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COINS for cash

COINing it inNo. It's not what it seems. We're not going to be banging on about the loose change in your pocket or on your bedside table.

In this article COINS stands for 'Combined Online Information System' and it's something that's going to revolutionise our access to information about spending by Government and Local Councils.

Insiders are going to hate it, because it will shine the searchlight of transparency over everything they do.

Not too far from now, you will be able to individually track every item of Fylde's expenditure above £500.

We'll go into COINS in a bit more detail later, but first we'll look at an example to see what's likely to happen.

On 21 June 2010, our mate Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (the man who is rapidly, and almost single-handedly bringing sanity back to local Government) visited Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and welcomed their action to throw open their books and put all their spending over £500 online.

It was a bit of a staged visit of course, but no less groundbreaking for that.

Hammersmith has published every invoice it has paid in the first quarter of the year, where the invoice value is more than £500.

Whether it's car hire, computers or consultancy, suppliers are named, and the amounts are shown at the click of a mouse.

And it will be updated every quarter.

For as long as Hammersmith leave it online, you can follow this link to see the their data in a pdf file

At present this is a token gesture. It's an early 'win' for them in the direction the new Government wants them to go, (in reality, a pdf file isn't that much help).

Eventually though, it will be extractable as a file you can load into database or spreadsheet programme to look at and manipulate as you wish.

Pickles has said this is the way all councils should do business, adding that residents of any borough should be able to see what the council is spending.

He said: "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. The swift and simple changes that Hammersmith and Fulham have made today are an important first step towards getting council business out in the open and revolutionising local government."

With what seems to us to be a more than average bit of connivance, (although none the less impressive in content for that) the Leader of Hammersmith Council, Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, said: "Everyone at the council will be given another reason to think twice about whether they are getting value for money. If this reveals examples of spending that is wrong or barmy then I will be the first one to act. We are the champions of value for money and we are not embarrassed by openness and transparency."

For interest, you can contrast that statement with the one made by Fylde's Chief Executive in his Streetscene report - which noted that the suspended officer in charge when the big loss was sustained "agreed to leave the Council's employment via a compromise agreement" (and with the benefit of an undisclosed severance package) to produce the "......the most pragmatic option which exposed the Council to the least amount of additional financial and reputational risk..." So much for not being embarrassed by openness and transparency at Fylde in the Commissar's reign.

But it's coming.

The Prime Minister himself has made a specific commitment that new items of local government spending over £500 will be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011

There's another thing too.

According to the timetable announced by Pickles earlier this month, as well as all Councils in publishing detailed spending 'as a matter of course by the start of next year', they'll also be publishing their invitations to tender and final contracts on projects over £500 as well.

We look forward to it.

So how does the COINs thing come in, and what is it?

Well, in essence, its an absolutely huge database.

It's part of the new Government's transparency programme, being overseen by Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Word Wide Web, so he's a sharp cookie on computers)

At present it contains about 24 million entries documenting where the Government's public money comes from and where it goes.

There's so much information, and its such early days, that the data isn't properly formatted yet, but already, like the pioneering days of the internet, a host of independent enthusiasts and some businesses are developing tools to allow you to search and manipulate the data.

So how did it happen?

Well, just less than three weeks ago, the government opened up its accounting books as it published the entire contents of the Treasury spending database going back to 2008.

We understand it is proving controversial in Whitehall. Some ministers have expressed unease about the transparency it will bring - exposing every spending decision they make. (Just wait till it hits Fylde!)

But Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury said: "For too long, the previous government acted as if the public had no right to know where their hard-earned taxes were spent. Today we have lifted that veil of secrecy by releasing detailed spending figures dating back to 2008. This data is complex, but this is a major step forward and shows we are delivering on our promise to make this government more open and transparent while ensuring we deliver value for money for the taxpayer."

He said the government would not stop there, but would release more data in the coming months that will be easier for the general public to understand.

It is understood the Government believes the database could spawn a whole new industry to analyse and create online services from it, worth up to £6bn a year.

So what's in store for Local Councils then, what will they have to do?

Well, the preliminary advice for councils that want to be ahead of the field includes the following:

"Publishing raw data quickly is an immediate priority, but in the medium term local authorities should work towards structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards. Subject to other issues below, our immediate advice to local authorities is:

  • Users will be interested in the core information held in the accounts system - such as expenditure code, amount paid, transaction date, beneficiary, and payment reference number. The expenditure code has to be explained and steps taken to help users identify the beneficiary
  • As a first stage, publish the raw data and any lookup table needed to interpret it in a spreadsheet as a CSV or XML file as soon as possible. This should be put on the council's website as a document for anyone to download. Or even published in a service such as Google Docs....."

And there's loads more advice for them as well. Far too much to print here. You can get more if you want it if you follow this link.

The key information doors - for all Councils - are being flung wide open.

For those that want an overview of what's there at present, and to understand what the arcane Government accounting terms mean, the Treasury produces an overview of how its spending works

And for the intrepid and the curious (and public financial anoraks like us) you can look at:

The Guardian's online analysis tool


Technical stuff for would be data analysts

Some folk will be put off by the volume of the data available and the complexity of understanding the way the Government's finances work, but Local Authorities will be much more simple to understand and, as time goes on, the manipulating and searching tools available will become more readily available and easier to use.

So all in all, we're standing on the cusp of a revolution here.

In the future you will be able to see who has been given which work, how much they charged for it, how much of your money was spent on it.

You will be able to aggregate your Council's spending in ways that suit you - by supplier, by contract or order value, by cost-code, by department, and more. And you'll be able to compare your council's spending with any other in the country.

The scale of the change this will bring to Local Government is difficult to explain or even envisage, but it is fundamental. It will be a life changing experience for some people on the inside, and a revelation for people on the outside.

As ever, we'll keep our readers up to speed as it develops.

Dated:  24 June 2010


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