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Harringay, Haringey - So Good they Spelt it Twice!

You Choose Redbridge Budget Consultation

The London Borough of Redbridge has issued a consultation on Council spending and published an online calculator with movable slides which allows you to adjust the budgets for all the major areas of spend and asks you how you think their budget cuts of £58m can be achieved, taking into account ways in which income can be generated.  On the one hand I think this is an amazing way of translating budgets into concepts the general public can understand.  If you slash the £75m spent on Adult Social Care (the highest Council expenditure) it highlights the possible negative consequences.  But what is quite scary is that it's actually impossible to find £58m of cuts without cutting the services that the public hold dear, even if you raise Council Tax by a significant amount.  If I was feeling cynical I would suggest that this was a great way of reducing the number of public contributions to the consultation because when you actually look at the numbers, you can see that it's actually impossible to balance the books (without having a morality by-pass) so I suspect the public won't submit their thoughts at all.  But in terms of showing in real terms what your Council Tax gets spent on, this is a brilliant tool and very information for that.  And I think that applies whichever Council area you live in.

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Couple of point.

Any organisation using public money should be accountable and accountability means openness.  If it were up to me I would apply that to large companies too as they exist because the take our cash in exchange for goods and services.

I agree, the jurnos who exposed the expenses scandal did a brilliant job.  But how much better would it have been if information had been open and accessible.  Perhaps it would have prevented the rather liberal use of our money in the first place!

I don't think accountability comes from open access to datasets. Accountability comes from knowing about the political decisions made to set them up.
Redbridge has 300+ databases and we restrict access on a need to know basis and that's hard enough to manage.

My experience is that chunks of the planning process are highly confidential, and that confidentiality is optional. So, here in Haringey, the secret talks between developers with the planning department ('pre-application') help decide the future of what will be built.  We as residents are not allowed to be party to these secret meetings, but in the next borough along, they have a representative from the local community group present.

How much information is kept secret by planning? Loads - you see the planning officers 'secretly' advising Cllrs all the time (often live on camera in the planning Cttee meetings that are recorded on webcam). People are not allowed to know what advice was given, or who gave it. Look at all the stuff going on with Wards Corner, Apex House, Pinkham Way, the Tottenham regeneration etc etc - all held in secret between developers and the council yet none of it need be - it's a culture here in Haringey. I think of it as mushroom managment - keep us in the dark and feed us manure.

There is no doubt that a huge amount of good has come from open data, is there? It's here to stay - we'll never go back to the days when everything is secret by default, something many governments still appear to long for to the detriment of their own citizens.

I hope you might agree that the tendency of local government has been 'secrecy by default' and a mark of our democracy is that that extremely conservative, risk-averse approach can gradually be relaxed in specific cases because it does more harm than good. If just one scandal could have been averted...

There's also 'garbage in, garbage out' - everyone who holds data needs it to be as 'clean' as possible for their own sanity, let alone that of public users, don't they? If the Council is holding stuff that's hard to 'clean' for publication, does that alone justify not cleaning it?

The fact that it can be hard keeping stuff publishable whilst few people use is highly likely to always be true - some info is so obscure...

For instance, I really would like to see all the correspondence around the competition (over 200 entries) by which the Council decided on the design of Hornsey Town Hall in 1935. All that paperwork was confidential at the time and eventually destroyed. One of the wings of the building now needs restoring and nobody now knows in enough detail what it ought to look like. The info was too expensive to store and I guess they never thought there would come a time when it would be needed. Who knows what obscure info will be valuable in future?

The fault lies with the working practices foisted upon staff by an under-resourced approach that cannot seem to easily produce 'joined-up' systems. Arguably, twas ever thus but the thing that's changed is that the cost of storage is cheaper than the cost of disposal. 

There is no doubt, is there, that the 'open' approach saves loads and loads of money? Making spending figures public, for example, can reveal that it costs an average of £3000 per desktop to equip a central government person with a computer desktop, whereas local government cost per head is less than £300.  This could be because of the desire by Central Government to be wined and dined by big suppliers.. 

There is evidence that companies spring up because this data is available, actually creating jobs.  When I look at the poor quality of the spending data that is published in this borough, I'm pretty sure that more of it would be spent locally by local people winning local business from our largest employer and spender if there were more interlinked detail behind it. The fact is that data not only needs to be available, it needs to be linked with other data - the extent to which that happens is a sign of the quality of the borough's IT department and should be encouraged, surely?

The Redbridge usage data could be misleading - some people will only need the entire database once every year. Others want to take advantage of the automatic search services some councils (not ours) are beginning to deploy. Look at the London Datastore with over 600 datasets - is there anything there not worth publishing? The thing is, local authorities cannot always be judge and jury - things like this are in our interests nationally so should be a statutory requirement, as many are. It begs the question as to how much autonomy boroughs should have in what are essentially IT systems that they don't really understand themselves.  As the borough's IT dept has been abolished in favour of a joint one, who in LBH actually understands the systems and so what data needs protecting? Obama appointed a Chief Information Officer and so now we have one here - they're getting the individual states to agree on all using the same, free open source software to do the same jobs across America - to do that they need to align the way they capture, record and store info and you end up with a success - Code For America. We have a similar effort - the Brits are good at this stuff.

I think the public ought to have access to as much data as possible and that's a huge amount more than is currently on the table. A lot of the secrecy seems like pure hubris. The fact that it can be a pain and nobody seems to care must be true of a huge amount of 'custody'-type stuff that only Councils can do. It's a joy missed - a key to the 'partnership' with residents that boroughs say they long for is engagement. Here is a great opportunity to engage people with information about their street, their life, their local authority.

An aim for people who think this way includes participatory budgeting - Paris has done it and people stepped forward to help decide how the resources should be allocated, and contributed ideas like a 'citizen's card' (free local parking, maybe?) I don't think the move towards openness is  going away so the need to base decisions on high quality, publicly available data is more pressing than ever.

Credit:  Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo - a bigger participatory budget in future

I'd like to see the borough website a bit like a 'civic Facebook' but that's another story...

TfL is a great example of what can happen - they held all their train info so close to their chest you would have thought they were state secrets (which they argued they were).  Now they're open, we've got a whole range of free apps developed by startups that help people get around and cost the government nothing. TfL even use feedback from the use of their data to improve the service. That's part of the bonus - the more people who look at what you do, the more chance of improvement.

What I don't understand is, how can people help the council bring about actual, specific improvements in the data they harvest on our behalf? Why isn't there even a list of the information collected and maintained, let alone the costs of so doing?

Dragging Councils into the 21st century over open data when they don't know how to provide their statutory services on slashed budgets is nigh on impossible. It takes political will, where there is none.

Either that or the only way to climb this mountain is by increased automation - we can't surely rely on the old way things were done when the people who did them are no longer present?

You're right that there could be a lot of mileage in sharing back office functions but the level of the cut in government funding is so huge that this in itself won't go near plugging the gap. In four years Central Government funding of local government will more or less cease to exist so it will be up to councils to fund what they do from council tax and business rates income. That means either more council taxpayers (more residential development) and more business rate payers ( more commercial development) or spend substantially less (around 50% is mooted). Skin and bone, no extras, statutory services will barely be able to be paid for and non statutory stuff like libraries will be reaching for the begging bowl.
The changes mean that some London councils with a large tax base will be winners (Westminster, Southwark, Kensington & Chelsea and Camden, all with a lot of commercial and/or high density residential) and others will be losers (places like Enfield, Haringey, Barnet, Waltham Forest)
Good summary analysis Michael. A reason perhaps the council are so keen on high density housing to replace Sainsbury's Arena; more tax income.

Haringey have CCTV cameras everywhere and a whole bunch are used to collect car licence plate numbers - no driver can expect to keep their number plate secret, after all.

How would it be if the council gave us all access to what they collect? Over their dead bodies!

However, free open source software (OpenAPLR) lets anyone do it, so who's up for collecting local data about all the cars that pass, and those that linger? Or driving around with it on a laptop?

Credit: Google Streetview car fleet

If only the council's environmental department (who decide on things like, which roads are one-way etc) would share their conclusions and their rationale too...

That's the whole purpose of FOI.  You want to know why a particular road is one way - you can ask and they're obliged to tell you. 

Thanks Antoinette, as I'm sure you know the FOI is a long winded process only supposed to be used when information that should not be hidden is being concealed.  It's expensive for the Councils and takes ages.

Why on earth would a department not want to publish every detail of their decision to make a road one-way? People don't seem to respect the expertise within the council - they seem to think 'I could do that'. When you see the competing factors behind the environmental (or any) decisions the Council makes on road routes, and notice the high level of qualifications that department members possess, you can see that it just isn't that easy to do stuff. The ones I've met are articulate and keenly interested in what residents think - publishing serves to educate the public so we get a positive feedback loop - exactly what's needed, not a drawbridge mentality 

I don't even find the time to do my own filing let alone think about publishing anything. So that's why I personally wouldn't want to publish anything I didn't have to. It is down to time and technical expertise. You mentioned the case where the documentation for a system was mislaid or never existed. This is plain and simply poor records management... that is a much more valuable use of time.

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