What was COINS missing? The mystery of the Government’s hidden spending data
We thought we were getting everything with the COINS release. In fact we were missing the best part of all: the Whole of Government Accounts.
Before he became chancellor George Osborne promised:
We will publish, shortly after coming to office, the Treasury’s COINS database that reports several thousand programme spending items in a consistent format across departments
Sure enough, in June, with George as our brand new chancellor, we saw the publication of COINS.
I’d been investigating the COINS (Combined Online Information System) prior to release and was expecting great things.
Like many others, we thought we would get a very detailed picture of the financial health of every government-funded body, because as the Treasury’s guide to COINS (pdf) explained: COINS is used for “the preparation of Whole of Government Accounts (WGA)”.
Now, I knew that the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) requires each public authority to complete a detailed record of what they own and what they have bought.
You can take a look at the form each authority has to fill out, it is called an L-pack.
You’ll see the kind of information the WGA gathers, details about bank accounts, shares owned and services bought. There were 553 Local Authorities and 320 NHS trusts and foundations who completed this form last year – that’s a lot of data.
On top of that, each central government body has to fill out a C-pack. Once complete, all the L-Packs and C-Packs are uploaded to COINS.
Then, on COINS, the completed records are audited. The auditing involves the WGA team checking that each exchange of money between departments is accurately recorded by both parties.
Auditing, I believe, means “matching up” buyers and providers of services and goods. For example, a perfect match would be if Barnet Council records the purchase of an item costing £5.5m from Enfield Council, and Enfield Council records the sale of the same item at £5.5m to Barnet Council. The COINS scripts would eliminate this to zero.
However if Barnet Council records the purchase of an item costing £5.0 m from Enfield Council and Enfield Council records a sale of the item as £5.5 m to Barnet Council, then COINS would eliminate 5.0m and and put 0.5M into suspense. The suspense account then needs to be investigated more, to see where the mistake is. This investigation is the job of the WGA team.
The WGA has been running every year, for 10 years. And how many results have the public seen from the whole exercse? Exactly zero.
When COINS was published I expected to see this rich body of WGA data, but none of it was there.
So, I investigated, resulting in my request for the WGA for 2008/09.
The reply was unlike anything else I have seen. The Treasury conducted a public interest survey which consisted of a list of pros and cons for release of the WGA data. The list of pros were that the public would benefit by seeing more of the process.
Amongst the list of cons where:
Ministers and officials need space in which to develop policy, including space for the development of policy through an interactive process of testing and refining ideas. This process could be weakened if information was released prematurely or when proposals where not finalised, as this could lead to poorer decision-making
Overall the cons won and my request was rejected.
There are no plans to publish any of the 10 years worth of “dry run” data from the WGA. But the 2009/10 data will be published in spring 2011 – I’m told this report will be similar to company accounts level of detail.
So, when we hear about greater transparency on public spending, it is important to bear in mind that we have made great progress but we don’t have the full picture yet.
About Lisa Evans
Lisa Evans is Lead Researcher on Where Does My Money Go? an
independent non-partisan project run by the Open Knowledge Foundation
which makes government spending and finances understandable to the general public – showing each of us where every pound of our taxes go