All posts tagged 'Eric-Pickles'

How the council transparency revolution is proving a damp squib

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 2 2012

ERIC Pickles cannot be faulted for his commitment to greater open government. He has forced councils to do much more in terms of publishing details of how they are spending our money - a long overdue step.

But just how effective has his transparency crusade been? Has his belief that greater transparency would unleash an 'army of armchair auditors' who would scrutinise council accounts and come up with ways of saving the taxpayer money come to fruition?

Mr Pickles asserted last year that the creation of a 'citizen samizdat' had proved a 'triumph.' He told council finance chiefs that the publication of invoices of more than £500 had played an essential role in 'eliminating waste and inefficiency to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.'

If a survey we have done is any indication, Mr Pickles' grand claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, far from sparking the creation of an auditors' army, it seems there has been monumental indifference to the transparency revolution.

We asked councils in Kent a series of questions relating to their monthly publication of invoices above £500 over last year. The questions concerned how many FOI requests they had received for information about individual invoices; how many general inquiries from the public they had received; whether any of these requests had led to a change in policy that may have saved money and finally, how much it had cost them to publish the invoice details over the year.

The request was sent to Kent County Council, Medway Council and the 12 district and borough councils.

Here's a summary:

Councils who received no FOI requests: Medway; Ashford, Swale, Maidstone, Gravesham, Tonbridge and Malling

Councils getting one request: Tunbridge Wells; Thanet; Dover

Councils getting more than one request: Kent county council (5).

Responses to the question about general inquiries about invoices were equally dismal. Several councils said they did not keep records anyway; most others who did either had zero or one. KCC did say that its website had received 3,945 hits.

Perhaps the most telling statistic came in the response to whether councils had changed policy as a result of any scrutiny of their invoices either by the media or the public. Not one council indicated they had.

As to the costs, some councils - contrary to earlier complaints about the expense - said they had not spent anything additionally on complying with the new rules. These included Ashord, Thanet, Medway. KCC said it cost about £120 a month to process the data.

For others, the costs were relatively modest: Tunbridge Wells (£1,300 per year); Gravesham said it had spent £1,500 setting up the system and was spending £320 a month doing it; Swale said it was spending £4,900 to use an outside company to do the work; Maidstone spent £4,000 setting up the system and £50 on staff time each month.

What does this tell us? The answers suggest widespread indifference to the tsunami of information the public now has access to but I do not think it is that simple.

The problem is that the data is produced and presented in a way which makes it impregnable to any meaningful analysis. Visitors to council websites are presented with gargantuan spreadsheets that offer only the most basic of information and crude figures, lacking any context of even explanation.

True, the persistent armchair auditor can sometimes elicit more through FOI requests but it hardly looks like the kind of revolution Pickles had in mind - and is far from the triumph he has claimed it to be.

This is not an argument against the principle of transparency; it is about whether the mechanisms councils have in place are sophisiticated enough to allow the public to properly understand how taxpayers' money is being spent.

If councils are to properly engage the citizen, they will need to do considerably more than publish each month reams and reams of impenetrable spreadsheets.

 £500 invoices.pdf (6.40 mb)

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Categories: Politics

Will bloggers now flock to council meetings? And that Southeastern trains 'audit

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, February 24 2011

It's encouraging to see the government continue with its efforts to persuade councils to do more to open up their meetings to the public. The latest development in the seemingly never-ending transparency crusade is an edict from the Department for Communities and Local Government that councils should "open up their meetings to local news bloggers and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency."

Bloggers should, according to ministers, get the same routine access to council meetings as the 'traditional media'. Welcome though this is, I'm not convinced that it will trigger a march on town halls of bloggers availing themselves of these new entitlements. It's worth pointing out that council meetings are already open to the public and there's nothing to stop anyone from attending in any case. (It'll be interesting to see how councils respond when citizen journalists turn up with video cameras, mind you.)

For me, the wider issue is not who can go to meetings but the continuing concern that the system of cabinet government is one that gives councils enormous power to manage the decision-making process in a way that inhibits rather than enhances scrutiny.

And for all the government's warm words on transparency, it is worth noting that there are some worrying developments in the pipeline under the guise of its Localism Bill.

This sets out proposals that should worry all those who feel more needs to be done to hold authorities to account.

One proposal set out in the Bill would see the removal of any sanctions against authorities who failed to comply with the public's right to inspect documents relating to their accounts - including contracts - as well as the removal of a requirement that public bodies publish adverts in local newspapers giving notice of when the 20-day inspection period of accounts will take place.

It was these rights, incidentally, which enabled us to scrutinise the credit card bills of senior managers at County Hall last year. These changes would appear to run counter to the desire of Mr Pickles to see an army of armchair auditors poring over council accounts and spending.

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I am not at all surprised that an audit of Southeastern trains' punctuality has concluded that its figures added up and it did indeed - albeit narrowly - pass the threshold that meant no discounts for season ticket holders.

It won't please long-suffering passengers, of course. The problem, however, is that the company simply complied with what was required of it under the Passenger's Charter. And that was something that was set by the previous government when it agreed franchise contracts with the operator and that the only way it could be changed is if the government instructed it to.

But even if this latest news is a let down for some, it will add to the pressure that a future contract should set out compensation agreements based on individual line performance rather than performance across the whole network. 

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Categories: Freedom of Information | National Politics | Public Sector

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. 

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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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Categories: Pay

Are our councils hoarding money that could cushion looming cuts? Mr Pickles thinks so.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, December 6 2010

Whatever way you look at it, £222million is a lot of money. And it is money that councils in Kent have stashed away in reserves - so-called rainy day money kept back to deal with "contingencies".

Now they are coming under pressure from Eric Pickles, the local government minister, to spend some of it to spare taxpayers' a little of the pain coming their way - ironically, primarily as a result of the government's own parsimony in its on-going austerity drive.

Mr Pickles, in a rather inflammatory language, has spoken of councils turning town halls into Fort Knox - saying now is the time to be putting untapped funds to good use.

Find out how much your council has in reserves here>>>

The exhortation comes at a sensitive time. Councils are about to find out how much their budgets will be cut next year and Mr Pickles has clearly been advised that it would be a good way of turning the spotlight away from the uncomfortable fact that he's about to confirm council grants will be reduced by 25 to 30 per cent over the next four years. Even more cynically, by making a pre-emptive strike, he can - should councils acquiesce - take some of the credit later on for giving them the idea in the first place.

In Kent, district and borough councils between them have £104m in rainy-day funds; KCC has £105m (5.3 per cent of its revenue expenditure) and Medway £13m. Some appear to be sitting on quite sizeable amounts when compared to their overall spending.

Having said that, much of the money will have been earmarked already for specific projects but some will be unallocated. (Traditionally, councils have tended to dip into these pots around election time.Can't think why.)

They're the type of sums that will have many sympathising with Mr Pickles especially when councils start wielding the axe over a range of services.

The question is whether councils will heed his advice that they should "just like any household facing challenging times" consider the merits of dipping into their reserves to help them through  a sticky period.

 

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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics

Mystery over finance director's absence from County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 12 2010

Although KCC is grasping the government's transparency agenda with some vigour, it has declined to volunteer any information about why its finance director, Lynda McMullan, is absent from her desk and, from what little we do know, is expected to be so for at least two months.

We asked the authority a number of questions but it said it would not be commenting on the matter, which will only add to the intrigue and rumours circulating at Sessions House. Rightly or wrongly,  fairly or not, the "no comment" line does tend to give the impression there is something going on behind the scenes.

Most people appear to have been rather perplexed by the rather sudden absence. And it certainly comes at a particularly awkward time for the county council. Whatever the reasons, it cannot be a good thing to have the person who is usually responsible for drawing together the council's £2.4bn budget and spending plans away just weeks before critical announcements are expected on how KCC intends to cope with far-reaching cuts and a black hole of £340m.

I understand the situation was discussed at a meeting of the authority's personnel committee behind closed doors last Thursday. But I can't at this stage add much more than the basic facts that are known. Unless, of course, anyone wishes to enlighten us.

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Eric Pickles, the champion of open government, has further enhanced his reputation as a politican genuinely committed to greater public sector transparency.

He's firmly and rapidly squashed a council's proposal that it be allowed to charge people for dealing with their FOI requests.

Responding to Hampshire County Council's idea, Mr Pickles was ruthless.

 

"If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place. The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FoI, might even save a few pounds in the process."

Just for good  measure, Pickles has also been sounding off about council newspapers, which he intends to rein in under new rules limiting how often they can be produced.

"I don't think... there will be any great loss to British journalism if councils can't print their freesheets more than once a quarter. Propaganda dressed up as journalism not only wastes money but undermines a free press and a healthy democracy."

Couldn't have put it better myself.

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

Kent Conservative MPs sound off to Pickles over Kent-Essex alliance

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, October 5 2010

It seems plans to create an alliance between Kent and Essex to drive forward investment and boost jobs have not gone down well with Kent's Conservative backbenchers.

MPs voice doubts over "Kessex" bid>>>

The alliance has been proposed by KCC and Essex county council as the preferred option for the body - known as a Local Enterprise Partnership - that should replace the soon-to-be-scrapped Regional Development Agencies.

But the idea is not being supported by Kent MPs, who have sent a letter to communities secretary Eric Pickles saying it is not in the interests of Kent's businesses and they would prefer a LEP covering Kent and Medway - which was actually favoured by KCC.

The letter states: “As Kent Members of Parliament we believe any reform relating to its overall strategy and infrastructure should be in the interest of Kent and Medway’s economic stability and prosperity. We are therefore very concerned the proposal to create a super-LEP across Kent and Greater Essex is contrary to that belief. We feel the proposed LEP is not representative of the various micro-economies that exist throughout Kent, each with their own distinct characteristics and requirements that we feel will not receive the tailored attention they require.”

It goes on: “We believe the intention of creating a super-LEP to save central government money in the short term will in fact harm the people and businesses of Kent in the long term.”

This is a little embarrassing for KCC's Conservative administration, which initially had supported the idea of a LEP for Kent and Medway but appears to have gone in the direction of a Kent-Essex bid after Eric Pickles - an Essex MP - advanced the idea of teaming up with its counterpart over the Thames.

It's also a shot across Mr Pickles' ample bows. I gather MPs were unhappy that he hadn't involved them in the earlier discussions about the idea. There are also concerns that in getting rid of one regional body, the government is simply substituting another where the common interests are not that obvious.

Unsurpisingly, Medway council - which has advanced the Kent-Medway option - has scarcely contained its delight at the MPs' backing for its plan. Over to Mr Pickles...

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Not all Kent MPs have headed to Birmingham for the party conference. Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson and Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch have stayed in their constituencies.

Gordon tells me he feels his time will be better used tackling constituency issues.  "My constituents recognise that my first priority is to them and I put them first."  He's got four visits  to schools lined up for the week.

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I reckon George Osborne has got himself in unnecessary difficulty over child benefit. The excuse that it will be impossible to administer a system to distinguish between a couple who stand to lose £1,752 if the father earns more than £43,875 while a couple between them earning £87,778 will lose nothing is particularly weak. Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch has already expressed reservations, saying that while she agrees with the principle, she has "enormous sympathy" with those that consider the proposals as set out are anomolous and potentially unfair. 

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

Opening the books at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, September 13 2010

I didn't think I would ever read a county council report that stated "KCC views transparency as a fundamental principle of how we do business" but I have and, yes, I did check the date and it wasn't April 1.

But let's give credit where credit is due. Despite what it may have said in the past, County Hall has never had much of a reputation for openness. But it looks like things may be about to change.

How County Hall will open up its books>>>

Under its "Transparency Programme" - being led by the new group managing director Katherine Kerswell - the authority is pledging to be much more open about how it spends our money. Some of this, admittedly, follows various edicts coming from central government - notably the expectation from communities secretary Eric Pickles that all councils must publish monthly statements of transactions of more than £500.

But KCC appears to be much more committed to embracing the spirt of greater openness than it was and it was telling that Conservative cabinet member Roger Gough said at a cabinet meeting that he wants KCC to do much more than observe the letter of the law and that the spirit of transparency is as important.

Certainly, it seems that some politicians are grasping that if they really want to engage and involve residents, letting them know how thier money is spent is a good start. (We're even being promised video clips of senior officers going about their work, too).

Of course t

he proof of the transparency pudding will be in the eating. One key challenge will be how it publishes all this information and whether it does so in a way that is user-friendly and easily understood by the general public.

Initiatives often begin with fine rhetoric but later unravel because of lack of political commitment. Let's hope this isn't one of them.

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Mind you, with the exception of Cllr Gough, not many other cabinet members had much to say about the initiative at today's cabinet meeting. Maybe they've no strong views. Maybe they don't think it terribly important. Or just maybe they're a lit

tle unhappy about it all...

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Oh dear. The perils of the typo that give a council report an unintended meeting.

Outlining KCC's next grand vision statement "Bold Steps for Kent" - which follows the earlier incarnation "Bold Steps for Radical Reform" - a paper being presented to county councillors on Friday remarks: "From the recommendati

ons it is worth nothing that many have been swiftly acted on by the new government."

Worth nothing? Whoops. We think the word was "noting." But heh, who knows? maybe someone was having a little joke...

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Categories: KCC

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