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This week sees the publication of the first Whole of Government Accounts for the UK. WGA represents the end of a decade long project to implement commercial style accounting reports for the UK public sector. The Financial Times has said that we will now have a set of accounts for the UK that are just like those of Marks and Spencer. The reasons given for the development of WGA have been made in terms of improved accountability and a better understanding of the UK’s public finances. There are however good reasons to believe that neither of these claims can be substantiated.
Commercial accounting reports have their roots in the split between owners and managers of companies. The managers of companies need to account for their actions to the owners; the shareholders. The shareholders are principals and the managers act as agents. Accounts demonstrate that the agents have acted in the principals’ best interests and the audit of the accounts serves to demonstrate that the accounts are a true and fair representation of their actions. The reports are supposed to be useful in agents making decisions; mainly whether to sell their shares or to replace the managers.
Since 2005 the accounting reports for listed companies in Europe have been prepared in line with International Financial Reporting Standards – IFRS. IFRS are based on a conceptual framework that enshrines the role of shareholders/investors as the primary users of accounting reports. The standards are then designed to meet their information needs. It is on the basis of IFRS standards that the accounts of UK public bodies are now prepared and they underpin WGA. That they were never designed with public bodies in mind seems not to matter to those who took this policy decision.
Applying IFRS to pubic bodies may seem, on the face of it, to be a ‘good thing’. There are however serious problems. The main one being how does the principal/agent relationship work for public bodies? There is absolutely no empiric evidence that shows that anyone actually uses the accounts produced by public bodies to make any decision. There is no group of principals analogous to investors. There are many lists of potential users of the accounts. The Treasury, CIPFA (the UK public sector accounting body) and others have said that users might include the public, taxpayers, regulators and oversight bodies. I would be prepared to put up a reward for anyone who could prove to me that any of these people have ever made a decision based on the financial reports of a public body. If there are no users of the information then there is no point in making the reports better. If there are no users more technically correct reports do nothing to improve the understanding of public finances. In effect all that better reports do is legitimise the role of professional accountants in the accountability process.
Open data provides a route out of this accountability dead end. Instead of refining what are fundamentally useless reports open data does away with the principal/agent accountability model and replaces it with a more fluid one. Open data does not need anyone publishing the data to think about who the users are. Once data is in the public domain users define themselves and design reports that suit their needs by extracting data that is relevant to them. The various analysis tools that have been produced to analyse local authority spending show that more than one style of report can be produced. Instead of having a single aggregation of the data following IFRS many aggregations are possible for different interest groups. The possibility of linking financial to other performance data also exists; a possibility that has not been successfully addressed by public sector accounting reports.
The open data model does not require professional auditing in the same way as IFRS accounting reports. So long as the data released is complete then aggregations and presentations of the data can be ‘audited’ using a ‘many eyes’ model and corrections made by discursive processes. Further the open model has the potential to embed the discursive, questioning aspect of accountability that the static, professionally controlled accounting reports fail to do. Instead of the focus being on the production of a report the focus is on the reporting process.
Anthony Hopwood, the late Dean of the Said Business School in Oxford once wrote “Those with the power to determine what enters into organisational accounts have the means to articulate and diffuse their values and concerns, and subsequently to monitor, observe and regulate the actions of those that are now accounted for.” IFRS means that the values enshrined in accounting reports are those of the professional accountant. Open data allows the users to decide what is extracted from the data, how it is aggregated and reported. Open data has the possibility to shift power from preparers of accounts to users.
This is power shift is a big deal. The Financial Times article heralding the release of the WGA report focused on the extent of the indebtedness of the UK and on the pensions liability for public employees. Are these really all that the public are interested in? If I were going to invest my money in a company with the sole aim of making a return they would be important to me. As a citizen I am more interested in the priority given to different categories of spending, what is being done to alleviate social problems and where inefficiency in spending lies. IFRS does not show this and so however technically clever the WGA report is it may have no relevance to those whose interests it claims to represent. The same effort put into releasing usable open accounting records has far greater potential to engage the public.
This post is by Gregor Aisch, graphic designer and visualisation architect on the OpenSpending project. Today, at the OpenSpending worksop at OKCon2011 he gave a sneak preview of some of the work he has been doing to create new visualisations for OpenSpending, including a re-adaptation of David McCandless’ famous bubble visualisation from ‘Where Does My Money Go?’
We recently re-implemented the bubble visualisation from WDMMG to make it more re-usable for almost every dataset. Our main aim was to use it in the OpenSpending explorer which lets users explore and analyse government spending in a fun way. We now call the visualisation radial bubble tree, or just bubble tree, because that’s what it actually does: displays tree datasets in a radial layout with bubbles representing the individual nodes. For our purposes, each node represents a budget item.
Instead of just re-creating the exact visualisation that is still live at WDMMG, we decided to go a step back to the initial layouts by David McCandless and look what we might do better this time. There were a couple of points we didn’t like in the first version, for instance the way the bubbles moved in the transitions or the fact that the bubble scale wasn’t consistent inside the views. All these flaws are fixed in the new version.
Another new feature we introduced is horizontal navigation. In the old version as well as in the tree map found at OpenSpending.org the only possible way of navigation through the spending trees is to go down to a child or up to the parent item. For instance, a user who might want to look around through all items in the first level of the tree had to visit the main item very often. Now we have enabled the option to directly jump to the left and right hand items of the selected item.
Also we introduced a new bubble type. Our goal was to display another breakdown per bubble. For doing that, we had the idea of using the area of the bubble for displaying another mini-chart. After experimenting with a few ideas we ended up with what we now call the donut bubbles.
Since we also opened up the new visualisation in terms of the application interface it is now very easy to integrate the bubble tree with other visualisations, like we did in the following experiment. Here you can see the bubble tree combined with a regional map of the UK. The map shows the regional breakdown of the last clicked bubble.
The work on visualisations is ongoing and we hope to have them online soon. We are also hoping to give users the option of a dashboard of plug-and-play visualisations replicating much of the ‘Where Does My Money Go?’ functionality in OpenSpending. Expect more updates soon!
There will be more sessions on OpenSpending at OKCon2011. If you want to join us in Berlin – you can join us by registering here. You can also follow @openspending on Twitter for more updates. The hashtag for the conference is #okcon2011.
OKCon2011 is glad to announce that registration has now opened for the pre-OKCon workshops. More details can be found below.
Pre-OKCon2011 CKAN Workshop
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 from 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM (GMT+0100)
A chance to get hands-on with the technical side of working with CKAN. In each session, a core CKAN developer will talk through the aspect, giving a live demo. Subjects will cover installing CKAN, through customising its theme and forms and go on to extending it in several ways. We welcome participants bringing a laptop and having a go with the examples provided, or work on your own stuff, whilst drawing on the support of CKAN developers.
Workshop leaders: James Gardner, David Read
Sessions will cover:
- using the API
- installing a CKAN instance
- theming CKAN
- introduction to the architecture
- form customisation
- writing extensions
- CKAN core code sprint (participants pairing up with core devs)
To register for the workshop, please use the event’s eventbrite page
Getting Involved with OpenSpending
Wednesday, June 29, 2011 from 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM (GMT+0100)
The workshop will deliver in-depth working sessions on the features of OpenSpending. We will work with EU spending data, modelling, visualizing and exploring interesting features of the data. The workshop is aimed at journalists, researchers, developers and anyone else who’s interested in public spending!
Workshop leader: Friedrich Lindenberg
Working sessions will include:
- Financial data types, sources & acquisition, refinement
- Visualization, analysis and exploration of data
- Contextualising the data: story telling and analysis
To register for the workshop, please use the event’s eventbrite page.
For any queries regarding the workshops please contact: daniel [dot] dietrich [at] okfn [dot] org
April 19, 2011 in Events, OKF, OKF Projects, Open Data, Open Government Data, Open/Closed, Press, Releases, Visualization, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data, Where Does My Money Go, Working Groups
Over the past 48 hours or so we’ve been busy loading 12 years of Italian spending data into Open Spending. Further details on the project and the data are below.
This project was put together by Stefano Costa, Friedrich Lindenberg, Luca Nicotra, Angelo Centini, Elena Donnari, Diego Galli, and countless other passers by at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (which I spoke at on Saturday).
What is this?
What is the Open Spending project?
The Open Spending project aims to make it easier for the public to explore and understand government spending. It came out of Where Does My Money Go?, an award winning project which enables people to see how UK public funds are spent. Open Spending is currently working with groups and individuals in over 20 countries to set up an international database on public spending.
What is the story behind the Italian Open Spending project?
A small group of developers, journalists, civil servants and others collaborated to load the Italian data into the platform on a 48 hour sprint, starting at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, finishing at a conference on open government in Rome.
Where will the project be launched?
The project will be launched at a major conference on open government hosted at the Italian parliament in Rome on April 19th. This will bring together journalists, politicians, developers, designers, entrepreneurs, academics, civic society organisations, and representatives from public bodies to discuss the future of open government data in Italy.
How is Italian government spending data produced?
There are three separate levels of government (i) central administrations (government departments), (ii) regional administrations (20 regions and 2 autonomous provinces), and (iii) and local administrations (over 8,000 munipalities, plus 100+ provinces and mountain communities).
Spending documents and datasets are produced at each of these three layers – and are published on a variety of different governement websites. These are aggregated, analysed and republished by a variety of different public bodies for a variety of different purposes.
Where is the data from and where can I get it from?
What is the Regional Public Accounts (RPA) project?
The Regional Public Accounts (RPA) project provides an overview of spending from all of these layers of government from a single place, and consolidates spending flows between these different layers to provide a consistent, harmonised picture of the total public expenditure.
This work is executed by a unit based at the Department for Development and Economic Cohesion, which is supported by 21 units located in each region.
What time period does it cover?
The data that is currently loaded covers the period from 1996 to 2008.
How granular is the data?
To illustrate this with an example: the data will not tell you how many computers were bought for a school, and how much they each cost. But it will tell you how much was spent on personnel, educational support to households, or construction and maintenance in the school sector in a given region, and by which level of government the money was spent.
Dove vanno i nostri soldi?
Cos’è questo progetto?
Cos’è il progetto Open Spending?
Il progetto Open Spending mira a rendere piu’ semplice per il pubblico esplorare e comprendere la spesa pubblica. Deriva dal progetto Where Does My Money Go? un progetto vincitori di premi che permette di vedere come sono spesi i fondi pubblici della Gran Bretagna. Open Spending in questo momento sta lavorando con gruppi ed individui in più di 20 paesi per realizzare un database internazione sulla spesa pubblica.
Qual’è la storia del progetto italiano di Open Spending?
Un piccolo gruppo di sviluppatori, giornalisti, impiegati pubblici e altri hanno collaborato a caricare i dati italiani in una piattaforma in una corsa di 48 ore, iniziando al Festival Internazionale di Perugia, e finendo ad una conferenza sulla trasparenza e il governo aperto a Roma.
Dove sarà presentato il progetto?
Il progetto sarà lanciato in una importante conferenza sull’Open Governemnt intitolata “La Politica della Trasparenza e dei Dati Aperti” ospitata dal parlamento italiano a Roma il 19 Aprile. Un evento che radunerà giornalisti, politici, sviluppatori, imprenditori, accademici, organizzazioni della società civile, e rappresentanti del settore pubblico, per discutere del futuro dell’Open Government e dei dati aperti in Italia.
Come sono prodotti i dati sui conti pubblici italiani?
Ci sono tre diversi livelli di governo (i) le amministrazioni centrali (ii) le amministrazioni regionali (20 regioni e 2 provincie autonome) e (iii) le amministrazioni locali (oltre 8000 comuni, oltre 100 provincie e comunità montane).
I documenti di spesa sono prodotti da ognuno dei livelli di governo e sono pubblicati sui siti istituzionali delle varie amministrazioni centrali e locali.
Tali documenti e dati vengono aggregati, analizzati e ripubblicati da molte differenti amminsitrazioni per diveri scopi.
Da dove provengono i dati?
I dati provengono dal progetto Conti Pubblici Territoriali. I dati sono già online su un sito dedicato, dove vengono aggiornati annualmente. Potete trovare questi dati qui.
Cosa sono i Conti Pubblici Territoriali?
Il progetto Conti Pubblici Territoriali (CPT) fornisce una visione d’insieme delle spese di tutti questi livelli di governo, e consolida i flussi di spesa tra questi diversi livelli per fornire un’immagine consistente e secondo una classificazione armonizzata della spesa pubblica italiana.
Questo lavoro è svolto da una unità basata al Dipartimento dello Sviluppo e della Coesione Economica, che è supportato da 21 unità regionali.
Che periodo coprono i dati?
I dati coprono attualmente il periodo dal 1996 al 2008.
Quanto sono granulari i dati?
Per spiegarlo con un esempio: i dati non forniscono dettagli su quanti computer siano stati acquistati per una scuola, o quanto costi ciascuno di essi. Ma diranno quanto viene speso per il personale, per il materiale di supporto all’educazione, o per la costruzione e la manutenzione nel settore scolastico in una data regione, e per ogni livello di governo.
The Open Knowledge Foundation is looking for really good Python web developers to join our organisation to work on CKAN, our open source web-based catalogue system built on Pylons, and Where Does My Money Go? our open-source web application for exploring government spending.
As you may already know, CKAN allows users to submit, search and find open data packages. As well as powering ckan.net, CKAN software also helps run the UK Government’s data.gov.uk site and it also powers over 20 other catalogues around the world with more on the way in Norway, Holland and Finland. Providing central places where people can register, find, and download datasets is a key part of building the web of data.
The Open Knowledge Foundation is a great place to work. It’s a small team, so there’s opportunity to make a big difference. There’s always lots of stuff going on; interesting people popping in and out all the time; some press exposure; some activism; quite a broad remit; and open-ended possibilities. In keeping with the spirit of the organisation, you can find out a lot about the different projects using Google.
Week to week, work in the CKAN team generally involves a Monday morning team catch-up via Skype where we each update other team members on what we achieved the previous week and the areas we plan to work on during the coming week. There are often discussions on our mailing lists about new functionality that has been suggested by someone in the community or new features required by a particular organisation. The tasks are then broken down into tickets on our trac so that the community can see what we are planning.
At the moment the team includes James Gardner, Nils Toedtmann, Friedrich Lindenberg, David Read, Seb Bacon, Will Waites and others. Between us we have skills in Python, Pylons, PostgreSQL, SQLAlchemy, Genshi, Solr, AMQP, cloud server deployments, project management, analysis and design, the semantic web and RDF. The more of these you have experience with the better but Python, Pylons, SQLAlchemy, PostgreSQL, the web (including REST) are pretty essential. In other words, we are looking for more than your typical code monkey.
The work is varied and interesting but here’s a snapshot of the sort of things we are doing this month:
- Creating a JSON-P data proxy API to allow browser-based mashups to be build directly against data in CKAN
- Providing facilities for geo-spatial data and the ability to harvest information from INSPIRE metadata records as part of the UK Location Programme
- Moving functionality into extension packages so that the codebase can continue to be maintainable whilst supporting many different customers
- Refactoring the tests so that they pass very quickly, facilitating a more test-driven approach
- Building a more community-focussed site at ckan.org and making it easier to run CKAN instances
- Changing the data.gov.uk site to help sepearate the concepts of data owners and organisations which help make the data available
If you are a really good developer with a keen interest in open data, and enjoy working with open source, we’d love to hear from you. Whilst we are a not-for-profit we recognise the value really good developers can bring to a team and your pay would reflect this. It would be great if you were based in London but remote working is perfectly acceptable too. We have team members in Berlin, Gloucester and Edinburgh as well as London.
To find out more about CKAN you can clone the CKAN mercurial repository from ckan.org, follow the latest install README, browse the mailing list archives or try submitting any real data sets you know of to ckan.net.
To learn more about the Open Knowledge Foundation visit http://okfn.org.
To apply for the position please send your CV or blog URL to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll take it from there. We are flexible on employee versus contractor but we normally contract.
Also if you know of any excellent Python developers who you think may be interested in this position, please forward them this post.
As you may have seen, last week the OKF launched a new mini project called WhereAreTheCuts.org. Created by by Jordan Hatch and Richard Pope, the site enables UK citizens to find and report spending cuts near them. It had a pretty enthusiastic reception, and was picked up by the Telegraph and several local news sources.
We are now looking for people who might be interested in creating a similar service to map the cuts in other countries. If you might be interested, please either leave a comment below, or come and say hello on the the wdmmg-discuss list!
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
When I saw the COINS data that was published at the beginning of June, I suspected there was something missing.
I was therefore expecting to see the local council assets and accruals data of the sort that is recorded in the L-packs as well as central government spending captured annually in the C-packs. But it wasn’t there.
I conducted some more investigation, speaking to the team at the Whole Of Government accounts. There team is really quite small — only two people in Communities and Local Government WGA team and five or six people in the Treasury — but they do an amazing job of documenting all public assets and accruals. What is more, they have been running it every year for 10 years, each year gathering a detailed picture of local authorities financial health.
Anyway, based on my existing knowledge and my conversations with the WGA team and others, I can now confidently confirm the WGA is completely absent from the COINS data that was released. This means there is no reporting of local authority’s spending in COINS. A report from the WGA is planned spring next year. But I believe this will be at a very high level of detail — the sum of the whole government’s assets and accurals, not the details of individual authorities and departments.
I have requested the 2008/2009 WGA data, with the Department of Health and the Department of Defence data removed, as I believe these two departments may have failed the relevant audit.
Now we’ll wait to see what happens.