Councils call for local government accounts to be open data

The government is considering a proposal for councils to publish their accounts and other official returns as open data after its transparency initiative...

The government is considering a proposal for councils to publish their accounts and other official returns as open data after its transparency initiative came under attack for not going far enough.

The move is supported by councils who have led the open data initiative to publish contracts and spending data following an edict of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Led by the Local Government Association (LGA) and citing rallying calls made by web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee, they want central government demands for council data to be made more open and accountable.

Jos Creese, president of public sector user group Socitm and CIO at Hampshire County Council, said the government planned to require council returns to be published as open data "where feasible".

The only exceptions to council data being public would be when it was prohibited by commercial confidentiality or personal privacy rules.

"But the default should be open in my view," said Creese.

A DCLG spokesman said open council returns were on its reform programme agenda.

"The government is keen to publish as much data as it can online. As for government returns, it is something we are considering," he said.

The LGA has been pressing for councils to make their returns as open data. It suggests the move would make councils more accountable to their local citizens and less burdened by central government reporting quotas.

"Needless form filling, data returns, reviews, assurance and micro-management are unjustifiable," said LGA chairman Baroness Margaret Eaton, in a report that called last month for the government to "stop excessive data collection" that "wasted precious time and resources".

The LGA recommended the government, which is expected to publish details of its Localism Bill by Christmas, should only request data from local authorities "where it proves it can bring value to local people".

Janet Hughes, who sits on the Local Public Data Panel as head of scrutiny at the London Assembly, told Computer Weekly, "It's not a question any more of the executive deciding what the public should have. It's having all the data there and the public deciding what's interesting and useful".

She said the panel has begun looking at council returns but had not taken an official position.

Chris Taggart, who also sits on the panel, said councils sent their accounts to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, only to have them sold back for a fee. He sent a business proposal to DCLG last month, saying his group Openly Local could have all council accounts published together online where everyone could see and compare them.

Dane Wright, IT strategy manager at Brent Borough Council, repeated the rallying cry made by Berners-Lee at the TED conference in 2009. He said all public data should be published as soon as possible, in its raw form, because if councils waited to clean and format it, it would never get published.

"We just want to be able to make more data sets. There's no reason to stop at spend. Indeed, it's pretty certain the government won't be stopping there. Spend and contracts are just the beginning of this. It's just the tip of the iceberg," he told delegates at the Socitm 2010 conference in Brighton last month.

"We make all these returns to government. We send it off especially to DCLG or Defra or the Department of Justice or whoever it might be - but there's no real reason why this is secret data. Rather than send it to them specifically we should be publishing it ourselves and they can come and get it from us," said Wright.

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