Maxwell pic Councillor Liam Maxwell, the Lead Member for  Policy and Performance, on the next stage of the transparency agenda at Windsor and Maidenhead Council.

We believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and we have shown that it works. Our transparency initiative goes straight to the bottom line – and it will help us reduce council tax year on year.

Transparency can make a huge difference in government because it is not just about rooting out wild overspends or endless confrontation about costs, although of course the obvious excesses must be dealt with; rather, it is about giving people an easy ability to see how Government is operating.

But once you have gone through the obvious and straightforward, many of the sustainable cost savings we need to generate come through changing peoples' behaviour: to become more cost effective, to continually recognise and eliminate even small amounts of waste.

That requires personal responsibility and that requires visibility of the problem – hence our push for transparency.

The Transparency Initiative

The Royal Borough Windsor & Maidenhead council has embarked on a process of continuing, increasing transparency and openness.

Some of the initiatives are:

  •  Procurement: every piece of expenditure over £500 is published (except things like individual residents' payments for personal care).
  • Smart Metering allows residents to see, in real time, how much power is being used in public buildings – you can see this in action here.
  • Tables are published of what meetings Councillors attended and which they missed.
  • We've expanded the number of Overview and Scrutiny Committees from one to five and every Cabinet decision has to be commented on by them.
  • Expenses: every expense claim by councillors is published, no matter how small.

While these have been deployed we’ve just signed off an online portal for residents which will launch early in 2010. This will provide a single access point for information for all our residents. Council data, from school catchment areas to planning applications, from viewing nearby licensing applications to being able to report potholes. We’ll put as much information online as we can in an open source platform that will give an unprecedented level of openness to the workings of the Government of the Royal Borough.

Why are we doing this?

We believe that by being open we will receive more open communication back from our residents, which means we can meet their needs more effectively.

When we installed the energy smart meters our consumption went down by 15% overnight. Our colleagues have told us that the transparency of our systems – our energy usage graphs are updated every half hour on the web – helped them remember to turn off equipment every night. Knowing the data is there is enough of an incentive.

When we published every item of expenditure over £500 online we were told that suppliers would walk away. None of them have. We were told it would be very difficult to get the data but our finance team produced it in under an hour. We were told there would be innumerable enquiries to give us an huge administrative burden – there have only been a small number.

At bottom we believe that cost transparency helps all of us eliminate waste – because if we can all see it we can all do something about it. Only the reckless can see waste and do nothing.

There’s a lesson in here for central government spending too.  In areas where spending has been chronically opaque – take the huge IT contracts Labour has signed – a dose of transparency would be very welcome. Under a future Conservative government such contracts should not only be smaller, but they should be open and transparent.

And, this should be done retrospectively.

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