UK Public Finances Opened Up to Scrutiny
Posted by Suzanne Flynn
Last week, for the first time, the UK Treasury released the Combined On-line Information System—known as COINS—covering millions of individual lines of public sector expenditure. It is one of a raft of Whitehall databases to be made public as part of the new coalition government's commitment to greater openness (salaries of top civil servants earning over £150,000 is another). Naturally, the British press has leapt on some key data from the database: a headline in at least two broadsheets proclaimed that during the past year the (old) government spent 1.8 billion pounds on consultants alone. Easy to criticize the spending, but the detail does not tell us what those consultancy contracts achieved.
The Treasury press notice hailed it as ''the most detailed UK public expenditure data ever released''. However, it also suggested it would be of more interest to ''institutions and experts'' than the ordinary public as the material was ''complex'' and was being released ''in its raw form, requiring technical expertise to process''. My experience confirmed this, I failed to download the main data files (only the adjustment files which then had to be uploaded into MS Access to be meaningful), it seems the main file is too large for my PC to cope with, once downloaded the files are in access of 500Mb. The Treasury has helpfully provided a 31 page guidance note and a promise that more directly useful and accessible datasets that draw on the contents of the COINS databases will be available from August this year. Already software companies have developed solutions to enable easy access and data manipulation.
The data contains:
• the authorized departmental spending,
• the outturn for completed financial years and
• a forecast outturn (estimated actuals for months that have ended) and forecasts for future months.
The Coins data is the raw data used by the Treasury to support fiscal management, the production of Parliamentary Supply Estimates and public expenditure statistics, the Whole of Government Accounts. Up to nine years of active data are actively maintained, five historic, or outturn years the current year and up to three future years depending on the timing of the latest spending review. The data does not include individual transactions, it is based on returns of aggregate data from central government departments, derived from the departments own accounting systems. Detailed information on payments to individual suppliers is not available through COINS but it can be accessed if a specific request is made under the Freedom of Information Act.
Slightly concerning is the caveat in the guidance that you may not be able to reproduce the published data from the COINS dataset, because of classification changes, timing differences and because "not all data used to calculate these numbers are sources from COINS". I would like to see some explanation of the differences between the raw data in COINS and the published data in future releases to allow reconciliation with the published documents to avoid accusations of sanitization. After all, it is only in the published annual reports that we can see some interpretation of the results of that expenditure.
Releasing this round of data may not be completely politically neutral: when “unpopular” lines of expenditure catch the public eye, the blame may fall on the opposition side of parliament where the purse strings were controlled until very recently. A measure of outrage about wasteful expenditure could also be a positive help in preparing the way for the tough spending review due in the autumn, particularly in light of the governments stated intention to involve the public in spending decisions, although quite how this will work in practice remains to be seen.
Overall, this is a huge step forward for transparency, in particular by allowing raw data to be analyzed and manipulated and discussions on public spending to take place.
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