At the beginning of October, the Guardian published an article revealing that, despite pressure from central government, only 66 local authorities had already managed to publish every item of their spending over £500. By the end of this year at the latest, all 326 councils in England must have systems in place to provide this data.
In September, the government published its guidance for local authorities, which states that "data should be published in a timely manner and with a licence that allows open reuse" and that "files are to be published in CSV file format". Both these requirements are mandatory. However, as Chris Taggart of OpenLocal highlighted at the end of September, many of the initial batch of 66 councils have already managed to completely ignore these instructions, by publishing insufficient or incomplete information in PDF format and therefore making the data extremely inaccessible.
At least there is time for these councils to fix their failure to follow the guidance. We can expect the new England-wide system that starts in January 2011 to include many more examples of data that does not indicate department names, identify suppliers or describe what different payments were actually for.
Needless to say, Newham wasn't one of the 66 authorities that has made a start. Out of curiosity, I therefore dropped the council a line, asking whether it was able to confirm whether it intends to make its spending information available earlier, as a number of other councils have done. For some strange reason, this simple query was treated as a Freedom of Information request and the council then proceeded to take the full 20 working days to reply. And its response? This is what took all that time:
I guess that's an abrupt 'No' to earlier publication, then.
London Borough of Newham will comply with the regulations regarding publication of payments set out by Government.
But at least this otherwise anodyne statement confirms something - that Newham council promises to publish its spending on a monthly basis, in CSV format, with the detail of "all individual invoices, grant payments, payments to other public bodies, expense payments or other such transactions", broken down into meaningful expense areas and including supplier names. That's what the regulations require.
Anything less from New Years Day 2011 - including the kind of evasiveness demonstrated by other local authorities - would be a breach of that promise. Fortunately, I'll be in the country for a change at the start of next year to check and see - but it's Newham, so I'm still obviously expecting the worst...