The transparency tsunami - are we getting too much information?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, February 8 2011

I'd be the last person to complain that you can have too much transparency but the zeal with which the government is going about compelling the disclosure of masses of previously-unavailable data does raise some questions.

Eric Pickles, the minister championing greater openness, has announced that all council employees earning £58,200 must be identified as part of encouraging authorities to focus on eliminating unnecessary middle managers. Fair enough, I'm all for that. But where does naming these individuals get us to? So far as I can see,the same objective could be achieved by identifying the number and roles they occupy.

Name your middle managers, Eric Pickles tells councils>> 

I don't buy, incidentally, the idea being promoted by some that naming individuals will trigger abuse and reprisals.  But there needs to be a bit of balance. Naming and disclosing senior officers pay and perks is entirely right but if Eric Pickles keeps on going like this, we'll soon be able to discover what the council office cleaners earn and what they had for tea.

Pickles' latest wheeze follows his edict that councils publish every item of expenditure of more than £500.

The deadline for complying passed last week and every Kent council - in one way or another - is publishing the data. But take a look. Council websites will lead you to excel spreadsheets with a truly gargantuam amount of data, detailing literally thousands of payments made to suppliers. But try making a judgement about the merits of some of the expenditure and it's impossible.

The data is provided crudely with no context or account of why the money has been spent. Is it allowing residents and coucnil taxpayers the opportunity to judge whether a council is being profligate or prudent with their money? I'm afraid not.

Here's an example. Among the many invoices listed under KCC's data for last September was one for £500 to a Dungeons and Dragons War Model Club. The invoice was listed under the chief executive's directorate.

Now, at first glance, and to a suspicious journalist, that might look to be questionable. So I did question it. And it turns out that the money was spent on a club at a secondary school - the New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone - and was the result of a grant agreed by a local county councillor. The club is being used to help children with numeracy and literacy skills and helps children from other schools too.

Now, you still might think it is a waste of taxpayers' money but I'm not so sure. But unless you have some context around the reams and reams of data coming our way, it is virtually impossible to tell. 


After an airport in the sea, how about a lorry park? Kent CPRE has come up with a novel idea that could be an alternative to the KCC option for one off the M20 at Aldington to cope with Operation stack.

Creative, certainly although it could be rather costly. Mind you, some of us remember when KCC came up with its own sea-related capital project - the first version of the Turner Centre. Maybe that's why it has stuck so rigidly to its on-shore lorry park option... 

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