Sketching Substantial Council Spending Flows to Serco Using OpenlyLocal Aggregated Spending Data

An article in today’s Guardian (Serco investigated over claims of ‘unsafe’ out-of-hours GP service) about services provided by Serco to various NHS Trusts got me thinking about how much local councils spend with Serco companies. OpenlyLocal provides a patchy(?) aggregating service over local council spending data (I don’t think there’s an equivalent aggregator for NHS organisations’ spending, or police authority spending?) so I thought I’d have a quick peek at how the money flows from councils to Serco.

If we search the OpenlyLocal Spending Dashboard, we can get a summary of spend with various Serco companies from local councils whose spending data has ben logged by the site:

Using the local spend on corporates scraper I used to produce Inter-Council Payments Network Graph, I grabbed details of payments to companies returned by a search on OpenlyLocal for suppliers containing the keyword serco, and then generated a directed graph with edges defined: a) from council nodes to company nodes; b) from company nodes to canonical company nodes. (Where possible, OpenlyLocal tries to reconcile companies identified for payment by councils with canonical company identifiers so that we can start to get a feeling for how different councils make payments to the same companies.)

I then exported the graph as a json node/edge list so that it could be displayed by Mike Bostock’s d3.js Sankey diagram library:

(Note that I’ve filtered the edges to only show ones above a certain payment amount (£10k).)

As a presentation graphic, it’s really tatty, doesn’t include amount labels (though they could be added) and so on. But as a sketch, it provides an easy to digest view over the data as a starting point for a deeper conversation with the data. We might also be able to use the diagram as a starting point for a data quality improvement process, by identifying the companies that we really should try to reconcile.

Here are flows associated with speend to g4s identified companies:

I also had a quick peek at which councils were spending £3,500 and up (in total) with the OU…

Digging into OpenlyLocal spending data a little more deeply, it seems we can get a breakdown of how total payments from council to supplier are made up, such as by spending department.

Which suggests to me that we could introduce another “column” in the Sankey diagram that joins councils with payees via spending department (I suspect the Category column would result in data that’s a bit too fine grained).

See also: University Funding – A Wider View

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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