Can armchair auditors scrutinise public spending?

Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar (Flickr)

It looks like the government’s cost-cutting agenda is dovetailing nicely with the rise of citizen journalism.

Abolishing the Audit Commission in August, Communities minister Eric Pickles called for an army of ‘armchair auditors’ to help scrutinise public spending in future.

The minister may have in mind the likes of Adrian Short, who runs Armchair Auditor, a site offering downloadable opensource software to make local authority data accessible to the public.

Short started the site after the general election showcasing data from his own council, Windsor and Maidenhead. A software developer by trade and open data activist by passion, he hopes that the software – customisable for each local authority – will become widely used.

It does not, he told NMJ, attempt to do the journalist’s job: ‘It’s a research tool – the tool itself does not tell stories. There are stories embedded in the data. If you’ve got a particular interest, you can follow it up.’

Meanwhile, audit experts are taking a measured view of what armchair auditors can achieve. In a recent interview for Elected magazine, Audit Commission chair Michael Higgins said: ‘They’re not auditors in any technical or qualified sense of the word – they’re simply informed citizens who by virtue of greater transparency and the web will be able to investigate.’

He added that armchair auditors might better be called ‘armchair comparators’, complementing formal audit by providing the public with the data to compare performance across particular sectors.

Upcoming policy developments will create more opportunities for the scrutiny of public spending. In January, all local authorities are ‘requested’ by government to put details of all spending over £500 online. Councils dragging their feet may find that legislation to enforce this follows.

While publications covering the public sector increasingly retrenching, the combination of a politically-driven transparency agenda and the rise of the citizen auditor are likely to make for interesting times over the next couple of years.

NMJ will publish a case study of the Armchair Auditor at a future date.

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