Tag Archives: audit commission act

5 ways to simplify an investigation

If you are trying to investigate something – to get answers to a question – how do you make sure that you use your time most effectively?


Here are 5 ways to do just that:


1. Write a hypothesis


This is the advice of Mark Lee Hunter, explained in a free ebook called ‘Story-Based Inquiry’, and is probably the most important action in keeping you on track.



A hypothesis helps you clarify exactly what it is that you are gathering evidence for – and it helps you see when your hypothesis needs to change.


A good hypothesis should be specific – numbers are good, even if they are plucked out of the air as something to begin with (those investigations linked above may have begun with different hypothetical figures – the important thing is that you start with something you can test). Terminology is important, too – avoid generic terms, and know the jargon of the field you’re looking at.


2. Break the investigation down into discrete tasks


An investigation is much more manageable – and easier for others to collaborate on – if you have broken it down.


Typical tasks might include the following:
  • Find background information – e.g. news coverage, official reports, etc.
  • Find experts
  • Find witnesses
  • Find people who are affected by it (they may gather in online communities such as Facebook groups, mailing lists or forums)
  • Find laws and regulations relating to the issue
  • Find documents – e.g. internal reports, meeting minutes, declarations of interest, etc.
  • Find facts and data – these are often compiled in internal or external databases, research, etc.
  • Write up the story so far – this is particularly useful for providing context for those who come to the investigation later.


3. Keep a record of what you’ve done and need to do


The potential for distraction is only partly addressed by a good hypothesis. If you have numerous parts to the investigation then you need to keep track of those – but also avoid spending so much time on one avenue that you overlook others.


Blogging the results as you go – and including what needs to be done next – can help you keep track of your progress.


Using categories (for questions or types of query) and tags (for people, places and organisations) effectively will allow you to easily find that information by just looking within that category or tag. You can also use a bookmarking tool like Delicious to keep track of online material, using and combining tags when you need to find them again quickly.


Blogging also makes it easier for others to find you – if they are interested in the same area. If you don’t want others to see what you’re doing, however, you can make posts or entire blogs private or password-protected.


In addition to blogging, there are a range of free online project management tools that can help keep track of the tasks ahead of you (for individuals, Springpad is quite useful in being on hand when something occurs to you).


And the Story Based Inquiry website provides a range of templates for keeping track of your investigation too: http://www.storybasedinquiry.com/masterfile/


All of the above allows you to get things out of your head and onto paper, clearing your mind to take a step back and re-assess what should be the priority next.


4. Exercise your right to information – but use the phone first


The Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection Act, Audit Commission Act and Environmental Information Regulations require public bodies to supply information when requested, as long as they hold the information and no exemptions apply. It is very useful for getting hold of information – but too often it is used with no clear idea of what you are actually looking for.


Speaking to someone who deals with that information can help you clarify what you ask for. Knowing what information is held, what the jargon is surrounding it, and what policies and reports relate to it, can all influence what you eventually ask for.


It also helps if you pre-empt any excuses that may be used to avoid providing you with that information.


5. Use computers to drill into large amounts of data


If your investigation involves going through lots of tables, it may be worth investing some time in learning basic computer assisted reporting techniques.


This will save more time further down the line, as well as potential errors which can creep in when you’re doing things manually (although you should also check initial results manually too).


Do you have any other tips for using time effectively in an investigation?

Using the Audit Commission Act 1998: Investigating local government accounts

The Freedom of Information Act is something many of us are now quite familiar with and a method that often throws up pros and cons in gathering less ‘public’ pieces of information.

So, if you’ve tried an FOI request and been knocked back for any number of reasons, is there anything else you can use to gather that vital snippet of data that could make front page news?

Well, if you’re interested in accounts or any kind of financial expenditure and you want to investigate local government, then using the Audit Commission Act is another possibility.

Richard Orange of Orchard News Bureau Ltd provided a useful insight into the Act and how it can be used at this year’s CIJ Summer School.

What is the Audit Commission Act?

The Act permits the inspection and copying of local government accounts for the preceeding financial year. This includes “contracts, bills, vouchers, deeds and receipts.”

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, accounts must be open for inspection for 20 working days (15 working days in Scotland). These dates must be advertised in a Public Notice in a newspaper circulating in the council/police authority area.

What are your rights under the Act?

As long as you have a home or business address in the borough concerned, you have the right:

– To inspect statements of accounts (by elector)
– To inspect and make copies of all contracts, books, deeds, vouchers, receipts, bills and invoices under audit (‘by persons interested’)
 – To object to the accounts (by elector)

How to use the Act

If you want to look at your local council’s accounts, here are a few easy steps to follow:

– Find out the dates the accounts are open to view
– Work out exactly what it is you are interested in before going to view them – the more specific you are the less chance you will experience problems or be swamped with information you do not need
– Once you have worked out what information you are interested in, view the accounts at the earliest opportunity. There is only a 20 day window, so going on day 15 and then realising you need to delve deeper probably means you’ll run out of time before the cut-off
– Make your requests as specific as possible – don’t just ask for all council expenditure, specify the area you want to focus on e.g. PR
– Take any copies of information you need – you may want to revisit it later on when the window to view accounts has closed

Be prepared for ‘excuses’ and challenge them

You may come up against some ‘reasons’ why you cannot do certain things under the Act. Below are some examples you may find, however none are applicable under the law:

– ‘all requests must be put in writing’
– ‘you must make an appointment to view’
– ‘we need to get permission to show you that’
– ‘you are only allowed to see the statement of accounts’
– ‘we need to know why you are asking for the information’
– ‘information about members of staff cannot be viewed’

How do I know when my local council’s accounts are open to view?

The lovely people at Orchard News Bureau have compiled a list of when the major local authorities are open to inspection:
County councils (England)
Unitary councils (England)
Police authorities (England)
And there’s plenty more here too.

And finally

Don’t be put off by any attempts to prevent you from accessing the information you want. Under the law, you have the right to view, copy and object to any accounts kept by your local council (as long as you are an ‘elector’ or ‘persons interested’).

You can uncover some really interesting information using the Act. The key is to know what you’re looking for and request information at the earliest opportunity to allow for subsequent requests should you need them. 

A useful presentation (from 2008) by Richard shows some examples of how the Audit Commission Act has been used to hold local council’s to account.