Once upon a time there was a shiny new government. One fine day this government decided that in the spirit of openness and accountability it would be a good thing if its own departments and the local authorities across the land disclosed details of all payments to suppliers. Throughout the kingdom accountants, lawyers and procurement experts rolled their eyes but all the consultants and IT experts cheered because it was they who would be kept busy making this happen. Transparency campaigners also cheered because they felt it would make a big difference to something or other.

And so it came to pass that El Brute (that’s the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames to you) along with all the other local authorities began to put details online of all supplier payments over £500. In leafy Twickenham in the county of Richmondcester, the Duke of York (House) was most pleased and somewhere, deep inside the civic offices, a box was ceremoniously ticked.

We’re not cynical about this. Honest. We think transparent government is a good thing and after all, the more invisible some politicians are, the better. We’re joking of course. Joking, damn it! It is useful to know more about who’s getting paid with our money and to find out who are the winners and who are the even bigger winners.

Cleaning up in Twickenham
So let’s take a quick look at what Richmond Council have done. They’ve got a page on their website listing all the payments month by month, naming the suppliers and giving the broad area of spend. It’s not something any normal person would want to spend much time looking at. But knowing how much we all love a good spreadsheet the analysts at twickerati HQ have combined three months’ worth of payments into one sheet and produced a summary of those payments ranked in supplier spend order.

You want to know who’s top of the list, don’t you? Why it’s Veolia, of course. The French based multinational services company are contracted to provide the rubbish, recycling and grounds maintenance services in the Borough. Not bad if it can get you £3.7m in three months. At number two is Serco. Never heard of them? Don’t worry, all you need to know is that they got paid £2.3m over three months for providing a range of IT based services to the Council. And so the list goes on, right down to payments of £500 to all sorts of suppliers. There’s even a £40,000 payment to professional services firm PWC, perhaps for their consultancy advice on how the council could raise more revenue. [Your cynical joke goes here].

What the list also shows is the complexity of local authority business and the huge amount of re-charging that goes on between different authorities for education, care services etc. In the end, stare too long at this kind of data and it takes on less rather than more meaning…
* Is that single payment for a month’s work or for a year’s? Spreadsheet says no.
* What exactly is “Other ICT”? Spreadsheet says no.
* Who are Dimensions (OWL) Ltd? Spreadsheet says no.

So yes, there’s some value in these disclosures and for some they might even provide a cue for Freedom of Information requests but taken at face value they need to be treated with caution.

Like it or not, it’s pretty normal these days for the Veolias and Sercos of the world to provide a range of services to central and local government. And all this cross-charging with other authorities reminds us of Richmond’s stated aim to explore co-commissioning services with other Boroughs, most notably Merton, Kingston, Sutton and, err, Croydon. They’re already doing it for some things like legal services and others are being considered. In fact, rumour has it that merging Richmond’s Children’s Services Department with Kingston and spinning it off into some kind of separate venture could well be an option. All of which raises questions about whether we care about how services are provided and by whom, or just that they get provided. And that’s the kind of stuff that lists of supplier payments can’t do much about.

Richmond Council supplier payments

And, finally, just for fun, here are some of the top payees for the months of February, March and April 2011. Enjoy:

Getting paid by LBRUT (Feb - April 2011)