If you’re still reading this column after almost a year and a half, you must either like – or be impervious to – my repeated and enthusiastic comments about local government transparency. That’s fortunate, because I’ve got some more good news about it this week.
Northamptonshire County Council have already started the year well, with their Chief Executive Katherine Kerswell publishing the full details of her pay, perks and expenses back in January.
This week, they invited me and representatives of business and the media to a meeting with their Leader and Chief Executive to discuss how they might pursue full spending transparency in the council.
Inspired by the great example of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, with their scheme for publishing all expenditure over £500, NCC are apparently extremely keen to recognise local taxpayers’ right to know where the council spends their money.
The Northamptonshire scheme is yet to be finalised, but I’m told it could well be in place very shortly. The really encouraging thing was that the council have not simply decided to “go transparent” and then dished out whatever information they see fit, they’ve actually called in people who would make use of it and who have experience of transparency programmes elsewhere, in order to make sure they get it right.
For example, the meeting gave an opportunity for local business people to explain the standards of pay transparency that their shareholders would expect. The local newspaper journalists had the chance to discuss what their readers wanted to find out, and caution the council about the dangers of half-hearted openness, that can raise more questions than it answers.
As a representative of the TPA, it was quite a novel and encouraging experience. To see another council taking the first steps towards the “see-through government” that Tim discussed on Monday was refreshing. More than that, it was a good sign that our work using Freedom of Information, media campaigns and other routes to ramp up the importance of transparency really is working.
The key to achieving political change is not just to show how to do things better, or to cause a rumpus about things being done the wrong way, but to do both. As I was able to explain in Northamptonshire’s County Hall last Wednesday, there are two routes open to councils on transparency.
One choice is to be secretive – in which case voters and the press will distrust you, you will lose votes, opportunities to make savings will be missed and you will spend large amounts answering or fighting Freedom of Information requests. The other is to be transparent – in which case people will be more trusting of your intentions, voters won’t think you have something to hide, everyone will have a better understanding of those legitimate costs involved in running a council, local businesses will certainly contact you to say they can provide you with services at better value and the need for Freedom of Information requests will largely pass.
Ever since Windsor and Maidenhead broke the silence and took their expenditure public, it has been almost inevitable that transparency will spread. Crucially, Northamptonshire is a particularly influential council to have on side in that regard. Katherine Kerswell is also President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE). I should say at this point that I believe SOLACE should either be abolished or funded out of the Chief Executives’ own pockets, but if it is going to exist it is surely good news that its President is in the vanguard of the move towards transparent local government.
Some councils will undoubtedly oppose transparency tooth and nail, but Northamptonshire County Council is a valuable addition to the cause of openness. With just two of the UK’s 450-something councils opening up the books so far, we should remember that this is still only the beginning of the beginning for transparency in the UK – but it is the first pebbles that eventually cause the avalanche.