Videoing council meetings redux: progress on two fronts

Tonight, hyperlocal bloggers (and in fact any ordinary members of the public) got two great boosts in their access to council meetings, and their ability to report on them.

Windsor & Maidenhead this evening passed a motion to allow members of the public to video the council meetings. This follows on from my abortive attempt late last year to video one of W&M’s council meeting – see the full story here, video embedded below – following on from the simple suggestion I’d made a couple of months ago to let citizens video council meetings. I should stress that that attempt had been pre-arranged with a cabinet member, in part to see how it would be received – not well as it turned out. But having pushed those boundaries, and with I dare say a bit of lobbying from the transparency minded members, Windsor & Maidenhead have made the decision to fully open up their council meetings.

Separately, though perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the Department for Communities & Local Government tonight issued a press release which called on councils across the country to fully open up their meetings to the public in general and hyperlocal bloggers in particular.

Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.

To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the ‘citizen journalist’ as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.

Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.

The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.

Importantly, the letter also tells councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements, which was the reason I was given for W&M prohibiting me filming.

So, hyperlocal bloggers, tweet, photograph and video away. Do it quietly, do it well, and raise merry hell in your blogs and local press if you’re prohibited, and maybe we can start another scoreboard to measure the progress. To those councils who videocast, make sure that the videos are downloadable under the Open Government Licence, and we’ll avoid the ridiculousness of councillors being disciplined for increasing access to the democratic process.

And finally if we can collectively think of a way of tagging the videos on Youtube or Vimeo with the council and meeting details, we could even automatically show them on the relevant meeting page on OpenlyLocal.


Videoing council meetings revisited: the limits of openness in a transparent council

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the ridiculous situation of a local councillor being hauled up in front of the council’s standards committee for posting a council webcast onto YouTube, and worse, being found against (note: this has since been overturned by the First Tier Tribunal for Local Government Standards, but not without considerable cost for the people of Brighton).

At the time I said we should make the following demand:

Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.

Step forward councillor Liam Maxwell from the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who as the cabinet member for transparency has a personal mission to make RBWM the most transparent council in the country. I don’t see why you couldn’t do that our council, he said.

So, last night, I headed over to Maidenhead for the scheduled council meeting to test this out, and either provide a shining example for other councils, or show that even the most ‘transparent’ council can’t shed the pomposity and self-importance that characterises many council meetings, and allow proper open access.

The video below, less than two minutes long, is the result, and as you can see, they chose the latter course:

Interestingly, when asked why videoing was not allowed, they claimed ‘Data Protection’, the catch-all excuse for any public body that doesn’t want to publish, or open up, something. Of course, this is nonsense in the context of a public meeting,  and where all those being filmed were public figures who were carrying out a civic responsibility.

There’s also an interesting bit to the end when a councillor answered that they were ‘transparent’ in response to the observation that they were supposed to be open. This is the same old you-can-look-but-don’t touch attitude that has characterised much of government’s interactions with the public (and works so well at excluding people from the process). Perhaps naively, I was a little shocked to hear this from this particular council.

So there you have it. That, I guess, is where the boundaries of transparency lies at Windsor & Maidenhead. Why not test them out at your council, and perhaps we can start a new scoreboard at OpenlyLocal to go with the open data scoreboard,  and the 10:10 council scoreboard


Not the way to build a Big Society: part1 NESTA

I took a very frustrating phone call earlier today from NESTA, an organisation I’ve not had any dealings with it before, and don’t actually have a view about it, or at least didn’t.

It followed from an email I’d received a couple of days earlier, which read:

I am contacting you about a project NESTA  are currently working on in partnership with the Big Society Network called Your Local Budget.

Working with 10 pioneer local authorities, we are looking at how you can use participatory budgeting to develop new ways to give people a say in how mainstream local budgets are spent. Alongside this we will also be developing an online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

We would like to share our thinking and get your thoughts on the online tool to get a sense of what is needed and where we can add value. You are invited to a round table discussion on Friday 19 November, 11am – 12.30pm at NESTA that will be chaired by Philip Colligan, Executive Director of the Public Services Lab. Following the meeting we intend to issue an invitation to tender for the online tool.

Apart from the short notice & terrible timing (it clashes with the Open Government Data Camp, to which you’d hope most of the people involved would be going), the main question I had was this:

Why?

I got the phone call because I couldn’t make the round table, and for some feedback, and this was the feedback I gave: I don’t understand why this is being done. At all.

Putting aside the participatory budgeting part (although this problem seems to be getting dealt with by Redbridge council and YouGov, whose solution is apparently being offered to all councils), there’s the question of the “online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

Excuse me? Most of the data hasn’t been published yet, there are several known organisations and groups (including OpenlyLocal) that have publicly stated they going to to be importing this data and doing things with it – visualising it, and allowing different views and analysis. Additionally, OpenlyLocal is already talking with several newspaper groups to help them re-use the data, and we are constantly evolving how we match and present the data.

Despite this, Nesta seems to have decided that it’s going to spend public money on coming up with a tendered solution to solve a problem that may be solved for zero cost by the private sector. Now I’m no roll-back-the-government red-in-tooth-and-claw free marketeer, but this is crazy, and I said as much to the person from Nesta.

Is the roundtable to decide whether the project should be done, or what should be done? I asked. The latter I was told. So, they’ve got some money and  have decided they’re going to spend it, even though the need may not be there. At a time when welfare payments are being cut, essential services are being slashed, for this sort of thing to happen is frankly outrageous.

There are other concerns here too – I personally think websites such as this are not suitable for a tender process, as that doesn’t encourage or often even allow the sort of agile, feedback-led process that produces the best websites. They also favour those who make their living by tendering.

So, Nesta, here’s a suggestion. Park this idea for 12 months, and in the meantime give the money back to the government. If you want to act as an angel funding then act as such (and the ones I’ve come across don’t do tendering). A reminder, your slogan is ‘making innovation flourish’, but sometimes that means stepping back and seeing what happens. This is not the way to building a Big Society


Open data, fraud… and some worrying advice

One of the most commonly quoted concerns about publishing public data on the web is the potential for fraud – and certainly the internet has opened up all sorts of new routes to fraud, from Nigerian email scams, to phishing for bank accounts logins, to key-loggers to indentity theft.

Many of these work using two factors – the acceptance of things at face value (if it looks like an email from your bank, it is an email from them), and flawed processes designed to stop fraud but which inconvenience real users while making life easy from criminals.

I mention this because of some pending advice from the Local Government Association to councils regarding the publication of spending data, which strikes me as not just flawed, but highly dangerous and an invitation to fraudsters.

The issue surrounds something that may seem almost trivial, but bear with me – it’s important, and it’s off such trivialities that fraudsters profit.

In the original guidance for councils on publishing spending data we said that councils should publish both their internal supplier IDs and the supplier VAT numbers, as it would greatly aid the matching of supplier names to real-world companies, charities and other organisations, which is crucial in understanding where a local council’s money goes.

When the Local Government Association published its Guidance For Practitioners it removed those recommendations in order to prevent fraud. It has also suggested using the internal supplier ID as a unique key to confirm supplier identity. This betrays a startling lack of understanding, and worse opens up a serious vector to allow criminals to defraud councils of large sums of money.

Let’s take the VAT numbers first. The main issue here appears to be so-called missing trader fraud, whereby VAT is fraudulently claimed back from governments. Now it’s not clear to me that by publishing VAT numbers for supplier names that this fraud is made easier, and you would think the Treasury who recommend publishing the VAT numbers for suppliers in their guidance (PDF) would be alert to this (I’m told they did check with HMRC before issuing their guidance).

However, that’s not the point. If it’s about matching VAT numbers to supplier names there’s already several routes for doing this, with the ability to retrieve tens of thousands of them in the space of an hour or so, including this one:

http://www.google.co.uk/#sclient=psy&hl=en&q=%27vat+number+gb%27+site:com

Click on that link and you’ll get something like this:

Whether you’re a programmer or not, you should be able to see that it’s a trivial matter to go through those thousands of results and extract the company name and VAT number, and bingo, you’ve got that which the LGA is so keen for you not to have. So those who are wanting to match council suppliers don’t get the help a VAT number would give, and fraudsters aren’t disadvantaged at all.

Now, let’s turn to the rather more serious issue of internal Supplier IDs. Let me make it clear here, when matching council or central government suppliers, internal Supplier IDs are useful, make the job easier, and the matching more accurate, and also help with understanding how much in total redacted payees are receiving (you’d be concerned if a redacted person/company received £100,000 over the course of a year, and without some form of supplier ID you won’t know that). However, it’s not some life-or-death battle over principle for me.

The reason the LGA, however, is advising councils not to publish them is much more serious, and dangerous. In short, they are proposing to use the internal Supplier ID as a key to confirm the suppliers identity, and so allow the supplier to change details, including the supplier bank account (the case brought up here to justify this was the recent one of South Lanarkshire, which didn’t involve any information published as open data, just plain old fraudster ingenuity).

Just think about that for a moment, and then imagine that it’s the internal ID number they use for you in connection with paying your housing benefits. If you want to change your details, say you wanted to pay the money into a different bank account, you’d have to quote it – and just how many of us would have somewhere both safe to keep it and easy to find (and what about when you separated from your partner).

Similarly, where and how do we really think suppliers are going to keep this ID (stuck on a post-it note to the accounts receivable’s computer screen?), and what happens when they lose it? How do they identify themselves to find out what it is, and how will a council go about issuing a new one should the old one be compromised – is there any way of doing this except by setting up a new supplier record, with all the problems that brings.

And how easy would it be to do a day or two’s temping in a council’s accounts department and do a dump/printout of all the Supplier IDs, and then pass them onto fraudsters. The possibilities – for criminals – are almost limitless, and the Information Commissioner’s Office should put a stop to this at once if it is not to lose a serious amount of credibility.

But there’s an bigger underlying issue here, and it’s not that organisations such as the LGA don’t get data (although that is a problem), it’s that such bodies think that by introducing processes they can engineer out all risk, and that leads to bad decisions. Tell someone that suppliers changing bank accounts is very rare and should always be treated with suspicion and fraud becomes more difficult; tell someone that they should accept internal supplier IDs as proof of identity and it becomes easy.

Government/big-company bureaucrats not only think like government/big-company bureaucrats, they build processes that assumes everyone else does. The problem is that that both makes more difficult for ordinary citizens (as most encounters with bureaucracy make clear), and also makes it easy for criminals (who by definition don’t follow the rules).


Opening up council accounts… and open procurement

Since OpenlyLocal started pulling in council spending data, it’s niggled at me that it’s only half the story. Yes, as more and more data is published you’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of who’s paid what. And if councils publish it at a sufficient level of detail and consistently categorised, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s spent on too.

However, useful though that is, that’s like taking a peak at a company’s bank statement and thinking it tells the whole story. Many of the payments relate to goods or services delivered some time in the past, some for things that have not yet been delivered, and there are all sorts of things (depreciation, movements between accounts, accruals for invoices not yet received) that won’t appear on there.

That’s what the council’s accounts are for — you know, those impenetrable things locked up in PDFs in some dusty corner of the council’s website, all sufficiently different from each other to make comparison difficult:

For some time, the holy grail for projects like OpenlyLocal and Where Does My Money Go has been to get the accounts in a standardized form to make comparison easy not just for accountants but for regular people too.

The thing is, such a thing does exist, and it’s sent by councils to central Government (the Department for Communities and Local Government to be precise) for them to use in their own figures. It’s a fairly hellishly complex spreadsheet called the Revenue Outturn form that must be filled in by the council (to get an idea have a look at the template here).

They’re not published anywhere by the DCLG, but they contain no state secrets or sensitive information; it’s just that the procedure being followed is the same one as they’ve always followed, and so they are not published, even after the statistics have been calculated from the data (the Statistics Act apparently prohibit publication until the stats have been published).

So I had an idea: wouldn’t it be great if we could pull the data that’s sitting in all these spreadsheets into a database and so allow comparison between councils’ accounts, thus freeing it from those forgotten corners of government computers.

This would seem to be a project that would be just about simple enough to be doable (though it’s trickier than it seems) and could allow ordinary people to understand their council’s spending in all sorts of ways (particularly if we add some of those sexy Where Does My Money Go visualisations). It could also be useful in ways that we can barely imagine  – some of the participatory budget experiments going in on in Redbridge and other councils would be even more useful if the context of similar councils spending was added to the mix.

So how would this be funded. Well, the usual route would be for DCLG or perhaps the one of the Local Government Association bodies such as IDeA to scope out a proposal, involving many hours of meetings, reams of paper, and running up thousands of pounds in costs, even before it’s started.

They’d then put the process out to tender, involving many more thousands in admin, and designed to attract those companies who specialise in tendering for public sector work. Each of those would want to ensure they make a profit, and so would work out how they’re going to do it before quoting, running up their own costs, and inflating the final price.

So here’s part two of my plan, instead going down that route, I’d come up with a proposal that would:

  • be a fraction of that cost
  • be specified on a single sheet of paper
  • paid for only if I delivered

Obviously there’s a clear potential conflict of interest here – I sit on the government’s Local Public Data Panel and am pushing strongly for open data, and also stand to benefit (depending on how good I am at getting the information out of those hundreds of spreadsheets, each with multiple worksheets, and matching the classification systems). The solution to that – I think – is to do the whole thing transparently, hence this blog post.

In a sense, what I’m proposing is that I scope out the project, solving those difficult problems of how to do it, with the bonus of instead of delivering a report, I deliver the project.

Is it a good thing to have all this data imported into a database, and shown not just on a website in a way non-accountants can understand, but also available to be combined with other data in mashups and visualisations? Definitely.

Is it a good deal for the taxpayer, and is this open procurement a useful way of doing things? Well you can read the proposal for yourself here, and I’d be really interested in comments both on the proposal and the novel procurement model.


A simple demand: let us record council meetings

A couple of months ago we had the ridiculous situation of a local council hauling up one of their councillors in front of a displinary hearing for posting videos of the council meeting on YouTube.

The video originated from the council’s own webcasts, and the complaint by Councillor Kemble was that in posting these videos on YouTube, another councillor, Jason Kitcat

(i) had failed to treat his fellow councillors with respect, by posting the clips without the prior knowledge or express permission of Councillor Theobald or Councillor Mears; and
(ii) had abused council facilities by infringing the copyright in the webcast images

and in doing so had breached the Members Code of Conduct.

Astonishingly, the standards committee found against Kitcat and ruled he should be suspended for up to six months if he does not write an apology to Cllr Theobald and submit to re-training on the roles and responsibilities of being a councillor, and it is only the fact that he is appealing to the First-Tier Tribunal (which apparently the council has decided to fight using hire outside counsel) that has allowed him to continue.

It’s worth reading the investigator’s report (PDF, of course) in full for a fairly good example of just how petty and ridiculous these issues become, particularly when the investigator writes things such as:

I consider that Cllr Kitcat did use the council’s IT facilities improperly for political purposes. Most of the clips are about communal bins, a politically contentious issue at the time. The clips are about Cllr Kitcat holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced, and were intended to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard, based on feedback from certain residents.
Most tellingly, clip no. 5 shows the Cabinet Member responsible for communal bins in an unflattering and politically unfavourable light, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this highly abridged clip was selected and posted for political gain.

The using IT facilities, refers, by the way, not to using the council’s own computers to upload or edit the videos (it seems agreed by all that he used his own computer for this), but the fact that the webcasts were made and published on the web using the council’s equipment (or at least those of its supplier, Public-i). Presumably it he’d taken an extract from the minutes of a meeting published on the council’s website that would also have been using the council’s IT resources.

However, let’s step back a bit. This, ultimately, is not about councillors not understanding the web, failing to get get new technology and the ways it can open up debate. This is not even about the somewhat restrictive webcasting system which apparently only has the past six month’s meetings and is somewhat unpleasant to use (particularly if you use a Mac, or Linux — see a debate of the issues here).

This is about councillors failing to understand democracy, about the ability to taking the same material and making up your own mind, and critically trying to persuade others of that view.

In fact the investigator’s statement above, taking “a politically contentious issue at the time… holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced… to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard” is surely a pretty good benchmark for a democracy.

So here’s simple suggestion for those drawing up the local government legislation at the moment, no let’s make that a demand, since that’s what it should be in a democracy (not a subservient request to your ‘betters’):

Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.

Not only would this open up council meetings and their obscure committees to wider scrutiny, it would also be a boost to hyperlocal sites that are beginning to take the place of the local media.

And if councils want to go to the expense of webcasting their meetings, then require them to make the webcasts available to download under an open licence. That way people can share them, convert them into open formats that don’t require proprietary software, subtititle them, and yes, even post them on YouTube.

I can already hear local politicians saying it will reduce the quality of political discourse, that people may use it in ways they don’t like and can’t control.

Does this seem familiar? It should. It’s the same arguments being given against publishing raw data. The public won’t understand. There may be different interpretations. How will people use it?

Well, folks that’s the point of a democracy. And that’s the point of a data democracy. We can use it in any way we damn well please. The public record is not there to make incumbent councillors or senior staff memebers look good. It’s there to allow the to be held to account. And to allow people to make up their own minds. Stop that, and you’re stopping democracy.

Links: For more posts relating to this case, see also Jason Kitcat’s own blog postsBrighton Argus post, and posts form Mark Pack at Liberal Democrat voice, Jim Killock,  Conservative Home, and even a tweet from Local Government minister Grant Shapps.


Drawing up the Local Spending Data guidelines… and how Google Docs saved the day

Last Thursday, the Local Public Data Panel on which I sit approved the final draft of the guidelines for publishing by councils of their spending over £500 (version 1.0 if you like). These started back in June, with a document Will Perrin and I drew up in response to a request from Camden council, and attracted a huge number of really helpful comments.

Since then, things have moved on a bit. The loose guidelines were fine as a starting point, especially as at that time we were talking theoretically, and hadn’t really had any concrete situations or data to deal with, but from speaking to councils, and actually using the data it became clear the something much firmer was needed.

What followed then was the usual public sector drafting nightmare, with various Word documents being emailed around, people getting very territorial, offline conversations, and frankly something that wasn’t getting very far.

However, a week beforehand I’d successfully used a shared Google Spreadsheet to free up a similar problem. In that case there were a bunch of organisations (including OpenlyLocal, the Local Government Association and Department for Communities and Local Government) that needed an up-to-date list of councils publishing spending data, together with the licence, URL and whether it was machine-readable (Basically what Adrian Short was doing here at one time – I’d asked him if he wanted to do it, but he didn’t have the time to keep his up-to-date.) In addition, it was clear that we each knew about councils the others didn’t.

The answer could have been a dedicated web app, a Word document that was added to and emailed around (actually that’s what started to happen). In the end, it was something much simpler – a Google spreadsheet with edit access given to multiple people. I used the OpenlyLocal API to populate the basic structure (including OpenlyLocal URLs, which mean that anyone getting the data via the API, or as a CSV would have a place they could query for more data), and bingo, it was sorted.

So given this success, Jonathan Evans from the LGA and  I agreed to use the Google Docs approach with the spending guidelines. There are multiple advantages to this, but some are particularly relevant for tackling such a problem:

  • We can all work on the document at the same time, messaging each others as we go, avoiding the delays, arguments and territoriality of the document emailing approach.
  • The version tracking means that all your changes, not just those of the saved version are visible to all participants (and to people who subsequently become participants). This seems to lead to a spirit of collaboration rather than position-taking, and at least on this occasion avoided edit-wars.
  • The world can see the product of your work, without having to separately publish it (though see note below)

You can also automatically get the information as data, either through the Google Docs API or more likely in the case of a spreadsheet particularly, as a CSV file. Construct it with this in mind (i.e. 1 header row), and you’ve got something that can be instantly used in mashups and visualisations.

    Important note 1: The biggest problem with this approach in central government is Internet Explorer 6, which the Department of Communities & Local Government are stuck on and have no plans to upgrade. This means the approach only works when people are prepared to make the additions at home, or some other place that have a browser less than 9 years old.

    Important note 2: Despite having put together the spending scoreboard spreadsheet, we were hopeless at telling the wider world about it, meaning that Simon Rogers at the Guardian ended up duplicating much of the work. Interestingly he was missing some that we knew about, and vice versa, and I’ve offered him edit access to the main spreadsheet so we can all work together on the same one.

    Important note 3: A smaller but nevertheless irritating problem with Google Documents (and this seems to be true of Word and OpenOffice too) is that when they contain tables you get a mess of inaccessible HTML, with the result that when the spending guidance was put on the Local Public Data Panel website, the HTML had to be largely rewritten from scratch (by one of the data.gov.uk stars late at night). So Google, if you’re listening, please allow an option to export as accessible HTML.


    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.