Remember how pleased people were last year when local councils were forced by the government to publish a list every month of all of their spending over £500?
Wasn’t all this “open data” going to usher in a new era of transparency, with all of us being able to see at a glance what the council was spending our money on and who it was paying for the goods and services needed to keep us citizens in good shape?
I only ask because I was whiling away an empty hour this morning when I came across the following: between June 2011 and the end of February this year Leeds City Council made eight payments for “construction” work worth a total of £12,710,794. The trouble is we don’t know who these payments were made to. The name(s) of the business(es) aren’t being published for reason of “commercial confidentiality”.
All eight payments were made by the council’s Asset Management Services department – that’s the team that coordinates and manages the delivery of large scale capital building projects like the Leeds Arena, the Northern Ballet Headquarters, the City Varieties refurbishment etc etc.
It got me thinking: how does that “commercial confidentiality” thing work? and whose interests does it serve? Yours? Mine?
Plausible justification anyone?
So I went off and had a look at the government’s guidelines on what can and can’t be excluded from the list of spending that each council has to publish every month. And I can’t for the life of me find a clause which might justify the decision to withhold the info about where this £12.7m has gone. Or, rather, who it has gone to.
Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place. Or maybe there’s someone out there who can come up with a plausible justification.
And it’s not just the council’s Asset Management Services team that feels the need to keep the names of its suppliers out of the public eye. The council’s Libraries, Arts and Heritage (LAH) department made 45 such “secret” payments in 2011, worth in total over £800,000.
Some of that was for construction work, but by no means all of it. The LAH team, for example, felt it necessary to omit the names of some suppliers of computer software and equipment, furniture, premises security and people who it had paid to do “publication and promotion” work.
Over the same period the council’s Economic Development team felt it necessary to blank out the names of recipients of its business grants. The Support Services team felt it had to keep quiet about suppliers of “office consumables” and telephones.
Unnamed suppliers and unnamed services
And throughout the council’s City Development directorate (where all the departments mentioned above “live”) there are plenty of payments, some of them six figure sums, made last year to unnamed suppliers for supplies/services that go under the unhelpful heading of “other costs” or “other hired and contracted services”.
In cases like those we don’t know who the council is making the payments to or what the payments are for.
When the government introduced the idea of councils publishing their itemised spending, I’m not sure that this is the kind of transparency they had in mind.