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The Hunt For COINS

The following post is from Lisa Evans, who is doing research on UK public finance data sources as part of our Where Does My Money Go? project.

I’ve been investigating data for use in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Where Does My Money Go? project. One of the first reports we looked at was the Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis (PESA) — the visualisation of PESA looks like this:

  • So an obvious question is where does the data in the PESA report come from and where is the PESA data stored?

The answer is that HM Treasury uses a database called the Combined Online Information System (COINS) to store PESA data, and not just PESA and the closely related Public Expenditure Outturn White Paper, it also stores data on new spending policy for the Spending Review, The Budget, Pre Budget Report, Supply Estimates and Supplementary Budget Information. I discovered this when I met some people from the Treasury two weeks ago, it also agrees with documents that the BBC journalist, Martin Rosenbaum, has kindly shared with us.

So clearly COINS is a useful database to understand for ‘Where Does My Money Go’, as we would like to be more familiar with all of the reports stored in COINS.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about COINS through Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests and meetings:

  • COINS is a Multi-Dimensional Database according to this request I made for the COINS schema. The dimensions, described in the same FOI request, are:
    • Version: used to list details of different data streams, ‘snapshots’, and so on;
    • Organisation: used to record details of organisations;
    • Variables: lists the standard chart of accounts, with associated ‘tags’ or ‘fields’ used to specify budgetary treatment, nature of expenditure, and so on;
    • Reporting: groups ‘adjustment types’ by status levels and data streams for reporting purposes;
    • Time: lists the time frames for data – years, and months within year, and identifies the current ‘focal years’ for each data stream;
    • CPID: Counter party identifiers, another list of organisations;
    • Segment: contains Programme Objects (PO) and other structural type information to identify budget treatment and so on;
    • Analysis: essentially a “spare” dimension;
  • The COINS field headings are public, they’re presented in the house of commons library and in this Freedom of Information Request for the COINS fields broken down by dimensions.
  • HM Treasury has a contract with Descisys relating to COINS. The Treasury’s relationship with Descisys goes back almost 10 years. HM Treasury’s relationship with the British based subsidiary of Descisys, called Information Edge, has been in place for over 5 years. I gained this background from an FOI request for the contact between Information Edge and HM Treasury; the request failed as the contract is with Descisys.
  • From the meeting at the Treasury we know that each government department defines their own Programme Object Groups and Programme Objects, these appear to be the most detailed descriptions of the departmental spending in the database.
  • That COINS doesn’t store any national income data, that comes from HM Revenue and Customs the people at the Treasury told me.

I have made some FOI requests that are yet to be answered:

  • The field descriptions of the multi-dimensional database.
  • The contract with Descisys.
  • A copy of the intellectual property rights vested with Descisys.
  • The Programme Objects in COINS: this seems to be the most detailed information each government department stores in COINS.
  • The training materials for COINS given to new employees to HM Treasury.
  • A description of the type of confidential information stored in COINS.
  • The different levels of user permission in COINS.

If you would like to join the hunt for more information about COINS that please get in touch — drop an email to us at wdmmg at okfn dot org.

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