In 2009 Windsor and Maidenhead started to publish the half-hourly readouts from our energy meters online. This small change led to a radical change in behaviour: as soon as it was made public our energy consumption dropped by more than 15%. Overnight.
In early 2009 Windsor and Maidenhead became the first council to publish all spending over £500 online.
As I wrote in November we have since commissioned an online tool that helps turn that raw data into meaningful headings, so that people can see how much we have spent and on what. It’s now in action for us here and you’ll probably hear a lot more about it in the near future.
The tool is a great resource to hold us to account, but it’s also a really effective way for residents and local businesses to see how much we have spent on what – not least because they can propose better and more cost effective solutions.
Transparency lets residents understand what we’re doing on their behalf with their money.
It opens up government to more people and invites their contribution. In the widest sense this can only be better for our government and for our communities – informed local choice is extremely powerful.
We have put our councillors’ expenses and allowances online for years. We publish our major project status online so residents can see the progress, budget implications and risk status of big projects like bridge refurbishments. But all of these steps are ways of breaking into the huge amount of operational and useful data that the council holds.
That’s the wrong way round.
We have shown that transparency helps change behaviour in a positive way. In fact transparency is one of the most powerful tools we have to drive through change, especially in times of adversity.
Transparency helps us identify where better processes can be implemented and was a significant factor in identifying the changes that let us cut council tax by 4% – possibly the biggest tax cut in local government. It helps us introduce better community engagement through our participatory budgeting exercise.
I have the strong feeling that we are just starting to discover how effective a force it can be.
So last night the cabinet agreed a paper that changes the rules of the game in favour of transparency.
We have reset the default position to disclosure.
There will be exceptions (child safeguarding, adult social care, legally prejudicial documents and contracts in negotiation are obvious examples). But everything else is to be disclosed on request and put on the web in machine readable format. Contracts will be scanned in and posted for all to see. We’re inviting those with whom we already have contracts to take part too – it will help so much in giving perspective to future procurement processes.
It will be a difficult cultural change for us all to make – a lot of what is published is still in pdf – but that will change and we believe it is well worth it.
We’ve tried to make it all easy to access so it you’d like to see what we’ve done come to www.rbwm.gov.uk/transparency . Your advice and comments are all very welcome.