The challenge of armchair auditing

In August 2010 the then Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, announced that he wanted to empower “an army of armchair auditors” to scrutinise the work of his department.  This move would signal the beginning of a “new era” of government transparency and accountability with any outgoings of £500 or more being publicly revealed online. The wider world was subsequently going to have access the nuts and bolts of how in excess of £300m (the departmental budget in 2010) was being spent.

And this was clearly only meant to be the start of things.  David Cameron’s Conservative/Liberal Democratic government embraced this new world of openness and accountability, opening up information on a whole range of things from crime statistics to spending commitments and from contract awarding to hospital waiting lists.  This new openness would not only help to clamp down on waste, but it would also drive both efficiency and responsiveness (see here).

Furthermore, the government promised to develop a system of performance management based around a range of performance indicators.  The 200 plus indicators would be an ideal tool for the public to hold those with entrusted power to account.   This was, or so it seemed, bordering on the revolutionary.  Engaged citizens would be able to unpack and dissect the minutiae of government performance and the age of Sir Humphreys pulling the strings facelessly from behind a cloak of anonymity would be behind us.

How, then, has this veritable army of auditors faired?  And how has government and the process of governing changed as a result?  The answer to the first question gives a very strong steer as to the answer to the second; impressive though the brave new world sounds, the army has not so much organised a mutiny as never really enrolled in the first place.  There are one or two notable, and quite specific, exceptions (see here and here), but as Ben Worthy and Robyn Munro have argued, there are plenty of good reasons why one can’t really blame prospective armchair auditors for falling at the first hurdle.

A recent report by the Institute for Government (IoG) outlines three specific reasons why this drive to increase people power has at best moved forward only patchily.  The IoG boils it down to poor quality data, poor communication (understood as inadequate explanations of what the data means) and very little evidence that there was any great public willingness to use the system in the first place.

Whilst the third of these is something that should probably not surprise us too much – minus the pay of a fully trained auditor it can’t be that big a surprise that people aren’t queuing up to be amateur forensic accountants – the existence of the other two problem areas are disappointments.

The IoG, to be fair, was quick to recognise that some government departments (and service providers more broadly) did do their best to be open with both data and explanations of it, but some appeared to take their obligations anything but seriously.  Data was often simply not available, or when it was available it was in a format that was unsearchable or very hard to actually use in any straightforward sense.  A pile of .pdf documents the size (if printed out) of a hefty doorstop might well fulfill transparency obligations, but it is hard to claim that all but the unhealthily obsessed can do anything with these things.

Over the course of the last few months a number of websites and apps have been developed to help make data-sifting easier.  And, more specifically, to enable the interested external observer to uncover potential malpractice.  If you’re interested in public procurement data, for example, then is a useful starting point, while claims to ‘track and analyse public financial information globally’.  In November 2015 the University of Sussex and Transparency International UK took a closer look at what these websites and apps might offer, convening a focus group to try and unpack their usefulness.  15 students on the MA in Corruption and Governance plus 3 PhD students on the SCSC’s PhD programme sat down to see what they could make of them.  The students looked to try and uncover potentially interesting transactions or processes in a number of the UK’s local authorities.  They used the websites to help them, as well as conventional search engines such as google.  The aim was to see if an interested observer could find anything of note.

The outcome was predictable; the students found little of genuine substance.  On the one hand, the data remains both patchy and largely impenetrable.  The numbers mean little to those who don’t understand the context, and there is effectively nothing out there explaining why decisions were made, specific contracts awarded and government took the form that it did.  On the other hand, unless an armchair auditor possesses the talents of Lieutenant Colombo, the patience of a saint and, perhaps most importantly, some sort of tip or piece of inside information to help them head in the right direction, then he or she won’t be able to make much progress at all.  As one of the MA students, Koya Rahman, noted “I spent 90 minutes looking hard at all of this, but, in truth, if I’d been at home and not part of this experiment I’d have given up after 10 minutes”.  Who can blame her?

Perhaps it is nonetheless too soon to be so downbeat about people power in this area.  The rise of the open data agenda and the existence of a number of initiatives to both broaden its scope and streamline the processes that underpin it mean that things may look very different in the near(ish) future.  David Cameron, to be fair, does seem to have embraced the agenda rather more than many of his international contemporaries.  But, the devil really is in the detail, and unless both the IT infrastructure of the public sector can be improved and the accessibility of the data is enhanced then armchair auditing will remain the privilege of the (very) few.

Dan Hough









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