Follow the money. Who’s getting yours?

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.

Links:
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)

8 Comments

Filed under Council, Local Issues & News

8 responses to “Follow the money. Who’s getting yours?

  1. Tony Elsom

    Thanks for your encouragement Councillor Roberts, however, on this occasion I will decline to ask a question at Council. The last time I dared to make a fuss about an issue of local importance, I was promptly rounded on by the massed ranks of LibDems and rubbished in the letters page of the R&TT by yourself – remember Don Quixote’s rusty lance and Dulcinea? Predictably, Councillor Sir David Williams was given the last scornful word in that exchange before Ed closed the topic down. Sir David, without apology, described his rudeness to Mrs Julie Hill as “a bit of mild ribbing”! Since the “ribbing” was about Weimaraner’s in a car (don’t ask), I do hope the Mrs Hill has taken her dog for a stroll where his new tree has been planted – there can be no more fitting tribute!
    I prefer a more level playing field which this forum provides, so thank you Twickerati – there will be no more from me on this subject although I do hope that others have taken note and interest in how our money is spent.

  2. Gareth Roberts

    You needn’t worry about the lightbox, Tony. It stays in its cupboard for Full Council Meetings. What happens is that you submit your question in advance, it will be allocated to the relevant cabinet member who will give you an answer right there on the night (unless the 30 mins timeframe isn’t swallowed up in which case you’ll get a written answer). When you have received that answer you will be asked by the mayor if you’re satisfied with the answer given and, if not, you can ask a supplementary that they will have to answer on the spot – just like Prime Minister’s Question Time.

    So do give it a go – the Light Box Tyranny holds no sway at Full Council. Next Council is 5th July

  3. Tony Elsom

    If anyone is interested, here is a link to the source of my info – not exactly riveting stuff and I was about to close it when I chanced upon the name Norton under cardholder which piqued my interest. As to asking a question at Council? Probably not, but thank you for the suggestion Gareth. I’ve had my 3 minutes of fame whilst the dreaded Heath Robinsonesque lamp box counted me out. I’m told that a number of Councillors and officers keep an eye on these excellent pages, so perhaps one of them would like to ask the question? Alternatively Ms Norton herself might like to explain to us why she used her corporate credit card to make these payments to SOLACE. I’m sure it was permitted but was it right? I used to have a corporate credit card and was allowed to charge fees to professional bodies which had benefit to our business. I fail to see how SOLACE, which is not a professional body, gives us any benefit whatsoever – quite the reverse. Would we have known about this without the Telegraph expose? Of course we wouldn’t.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/council-spending/8542166/London-Borough-of-Richmond-upon-Thames-credit-card-spending.html

  4. Gareth Roberts

    I offered them the benefit of my near 20 years in the business for free, Tony and they ignored it. That’s why they ended up with a survey response that was heavily biased towards white females aged 55+ with very low (sometimes almost negligible) representation among people aged under 25 or ethnic minorities to name just two groups.

    You raise an interesting point, however, on payments to SOLACE – you do realise, however that you’re able to ask this directly as a public question at the next Full Council Meeting?

    https://richmond.firmstep.com/default.aspx/RenderForm/?F.Name=O7F3RkDoY-r&HideToolbar=1

  5. Tony Elsom

    I’m sure that Gareth Roberts is a bit miffed that a nice pile of wonga didn’t come his way from the All In One survey contract – perhaps he should have been a bit nicer to the incoming Conservative administration? Despite that cavil, I’m with him in wanting to know “precisely where the money goes”. How about this little bit of expenditure – curiously, the only one attributed to an individual who is presumably our CEO, Gillian Norton. For those of you who are unaware; SOLACE is the the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives – in all but name, this appears to be a trade union dedicated to advancing their careers and, presumably salaries on the magic roundabout which is what senior local government has become. Ms Norton was, and probably still is an executive of SOLACE. These payments in 2009/10 look suspiciously like annual membership fees – shouldn’t we know whether they are, and, if so, why are we paying them? After all, Ms Norton is hardly underpaid and could probably afford her own membership fees! Perhaps Gareth as a recently elected Councillor could do a little bit of research on our behalf and report back?

    NORTON 2010-08-05 £781.38 http://www.solace.org.uk
    2009-06-15 £764.75 http://www.solace.org.uk

    Tony Elsom

  6. Gareth Roberts

    “Why” is indeed the key thing here. You make a good point about Open Government but Openness is only worthwhile if it goes hand in hand with Transparency.

    Unfortunately, in spite of the limited descriptions, these lists are pretty opaque.

    And what about payments which total £497.55? Does the fact that they’re £2.45 below the threshold make them less important than one which is registered at £500?

    I think what residents would find more useful would be to have a running total of income or expenditure on ‘Big Ticket’ items. So, for example, ‘May2010 take in parking tickets’ or ‘expenditure so far on All In One’. By all means keep the list of all expenditure but a greater leaning towards showing precisely where the money goes/comes in would be a welcome addition.

  7. Agreed on all points.
    Open government is an important issue but this payments thing is only a first step and the data as published needs to be treated with care. But if it acts as a stepping stone on the road to the publication of information (including on the “why” as opposed to just the “what”) rather than simply lists of numbers then that’s a good thing.

  8. nemesis

    There’s more than a hint of sarcasm in the tone of this article. This IS of interest to many that have to pay for it and something the Taxpayers Alliance has been persuing for many years.
    I am curious to know why Veiola and Sercos budget dramatically increases in March. Perhaps something to do with end of year accounting.