Spending transparency has been a long standing objective for our campaign. "Publish full data on spending" was one of the policies for the first three months of a new government in the TPA manifesto. As we said in that document: "Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent".
This morning, the Treasury has released an initial tranche of the data held in the COINS database. The database contains a detailed breakdown of central government spending. That is great news on a number of fronts, including:
- It should allow a broader swathe of civil society outside government to more effectively help identify potential cuts in spending.
- The public will be able to better understand how their money is spent, which will allow for a more informed political debate over the options open to politicians.
- As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "sunlight is the best disinfectant". If politicians, officials, contractors, journalists and inquiring members of the public are able to see how money is spent, it is far less likely to be lost to corruption or fraud.
There are some challenges to implementing spending transparency, some of which have been reported by the BBC:
"The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum, who had a FOI request to gain access to the database refused last year, said many people would like to see its contents published.
Reasons given by the Treasury for turning down his request, he said, included the need to protect intellectual property rights, commercial confidentiality, the fact that some material was covered by specific exemptions and other details were already in the public domain."
At the TPA we also submitted a detailed FOI request for the COINS database in the last Parliament and it sounds like we got a similar response to the BBC. The challenges shouldn't be overstated, though. We went through the Treasury's objections in the book How to Cut Public Spending and found that - so long as officials didn't try to stymie transparency by deploying the black redacting marker too readily - none of them needed to stand in the way of a determined attempt to get the information out, they could all be overcome at minimal cost. We'll see how they've handled those issues as experts start to go through the database and when further information is released. Given the potential of spending transparency to drive greater efficiency, this should be a huge win for taxpayers.
Many authorities have already shown the way with spending transparency. The massive US Federal Government offers the brilliant USASpending.Gov website. Most of the states have spending transparency; there are forty one spending portals from Alaska's 'Checkbook Online' to the 'Window on State Government' in Texas. Local government is increasingly publishing its spending online. Windsor and Maidenhead led the way and a number of authorities have followed their lead, most recently Northamptonshire who put the measure in place after a meeting with the TPA.
If you're feeling ambitious and know your way around a database, download the data and have a go. Let us know if you find anything interesting!