Eric Pickles Strives for More Council Transparency - Nottingham City Council Resists

The government has published a code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, and has opened a consultation on the proposed measures. The consultation is open to anyone and ends on 14th March. Responses can be given by email, post or online on their forums. See the above link for details.

The government has already asked that councils provide details of all spending over £500, and many councils have already complied - you can see the results here.

There are still a number of councils dragging their feet, such as Nottingham City Council. * This new code of practice strengthens the government's position in requiring the data from local authorities, as it is being issued as an official code of practice under Part 2 of the Local Government, Land and Planning Act.

The proposed data requirements are as follows:

  • All expenditure over £500, with grants and payments under contract to the voluntary and social enterprise sector clearly itemised and listed.
  • All senior council staff are to have their salaries published, along with job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff. Senior staff are defined as anyone earning more than £58,200, which is the starting wage for a senior civil servant [Note: a 'senior' council worker wage is usually much lower than this, at around £40,000.] Staff can opt-out of having their names published.
  • An organisational chart of the staff structure of the local authority.
  • Councillor allowances and expenses.
  • Copies of contracts and tenders to businesses and to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector.
  • Policies, performance, audits and key indicators on the authorities fiscal and financial position.
  • Data of democratic running of the local authority including the constitution, election results, committee minutes, decision-making process and records of decisions.
The proposed code of practice also states that local authorities should create an inventory of all the data they hold, and sets out a number of basic (but useful) technical requirements, such as requiring that the data be published in CSV format (Comma Separated Variable - a data format readable by a very wide range of applications, including the ever-popular MS Excel).

It also sets out requirements for the timeliness and accuracy of the data.


Personally, I welcome Eric Pickles' drive for greater transparency in local government. In response to criticisms of ID cards, it was often said that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That was a bogus argument, because it was levelled against private citizens. The clue to the flaw in the argument is in the word "private". The same argument does not apply to the public sector - organisations comprised of many people, funded by the public, to serve the public, spending millions of pounds of public money every year.

Are the details of the proposed measures fair and sensible?

The technical details are basic and would benefit from some refinement, but they are sensible, useful and workable. It's refreshing to see a government requirement that doesn't mention the dreaded acronym "XML" (eXtensible Markup Language), a useful format (in some circumstances) that unfortunately has been too often used where a simpler data format would have been more appropriate.

The proposals set the bar of transparency at a wage of £58,200. This is more than double the national average wage, and it will avoid a vast swathe of well-paid council middle-managers, who tend to be paid around £30-40K. These workers are perhaps the most interesting of all council employees, being somewhat removed from the reality of the real work, but also far enough down the hierarchy to be distant from the council's political leadership. Yet, the decisions made by the politicians at the top are enacted by the workers directly controlled by middle managers, and the politicians act upon the data they gather from the workers on the ground - filtered by middle management.

The £58,200 boundary apparently marks the start of the senior civil service, but in councils, a more interesting cut-off point is anything above spinal column point 49 (about £40,000), as this is the boundary of the nationally-agreed council pay, and the start of the more obscure grades where councils set their own rules. See this post for an explanation of how council pay works.

What of the pay boundary for the private sector employed by a council? This is set at £500 per invoice. Councils pay the private sector for all sorts of things, from sandwiches to computers. Most of these things will be large-scale, fairly easy-to-understand purchases. The contentious area tends to be technical and management consultants. These specialised industry experts typically charge very high hourly rates, but generally only work for an occasional day here and there for any given council, but they usually work for a number of councils.

They often won't work for more than one day at a time for a given council, so it might make sense to them to issue invoices on a day-by-day basis, which would certainly help them fly under the radar of the £500 limit.

So what could they get away with? If they billed on a daily basis at about £50 per hour and worked a 40-hour week, they could earn about £100,000 per year before the expenditure was published. That's around double the wage that would cause their public sector equivalent to appear on the public lists. The figure could be even higher if they billed for less than 8 hours per invoice. However, their invoice is the actual cost to the public, whereas the council worker's wage does not include the 'on-costs' - e.g. national insurance and pensions, all of which are paid out of taxes. With those included, the comparison is more fair. Our theoretical consultant, however, does not get the option of opting-out of having his or her name published if the financial threshold is crossed.

Edited 18.05.13.
* Edit 13.06.13: Nottingham City Council eventually complied in September 2012. Details of Nottingham City Council's spending over £500 can be found here.