Following on from yesterday's post on issues of accountability, today I'm focusing on the often-mentioned 'armchair auditors'.
Ministers have set the intention out pretty clearly. Local government secretary Eric Pickles has said:
"I want to see an army of 'armchair auditors' pore over the information and hold their council to account if things are not done right."
And prime minister David Cameron seems to have gone even further in his expectation of what might be achieved by opening the government's books to more scrutiny:
"With a whole army of effective armchair auditors looking over the books, ministers in this government are not going to be able to get away with all the waste, the expensive vanity projects and pointless schemes that we’ve had in the past."
Ministers are clearly right when they said that the public has a right to see how their taxes are spent, so I would agree that transparency is a good thing in itself regardless of anything else.
But I don't yet see how this public scrutiny will achieve the outcomes that are hoped for.
Cameron's suggestion of an end to "expensive vanity projects and pointless schemes", for example, seems to stray into the area of political debate.
And even if it is a smaller pilot scheme, ministerial pet project or not, who's to say if it isn't worth trying until after the money has been spent and the outcomes evaluated.
Similarly, ministers say they want to encourage more freedom to innovate in service delivery, and are prepared for some schemes to fail.
But is it likely that such schemes might be flagged up as 'pointless' even if they are part of a successful innovative ecosystem?
There seem to be conflicting pressures in the system, representing conflicting ministerial desires to reduce waste but allow 'innovative failures'.
Holding to account
But let's move on to the perhaps simpler proposition that 'armchair auditors' can hold public sector bodies to account by looking over spending data.
Take the example of the spending data which has now been released.
The officials who spent the money aren't accountable to the public as we don't know who took the decisions (or why).
So presumably they are accountable to their managers and through them to ministers in the usual chain of command.
But this implies one of two things
First, that the number of questionable spending decisions is going to be so small that it will be possible for ministers to chase up explanations for all of them.
This means that the reform is not going to be genuinely transformative of government spending, but might have an impact at the margins.
Or second, it will be significant but the processes for dealing with lots of complaints from the public haven't been thought through.
A question of process
To begin at the beginning, if I am an 'armchair auditor', what do I do exactly?
Do the people who spot questionable things have to send them to the BBC or the Guardian, where they get picked up by departmental media monitoring, and then get passed around internally for explanations?
Should there be some mechanism for reporting wasteful spending on government websites themselves?
There doesn't seem to be any particular process behind this 'policy' (if it is a policy, or perhaps a vague aspiration).
That point is nicely made by this freedom of information request to the Department for Communities and Local Government. It asks:
"I learn from today's Guardian that following the scrapping of the Audit Commission, ordinary people are to act as armchair auditors to report financial waste and wrongdoing. Who do they report this to? I assume something has been already put in place, or why announce it in the press?"
The deadpan response from the DCLG is:
"You ask 'ordinary people are to act as armchair auditors to report financial waste and wrongdoing. Who do they report this to?' following the disbandment of the Audit Commission?
"I am writing to advise you that I am unable to provide you with the information you requested as Communities and Local Government does not hold it."
Although an FoI request is perhaps not the best way to find out such information, I have yet to see any government recommendation about how to report waste. Perhaps a waste hotline?
Another question is which 'armchair auditors' get to decide if an item of spending is unreasonable? Does it take just one person to object, or a larger number through some kind of aggregation mechanism?
Should each spending item be linked to some kind of crowd-sourced voting mechanism for decisions on whether it was justified? Should there be a threshold for the number of 'mehs' a spending item needs to get before it is officially questionable? Or perhaps the top two per cent might be the most doubtful.
Perhaps there could be a rating mechanism for the 'armchair auditors' themselves, with the votes of those who find the most waste being given a higher value.
Anyway, if the spending is then examined internally and the decision is that it was justified, what mechanism is there for reporting that back to the objectors? And can they appeal?
And besides, once the money has been spent, what specific outcome is expected? A reprimand for the person who spent it? Six paragraphs of bad publicity in the local newspaper?
Questions to answer
So the concept of 'armchair auditing' as it currently stands seems to rely more on the pressure it puts on civil servants before a spending decision is taken.
As I detailed in the previous post in this series, this mechanism is hard to measure.
And if successful it means there is little for 'armchair auditors' to actually complain about. So can any initial sense of vigilance then be maintained over time?
Then, given that every organisation spends at least some money wastefully, should we be making decisions about performance based on some kind of comparison to other councils, say, or being absolutist in our intolerance of waste?
And if it's a relative measure, how is that information organised and displayed for voters?
So many questions.
Failure to deliver
As I said back at the start, opening up this data is right in and of itself. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be wrapped up in a well thought-out policy framework. This currently seems to be missing.
It might be a flagship government policy, but without improvements my best guess is currently that it is going to run aground before the next election, perhaps even 12 months from now when smart Opposition frontbenchers should be asking written parliamentary questions about what actions have been taken as a result of complaints from 'armchair auditors'.
This is the second time I've concluded that open data may not be capable of delivering what politicians expect it to, which worries me because I want it to work.
But there is perhaps one get-out here. This is that accountability for waste is not delivered through government processes but through the ballot box.
So in tomorrow's post, I'll move on to look at the role of more formal democratic mechanisms when it comes to open data and accountability.
Update: By coincidence it seems a bunch of other things about armchair auditing and open data have also been published today...
- Andrea Di Maio writes on whether open data will help average citizens or just the usual colelction of journalists, bloggers and activists.
- The Guardian's Cuts Blog launches a guest column by a 'reluctant armchair auditor', who immediately runs into some of the problems listed in this post, plus a few others besides (h/t to Simon Burall).
- And here is the recently launched reluctant armchair auditor's own website.
Update 2: More by Simon Burall on 'armchair auditors'.