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)