Impact of increased public data disclosure must be examined

18 April 2012

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18 April 2012 | Adam Leach

Increasing the amount of government data made public – including information on spending – is likely to be beneficial, but those benefits and the cost involved must be more clearly identified.

The conclusion of a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) published today comes in the same week the local government secretary Eric Pickles told a newspaper that local authorities and Whitehall should consider publishing all details of spending on procurement cards.

The NAO study, Implementing transparency, said the sharing of data, such as departmental and council spending and resource use, could increase accountability in the public sector. But for the benefits to be fully realised, more detail needs to be established.

It recommended the government develop a better understanding of the drivers and scale of additional costs of sharing information, such as staff and time. It found that costs per department ranged from £53,000 to £500,000. In addition it recommended increased sharing of best practice to enable government bodies to learn from good examples. The report called on the government to develop “a structured, objective evaluation of the emerging effects of transparent public data, so that efforts are focused on high-value activities, with unintended consequences mitigated.”

Amyas Morse, comptroller and auditor general of the NAO, said: “If transparency initiatives are to be more than aspirations, then government needs to measure and monitor both their costs and benefits. This is vital for tracking success and learning what works.”

An “unintended consequence” of the increased transparency mentioned in the report is that fraudsters have used the data. The NAO cited the finding of the Audit Commission that £7 million has been fraudulently obtained from local government with the help of the information. Fraudsters used data, such as previous payment amounts and company names, to redirect payments. While attempts to obtain a further £20 million were foiled, the NAO called for stronger controls around fraud to be implemented.

Earlier this week, Eric Pickles, secretary for communities and local government called for transparency across the public sector to be increased further. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he said without full disclosure the cards were open to abuse.

“The problem with a £500 benchmark is that it still allows quangos to lunch quangos, spend a few hundred pounds, and not face the full force of public scrutiny,” he told the paper.

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