely felt: ‘It’s not just about the tools; it is about the whole political process.’

Otherwise, as pursestrings tighten, there’s a risk that the open data culture could go into reverse. ‘In two or three years’ time, you could look back at open data and say, “people promised a lot of stuff, and it never happened.” It’s quite possible.’

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