Public Accounts Committee – Armchair Auditors, Dead as a Parrot…

Seems like the Commons Committee of Public Accounts have just produced their report on “Local government funding: assurance to Parliament” [report PDF] which reads to me like they have no idea what’s going on?!

On the question of how open spending data might have a role to play, the conclusions and recommendations (point 6) of the report were as follows:

The quality and accessibility of information to enable residents and councillors to scrutinise local authorities’ decisions varies. If the local accountability system is to work effectively it is fundamentally important that residents can hold local authorities to account for their decisions. It is therefore vital that residents can access relevant and understandable financial and performance information. The Department’s Local Government Transparency Code requires local authorities to publish data, including details of all expenditure over £500, information on senior salaries and details on local authorities’ land holdings and building assets. However, often this data is presented in a way which makes easy and effective scrutiny by the public very difficult. We are also concerned that the public might be less engaged with decisions on services that are significant in terms of expenditure, but do not affect them directly, such as adult care and children’s services. The Department expects that greater transparency of information will empower “armchair auditors” to hold local authorities to account, but there is no evidence that this has actually happened.

Recommendation: The Department should ensure that local authorities conform to the new mandatory Transparency Code on the publication of data, and work with local authorities to improve performance where shortcomings are identified.

Recommendation: The Department should assess whether the data published under the Transparency Code helps residents to scrutinise the performance of local authorities, and if alternative data would be of more value.

Para 18 of the report describes their consideration of this point:

We considered the new system of accountability when it was set up in 2011. At that time, the Department expected data transparency to empower ‘armchair auditors’ to hold local authorities to account for their decisions. We asked the Department whether it had any evidence that these armchair auditors had actually emerged. The Department said it thought that they had, but acknowledged that it had not actually measured whether this was the case. The Department acknowledged that residents play less of a role in challenging decisions on certain services, such as for vulnerable adults and children. For these services, the Department places greater reliance on the role of inspectors, such as the Care Quality Commission, for its assurance.

It seems that where services are delivered “in partnership”, there may also be a few “issues” (para 19):

Government departments are increasingly funding local services through partnership arrangements which are not subject to the same safeguards of local accountability and transparency as local authorities. The accountability structures for this type of arrangement are unclear. Even where the local accountability system is working effectively, it will not be able to provide departments with assurance over funding they grant to partnerships.

Some partnerships, like Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), operate across local authority boundaries. The NAO’s report found that lines of accountability between local authorities and their electorate could be blurred in LEPs, where one local authority makes decisions on behalf of another. The Department told us the benefit of these bodies is that they can tackle issues that go beyond the boundaries of one local authority area and create incentives for the key economic stakeholders to work together. The Department told us it would produce a separate accountability system statement for LEPs and local growth deals.

The quality of evidence provided about “armchair auditors” from Sir Bob Kerslake, (as Permanent Secretary of DCLG?) also reads like something out of a Monty Python sketch…

Q55 Chair: Austin’s got a question, but first I want to pick up on some issues that have not been covered. When the new system of accountability was introduced, we talked about an army of armchair auditors. Have they emerged?

Sir Bob Kerslake: I think they have at a local level.

Q56 Chair: Have they? [“It’s dead”]

Sir Bob Kerslake: I am sure that if you spoke to local councillors, theywould talk to you about the extent to which local residents challenge what they do. [“It’s not dead, it’s resting…”] We heard about one local resident, Mr Jackson

Q57 Chair: He’s the MP; you would expect him to challenge. [“I took the liberty of examining that parrot…”]]

Sir Bob Kerslake: Well, he’s one of the armchair auditors, I guess, [“of course it was nailed there…”] and I suspect that there are many more at a local level, but it will vary across the country.

Q58 Chair: Have you got any evidence of that? It is one of those hope and pray things, so it would be nice to hear whether it has happened in reality.

Sir Bob Kerslake: We haven’t measured it, but we can, for example, measure the number of people who have put forward requests to take over community assets and things like that

FWIW, I would love to see *any* member of @CommonsPAC show us what an “armchair auditor” could do with a clean and complete local spending dataset, let alone one that’s actually been released! Or perhaps Sir Bob would like to a demonstration…? ;-)