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British Gov't Releases Spending Data 89

Posted by timothy
from the let's-play-catch-up dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In a move sure to have transparency activists salivating, the UK government has released some 195,000 lines of data detailing its financial outgoings. The BBC reports that 'All spending of more than £25,000 made between May and September was published — in line with a pre-election commitment by the Conservatives — although some departments also published spending over £500. People are being encouraged to pick through the enormous quantity of online information to spot waste and hold ministers to account.'"
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British Gov't Releases Spending Data

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  • The way to go (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JcMorin (930466) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @10:42AM (#34291068)
    I think that it should be the case for all country all the time, all department should have a drill down budget up the spending. Yes that would add an extra layer but you could remove all the "inspector" and "auditor" because if all data is online, the population and journalism will do that job. Also, many spending will be avoid because they will know it will be fully available online!
    • Yeah, there is no value in professional auditors with experience in spotting sophisticated fraudulent activity. This is why no open source distribution has suffered embarrassingly simple flaws present for months to years.

      I'd like to start off by looking at the drill down funding to the military-industrial complex, particularly security services. Oh, what's that? This is specifically designed to get people to "discover" wastage where the government wants to make cutbacks, so I won't be able to do that?

      • Re:The way to go (Score:4, Informative)

        by mister_dave (1613441) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @11:27AM (#34291280)

        Yeah, there is no value in professional auditors with experience in spotting sophisticated fraudulent activity.

        Well, they don't seem to have made any impact at the EU! [dailymail.co.uk]

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          First off, give a better link than the Daily Mail if you want anyone to take you seriously. Second, you linked to an article about professional auditors finding fraud and waste, not exactly backing your argument too well there.

          • Re:The way to go (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Jurily (900488) <jurily@NOSPam.gmail.com> on Saturday November 20, 2010 @12:57PM (#34291742)

            Second, you linked to an article about professional auditors finding fraud and waste, not exactly backing your argument too well there.

            Assuming the article is factually correct, auditors have found fraud and waste for the last 15 years as well, and nothing happened. Therefore, the audit process itself is ineffective, even though the auditors themselves are not.

            • No, the audit process is fine. It is just that no one with sufficient power wants to do anything about it. Similarly, everyone paying attention knew how MPs would claim excessive expenses, but no major media outlet would make a fuss until the Barclay brothers got fed up with the government pointing the finger at financiers/bankers for all that is wrong in the world.

              And the only information which will be sung about as a result of these publications is information which suits special interests of the sufficie

              • but no major media outlet would make a fuss until the Barclay brothers got fed up with the government pointing the finger at financiers/bankers for all that is wrong in the world.

                No. In the case of the MPs, the story broke because someone sold The Telegraph a CD of the MPs itemised expense claims [thefirstpost.co.uk], and the receipts they used to support their claims.

                ...servicemen on leave between tours were used to provide security at the offices where parliamentary staff were going through all the MPs' expenses claims.

                One o

                • Sigh, welcome to the media.

                  1. The structure of the article may suggest a connection between AnonymousLeaker and Mackay, but doesn't actually assert one, knocking its credibility. He remains AnonymousLeaker;

                  2. Expenses were due for official publication in June 2009 anyway. The slightly early (May) and very media-hyped leak effort could not have been for the reason argued in the article;

                  3. Like I said, you need to focus on the extent to which the news was covered and the time at which it was covered. The pres

                    1. The structure of the article may suggest a connection between AnonymousLeaker and Mackay

                      No it does not. MacKay is a separate story. The leaker is clearly someone else.

                    2. Expenses were due for official publication in June 2009 anyway.

                      The official publication was redacted [bbc.co.uk], there would have been no real scandal. The CD sold to the Telegraph was copies of the originals.

              • by khallow (566160)

                No, the audit process is fine. It is just that no one with sufficient power wants to do anything about it.

                That second sentence, by itself, breaks the audit process. Responding in a useful way to the results of an audit is part of the audit process.

                • No, don't be the stubborn geek mired in a definition game.

                  While the auditing process may include a determination of how well an organisation improved on the criticisms of previous audits, it ends at the report. Just because Computer Engineering 101 likes to create neat little closed loops to demonstrate a feedback cycle (evaluate, improve, evaluate, improve...) it doesn't mean it is appropriate to include "improve" in every process diagram.

                  Why? Because there is separation of privilege/responsibility and the

                  • by khallow (566160)

                    No, don't be the stubborn geek mired in a definition game.

                    While the auditing process may include a determination of how well an organisation improved on the criticisms of previous audits, it ends at the report.

                    I'm not playing the "definition game". I'm just pointing out that you are wrong here.

                    He is not failing when someone doesn't act on his results the way you'd want him to (assuming they make sense).

                    As I pointed out, the auditing process is not just the audit, it is also how the organization responds to the audit. In the EU example, we see that the auditor can successfully issue an audit report, yet the audit be unsuccessful because no one acts on it.

                    In the specific case of the EU we have the people failing to care. Depending on how you look at it, that is either a failure or a success of democracy: the people have prioritised and decided that they don't really care about the level of EU wastage/corruption, as perhaps there are greater things to worry about.

                    Eh, the EU seems to be a technocracy with only a modest amount of democratic input. It's real convenient to blame it all on "the people failing to care". But the game is r

                    • I'm not playing the "definition game". I'm just pointing out that you are wrong here. [...] Eh, the EU seems to be a technocracy with only a modest amount of democratic input.

                      Oh, I see. You're just trying to get away with putting the blame on the wrong people for the EU's problems. In truth the audit process was successful but those requesting the audit did not consider it necessary to follow the recommendations in the report: the people have not used their EU votes to effect change in EU Parliament, nor have they put pressure on their national governments. But it is so much easier to wave it off as a "process failure" by those dictatorial technocrats.

                      As I pointed out, the auditing process is not just the audit, it is also how the organization responds to the audit.

                      You're acting like a child

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      Oh, I see. You're just trying to get away with putting the blame on the wrong people for the EU's problems.

                      I'm succeeding too, because the "wrong people" aren't. I don't understand the point of your accusations. You are simply wrong here. Accusing me of childishness, cognitive shortcomings, or misunderstanding the context of the thread won't change that.

                      Just to repeat one last time, the audit process is never just the audit. Period. There's always a relevant context in which the question "How well are we doing?" is asked. And the context always has an expectation of some sort of corrective action (expectation

                    • You are simply wrong here. [...] And the context always has an expectation of some sort of corrective action

                      I hope the above effectively summarises your mistake: you believe that it is the audit process which effects corrective action, while the audit process is merely there to report on the initial state of affairs and then possibly the response to the report. I've tried to explain this in two different ways already, so I think you're being deliberately childishly stubborn because you don't want to accept responsibility or perhaps accept that you have learned something.

                      It is the parent process, as it were - prob

            • by AmiMoJo (196126)

              Your mistake was assuming that a Daily Mail story is factually correct.

            • by Xest (935314)

              "Assuming the article is factually correct"

              It wont be, it's The Daily Mail.

    • by jhigh (657789)

      I think that it should be the case for all country all the time, all department should have a drill down budget up the spending.

      This part of your post, I absolutely agree with. However, legislators find it very difficult to write these kinds of laws in a way that makes the database effective without technical people being involved. Remember that government is very large and complicated, with lots of moving parts. Also, none of the departments want people to know how they're spending money, because it means accountability. Therefore, the legislation has to be very carefully crafted to keep departments from making data available i

    • Yes that would add an extra layer but you could remove all the "inspector" and "auditor" because if all data is online, the population and journalism will do that job.

      Sure, if you believe that having people look through the data looking for waste (and be assured they'll find it, everything is waste to someone) and journalists looking for sensationalism accomplishes the same job as an inspector or an auditor... Myself, I put that in the same category as believing in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.

    • by madprof (4723)

      This is nonsense. The general public are not well-equipped to work out what is important or not. It is great we can see what is spent, and it is only right. But people can now see that we spent £1000 on a jewel-encrusted dog collar. This looks stupid. The headlines can say we wasted a grand on a dog collar. Aren't we so powerful now, eh?

      Except we waste, literally, millions of times more money than this. I don't care about a dog collar when we are buying a £2.5 billion aircraft carrier that has n

      • I agree with you. Apart from the fact that the public has no way of knowing if items are needed or not, there is also the fact that one person has a different idea of what "waste" is vs another. To me, it's wasteful that we spend billions on the war against drugs, but hey.. others feel differently.

        I'm a little confused about your aircraft carrier comment. One doesn't typically buy warships from the same company that makes aircraft, so why would an aircraft carrier come with aircraft? That's like complai

        • by Simmeh (1320813)
          His point is the MoD lacks the cash to fill it with aircraft, hence it is a wasteful expense.
        • by tehcyder (746570)

          I'm a little confused about your aircraft carrier comment. One doesn't typically buy warships from the same company that makes aircraft, so why would an aircraft carrier come with aircraft? That's like complaining because the garbage truck you just bought isn't filled with garbage.

          No, the UK government in its wisdom has decided to buy aircraft carriers even though we can't afford to buy any aircraft to run off it at the moment. So it is more like buying a garbage truck but not being able to afford diesel to run it or drivers to operate it.

          • Well, there is still some logic to it. It typically takes 2-3 years to build an aircraft carrier, while airplanes can be built within 6 months in most cases. So you want the aircraft carrier to be ready when you're ready to buy the planes, otherwise you have planes without an aircraft carrier.

            Further, one would assume they already have airplanes that could use the carrier if it was needed.

            • by madprof (4723)

              The aircraft carrier deal was done to prop up Glasgow shipyards I suspect. How else to explain a contract that means it costs more *not* to start building the ships than to build them?

    • by DaveGod (703167)

      I think that it should be the case for all country all the time, all department should have a drill down budget up the spending. Yes that would add an extra layer but you could remove all the "inspector" and "auditor" because if all data is online, the population and journalism will do that job. Also, many spending will be avoid because they will know it will be fully available online!

      If I had points I'd mod this funny, though I'm not sure whether it's intentional or just me being a cynical auditor.

      When information is released publicly, controls are certainly not relaxed over it due to some notion that the public will do the work for you. What happens is control is ramped up to absurd levels because to the organisation public examination is not a control - it is a threat. The perceived risk actually becomes much higher. Any organisation puts vastly more controls over a press release than

    • Yes that would add an extra layer but you could remove all the "inspector" and "auditor" because if all data is online

      Do you think auditors just look at the final figures and check that they add up? Or just decide that this ones too low and that one's too high based on the phase of the moon and the wind direction?

      There's a bit more to it than your simplistic view assumes.

      There's also an examination of the processes that calculate the figures and how expenditure is controlled.

      I can only conclude that the n

  • I know the slashdot crowd has this belief that openess and data are a good idea, but will that crowd be willing to change their mind if this turns out to be a bad idea ? What will happen with this flood of data ?
    well, very few people will actually go thru it; those who do are highly motivated - either paid searchers, hired, by say the brit equivalent of the Koch brothers, or cranks, or whatever
    What ever they find, most of it will be unkown unless published by the media
    so , in the end, you don't have this
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mister_dave (1613441)

      I suspect the most dogmatic reviewers will be freelance journalists, looking for a good story to sell.

    • by Marcika (1003625) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @11:27AM (#34291278)

      well, very few people will actually go thru it; those who do are highly motivated - either paid searchers, hired, by say the brit equivalent of the Koch brothers, or cranks, or whatever What ever they find, most of it will be unkown unless published by the media

      The UK equivalent of the Kochs are the Barclay brothers, and they own the media (at least the parts not already owned by Murdoch or the Rothschilds). Their paid searchers occasionally dig up some really interesting material... The 2009 UK parliamentary expenses scandal, for instance, was a nice scoop for the Barclay Brothers' Daily Telegraph...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160)

      so , in the end, you don't have this utopian vision of the citizenry rising up to the task of rooting out fraud and abuse; you have people like the republicans who claimed Obama was spending 200 million dollars a day yelling loudly about their pet peeves...br? I predict this will be a bad thing all round

      I'd take your prediction a little bit more seriously, if you hadn't put knee-jerks about Koch brothers or the Republicans in there. Democracy doesn't have much point to it, if nobody aside from the people in charge knows what's going on. Handing ammunition in the form of knowledge to your opponents is a feature not a bug of this idea. They are after all the ones with the greatest stake in finding legitimate problems.

    • Yeah, I knew the fact that this data was leaked by Conservatives would instantly cause certain people to construct an mental frame such that this act comes out sounding bad. Seen it many, many times, and it doesn't matter what subject it is. Many times, people don't even realize they're doing it, it's just a reflex.
    • I beg to differ.
      There's a wide array of free Data Visualization tools available, which can be used even by non-technical people to build nice looking reports and extract interesting data out of raw stuff. Tableau Public (http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/) is one of them, I used it extensively to understand many datasets - it's free and gets the job done with simplicity.
      The problem resides somewhere else: The datasets are spread in a gazillion files, don't have an unified format, require a lot of work
    • by Nursie (632944)

      Even if nobody looks through it, the data should be available to the citizenry if they want it. This is good in and of itself.

    • I know the slashdot crowd has this belief that openess and data are a good idea,

      Don't confuse good with perfect. Releasing the information is no panacea, just as the principle of "no taxatation without representation" was not a panacea either. But the alternative is much worse.

    • well, very few people will actually go thru it; those who do are highly motivated

      You can bet that people who go through it will be highly motivated indeed, because they will be hired by political opponents of the ruling party, and will be looking hard for anything to raise hell over.

      Which is perfectly fine. Sure, they are biased as hell, but what matters is that they draw attention to the more interesting bits. Once it gets publicity, we'll have some unbiased reviews of the same data to see if the claims hold up or not.

  • by genjix (959457) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @10:56AM (#34291136)

    When Julian Assange first released Wikileaks he said that seeing what was being done with Wikipedia gave him the idea that if you just put the stuff out there then the crowds will mold and form it into something useful. He expected blogs and independent third parties to spring up out of the woodwork. So Wikileaks published the data and.... nothing.

    Not even the newspapers picked up on the leaks because of the bystander effect. No news agency is willing to invest the resources and waits for someone else to do the hard work. Everything stalls and it falls into obscurity. The crowds just ignore it since there's this overwhelming heap of obscure data.

    Having learnt through several iterations, Wikileaks now bids leaks to a news agency who gets a lock in period to go through all the data, pick out the juiciest stories and publish. After that Wikileaks releases the full data together with indicators and summaries of the data to direct the crowds.

    Just dumping a huge mess of contextless data does nothing. You need contextual hints so people know where to start. You need experts to translate the internal jargon.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      You could argue that this works to the best interest of the releasers—after all, this is something the government are doing themselves, not a leak.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mister_dave (1613441)

      ??

      The British government is not some obscure website gagging for a mention in the press.

      British newspapers love a scandal, and they'll be expecting to find lots.

      • British newspapers love a scandal, and they'll be expecting to find lots.

        Which means they'll find it - even if they have to create it.

    • by vadim_t (324782)

      You forgot all the talk about the moat cleaning expenses [telegraph.co.uk]? That is quite well known even outside of England.

      If that bit was interesting enough for the huge amount of discussion that came from it, you can bet right this minute there are lots of people and media organizations trying to find something juicy in there.

      • by tehcyder (746570)
        In the end though, a few hundred thousand on dubious expenses was chickenfeed compared to the tens of billions we, the UK taxpayers, had to spend bailing out the corrupt, greedy and ultimately pointless banking/financial system.
    • So Wikileaks published the data and.... nothing.

      Not true. The Guardian did a weekend special with pages and pages covering the Wikileaks data, and they continued to publish articles based on the Wikileaks data for a week afterwards. They have an online tag for Wikileaks articles: guardian.co.uk/media/wikileaks [guardian.co.uk] shows 474 articles, many of them mentioning "war logs" in the title. They also published Afghanistan: the war logs [guardian.co.uk] and Iraq: the war logs [guardian.co.uk], with numerous articles based directly on the leaked data. Likewise, the New York Times published the series T [nytimes.com]

      • Re:Not true (Score:4, Insightful)

        by madprof (4723) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @02:47PM (#34292360)

        While I can't take away from your excellent post, you actually mis-read the post you were replying to, and the person was simply saying that people ignored Wikileaks in the beginning, and that they got better at releasing data in such a way as to make people pay attention. You cite some of the press organisations who were given exclusive access to the data.

  • they havent released any receipts to show proof of what the money was spent on rather than simply the projects that got the money. Most of the money wasted will be on lots of small cost projects that are under £25,000 so will not get published.
    • by Simmeh (1320813)
      Plenty of information is already available, for instance just this week I checked my MP's phone bill. Bitch spent £120!
      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Plenty of information is already available, for instance just this week I checked my MP's phone bill. Bitch spent £120!

        A month? a year? how much was personal? is her constituency far from her home? what is the average phone bill for MP's? did it include online usage? etc.

        It's hard just to pluck out a number and comment on it out of context.

        • by Simmeh (1320813)
          Monthly, she lives close to her constituency. Since the numbers called are redacted I can only assume shes been ringing plenty of excluded-minutes numbers.
  • by lsproc (943512) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @11:17AM (#34291238)
    There are already sites picking through it (such as http://www.wheredoesmymoneygo.org/ [wheredoesmymoneygo.org] and quite a few surprising entries have already cropped up, such as the massive amount Capita got, but you actually have to know what you want to look for if your going to find anything meaningful.
  • People are being encouraged to pick through the enormous quantity of online information to spot waste and hold ministers to account.

    That's easy: posting enormous quantities of data online and expecting members of the public to audit it is a massive waste of time and resources.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Simmeh (1320813)
      Public? How about the shadow cabinet? I imagine the ousted party is very interested in this, and aptly qualified to understand it as they had been spending the money for the past 13 years.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    is to make them think they're winning.

    Always question.

  • So corrupt officials who divert public funds to their friends/partners have to split those transactions up into sub-£25k chunks? That's almost as funny as the court opening Austria's "Mr. presumably innocent"'s bank accounts but only those in Austria [diepresse.com] while anyone with money and half a brain has accounts in Switzerland, Liechtenstein etc. ... (German, sorry) ;-)
  • "In a move sure to have transparency activists salivating, the UK government has some 195,000 lines of data detailing its financial outgoings."

    Has what? I hope they didn't accidentally it!

  • I'm sure that here in the U.S., part of the strategy for not exposing such data, is for national security reasons.

    Oh, I know what you're thinking, I'm going to argue the point the the U.S. government has our best interest at heart by trying to protect some national secrets or 'skunk works' projects. Quite the contrary.

    I can almost guarantee that we've spent far more than that in a 5-6 month period.

    If the people actually knew where their hard earned money is going, and the thing's it's funding (i.e., lining

  • Gaming this system (Score:4, Interesting)

    by amck (34780) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @03:12PM (#34292478) Homepage

    The danger to look out for is how regulations become gamed.

    In this case, middle-level managers wanting to hide something will do so by outsourcing the work, rather than doing it 'in-house' in a public body.
    Then the details can be labelled "commercially sensitive", and hidden from Freedom of Information requests.

    Similar issues were seen in anti-drug operations in Cuba: once US forces started being shot at, the work was farmed out to MNCs - Multinational
    Military Corporations, like Blackwater, typically staffed with ex- US special forces, operating from US bases. But the operations were commercial,
    and any deaths secret. Unpopular operations became secret again, hidden from FOI requests.

    For a political party that wants to see as much as possible privatised, this forces more work into the private sector, even when it could be done
    easier and cheaper in the public sector. Beware of such tactics.

    • by khallow (566160) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @05:37PM (#34293344)

      Similar issues were seen in anti-drug operations in Cuba: once US forces started being shot at, the work was farmed out to MNCs - Multinational Military Corporations, like Blackwater, typically staffed with ex- US special forces, operating from US bases. But the operations were commercial, and any deaths secret. Unpopular operations became secret again, hidden from FOI requests.

      There's no US anti-drug operations in Cuba. The government is hostile to the US and wouldn't permit such things.

      • by tehcyder (746570)
        I think GP probably meant Columbia, but maybe it was Iraq or Bermuda. Somewhere foreign, anyway.
  • by ADRA (37398) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @03:49PM (#34292706)

    I'd think the disproportionately large libertarian minded audience in here would have immediately gravitated toward this. I mean when I took my first accounting course, one of the first things that they said was that hell would freeze over before governments start to release their balance sheets. If the data is even closely detailed, we are looking at what I'd hope to be a positive step in how governments manage themselves with the populace.

    I never thought that so many of you here would be afraid or ultimately jaded about transparency and openness. *shudder* Maybe Steve Jobs has done a better job on you than I thought possible. *making plans to move into the woods and live off twigs and berries*

    • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Saturday November 20, 2010 @05:47PM (#34293404) Journal

      It doesn't take a libertarian to like the idea of transparent and accountable government. In fact, it's even more of an issue for us lefties - if you give more money and power to the government, there's stronger need to keep it in check to make sure the money is not squandered and the power is not abused. Letting the public (i.e. taxpayers; those whose money it is in the first place!) audit the expenses is a very appropriate way to do just that.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Grapplebeam (1892878)
        Libertarians don't want transparent and accountable government. They want NO government.

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