Monday 7 June 2010

Government unleashes army of armchair auditors

The government is calling for voters to closely scrutinise every aspect of councils' expenditure - more of which will be published online.

Communities secretary, Eric Pickles, and Local Government Association chair, Baroness Eaton, have joined forces to urge all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online as part of wider action to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability.

The call for greater disclosure on spending is just one of a series of sweeping measures detailed in a letter being sent to councils by the Secretary of State.

Pickles said, "The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers. The swift and simple changes we are calling for will unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money."

He said that getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government. Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They could only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.

"Throwing open the council books will open the door to new businesses and encourage greater innovation and entrepreneurism.

"Organisations that might have been effectively locked out before, including voluntary sector and small business, will be in a much stronger position to pitch for contracts and bring new ideas and solutions to the table," said Pickles.

He makes clear that transparency and openness should be the default setting for the way councils do business, and calls on local government to move at speed to adopt this new approach.

The letter sets out proposals for a move to open local government. Councils are being encouraged to throw open their files and publish, alongside spending data, information on salaries, job titles, allowances and expenses, minutes of meetings, recycling rates and planning applications.

By September councils will be expected to make details of spending on all goods and services - from car hire to consultancy fees from storage to software costs - that fall above the £500 threshold available for the public to see and scrutinise. All councils should be doing this as a matter of course by the start of next year, as well as publishing invitations to tender and final contracts on projects over £500.

Financial disclosure will act as a trigger enabling local taxpayers to see how councils are using public money, shine a spotlight on waste, establish greater accountability and efficiency, open up new markets and improve access for small and local business and the voluntary sector.

But making spending data public is just the tip of the iceberg.