For 35 years Paul Dale reported on Birmingham City Council for the local press. As this first interview for Help Me Investigate, he gives his tips on starting to investigate local government, and the importance of human contacts.
At the end of September, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced a new code of practice which aims to encourage Local Authorities to improve their openness and transparency. The goal is that the code will encourage the publication of more Local Authority data, which will in turn improve local knowledge and ‘spark more improvements in the way services are delivered’.Communities Secretary Eric Pickles seems very impressed with the new code saying “The code sets out clear expectations. It will help unlock more information and increase accessibility for everyone, taking us one step closer to our ambition to be the most transparent government in the world.” It all sounds very good, but what does the new code bring to the table? Overall the message is quite clear – local authorities should publish their data by default. It seems good in theory, but local authorities already have a great justification for publishing their information. The increasing cost of complying with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests was said to be around £34m in November 2010 and anecdotal evidence suggests the number of requests are continuing to rise. Making more data available – and in a way which it is easily located – would help authorities to cut the workload and cost of dealing with FOI requests. On that basis it’s easy to see why a number of Local Authorities have already adopted some of the points within the code. For example, one of the minimum requirements set out by the code is that expenditure over £500 is published, but even the accompanying press release notes that currently Nottingham City Council is the only council not already doing this on a regular basis – so is there any need to include this? The press release goes on to say that “ministers are minded to make the Code a legally binding requirement to ensure authorities can be held fully accountable to the local people they serve.” Even if this becomes the case, there are already numerous Local Authorities who can’t – or don’t – comply with transparency laws that already exist. In the short term the code should aid FOI requesters in their pursuit of information, by providing them with official guidelines with which to base their requests. It may even help to reinforce the idea that the Government are in favour of greater transparency. In the longer term I imagine some of the more upstanding Local Authorities will implement this new code of practice – a few might even go further. It will be interesting to see how the code is implemented in some of the more transparency shy Local Authorities though, after all it’s these authorities that generally hold the more interesting information.