I was elected in June 2009 at the height of the MPs expenses scandal and remember very well the real anger we faced on the doorsteps from a rightly angry public who had reached a new level of distrust for politicians.
The Coalition’s transparency agenda is part of the steps needed to rebuild trust in politics. To demonstrate that we spend the public’s money wisely and we are prepared to be open and honest about that.
I have a very simply view of finance in government – the public’s money must be spent wisely and if you don’t have anything to hide then you won’t mind showing the public how you’ve spent it.
At Northamptonshire County Council we have done our upmost to completely promote and implement the principles of transparency across our organisation. This journey started in early in 2010 when we began our transparency programme by publishing our then Chief Executive’s salaries and expenses. This was followed in February 2010 when we consulted with our suppliers, interest groups and the media on our plans to publish online all our spending over £500.
In May 2010 we added the salaries and expenses of the rest of our directors to our publication, plus the job titles, salary bands and actual salaries of 29 further senior officers who report directly to them.
In June 2010 we began our pilot of publishing spend over £500 which culminated in being extended to the entire organisation in August 2010. Although we had achieved a great deal in quite a short space of time, we felt there was still more work to be done. Therefore at the end of last year we began releasing a register of our contracts signed since 1st October 2010, and a register of our operational assets.
Although this asset register is currently in its pilot stage, I believe it will give residents a greater understanding of the work of the County Council on a day-to-day basis and the scale of our organisation.
So far our transparency website receives over one thousand hits a month and is the most visited non-service area on our website.
It currently provides the following information:
- Monthly spending over £500 for the entire authority published both in CSV and PDF format in accordance with the open data initiative.
- The job description, salary and expenses of our Chief Executive and Directors.
- The job title, job description, salary band and actual salary of 29 further senior officers who report directly the Chief Executive or a Director.
- A Council Spending Map which visualises for our residents NCC’s gross expenditure for the current financial year.
- A detailed section on the licensing of our data, explicitly declaring that our data is free for anyone to use under the terms of the Open Government License for public sector information. Clear signposting of this information is one of the reasons why openlylocal.com has NCC listed as one of only 48 local councils (as of 17th January 2011) that has ‘truly open’ data.
- A register of our contracts signed since October 2010, available in CSV and PDF format, and links to our tendering process.
- A register of our operational assets and links to our countywide interactive mapping service.
We are very proud of the package of features we have been able to present to our residents on our transparency website. It is important however that this information is presented in a clear and easily understood way. The creation of our Council Spending Map, and the multimedia elements that have been included, will help those not used to dealing with large amount of complex financial data gain a greater understanding of how we are spending their money.
At Northamptonshire County Council we are fostering a culture and mindset that spreads the principles of transparency and accountability beyond what we publish on our website. We have made innovative and pioneering changes to the way our council is managed.
In October 2010 we launched our widely acclaimed Local Government Shared Services (LGSS) with Cambridgeshire County Council. LGSS sees us share back office functions such as Finance, HR, IT, Procurement, Internal Audit and Legal Services with neighbouring Cambridgeshire will deliver more than £12 million of savings over the next 10 years for the taxpayers of Northamptonshire.
We have also ensured that our Chief Executive’s salary remains at the lowest permissible point of his pay scale. Following the departure of our previous Chief Executive in May 2010, we were able to make an annual saving of over £150k through the internal appointment of a former Corporate Director to the post. This was achieved by entering him at the lower end of the assigned salary range and also by repositioning the way we manage our services, making it unnecessary to fill his previous role with a direct replacement.
These measures to help find the necessary savings in our council exemplify our attitude towards reducing our spending. By continuing to trim our back office expenditure and keeping a tight hold on senior salaries we believe we are leading the way in being a transparent and accountable council.
For me transparency marks an important new phase in the relationship between politicians and the electorate and the start of renewing trust in our political system. I am proud that Northamptonshire County Council is at the forefront of this work and opening up our books to the robust scrutiny of the public that honest politicians should never fear.