Council spending data – a guide

In the last couple of days, both David Higgerson and OUseful.info have published how-to guides on analysing council spending data, which from today all councils across England are supposed to start releasing.

Already there have been some problems, such as councils only releasing data in pdf format (although, while irritating, this can be overcome). But I’m going to focus here on few things journalists can do to get the story – and to get it right.

1) Don’t jump to conclusions

Data is a starting point, not an end point. Maybe it looks like your council is spending a lot on taxis, but this isn’t enough in itself for a strong story. As David Higgerson explains:

It’s easy to jump to conclusions with the data, depending on the level of information available. For example, Birmingham City Council’s spending data for December includes a lot of spending on taxis. Is it all for ferrying council officers around or does it also include spending by, say, social services for ‘service users’ getting to day centres, or for children travelling to schools? Newcastle City Council’s spending data also includes the department which spent the money, so next to many of the taxi payments is the phrase ‘adult service learning disabilities’ which clears things up somewhat.

If you don’t know what the taxis were used for, it’s irresponsible – and possibly unfair – to castigate the council for the spending. You need more information, and sometimes that will involve having to ask the council directly (possibly, sadly, through an FOI) if it’s not in the data.

2) Put it in context

So, you’ve got the data for spending on taxis by council officers and it comes to a big number. But the question it’s always worth asking when you see a big number is: “Is it really a big number?”

At the Centre for Investigative Journalism’s summer school last year, Richard Orange from Orchard News Bureau gave a talk which highlighted this issue. He gave the example of a local newspaper that had discovered its local authority had taken taxis the equivalent distance to the moon and back 15 times.

It made for a striking front page, and certainly sounded like a big number. But when you broke it down by the number of council officials and the number of days in the year, it looked much less impressive, although it actually told you much more.

It’s easy – and tempting – to do the same with the spending data. But by breaking it down you’ll be more certain you have a story, be able to provide your readers with more useful information, and be fair to the council.

3) Be careful of criticising for openness

If you’re covering two councils, one of which has been more open with its data, it’s obviously easier to criticise them for their spending – because you can see it.

Of course, just because they’ve been more open doesn’t mean they should be immune from criticism. That would rather defeat the point. But it does mean that you should be careful of letting the other council off the hook just because it’s not bothered to release the information in as helpful a manner.

Basically this point boils down to: Don’t let the open council off, but don’t forget to mention that the other council’s opacity means you can’t compare the two. With a bit of luck and pressure, the other council might cave and you actually will be able to compare.

4) Be inventive

Sure, you’ve got the top-level data, and it looks like a big number – really a big number. But there might still be more you can do. For example, does the taxi spending spike around Christmas/New Year? Has it been increasing throughout the year? If so, why? If not, why not? Remember, not all the stories need to be negative; perhaps the council’s been saving money on its taxis and deserves a bit of credit for it.

Got any more suggestions or tips? Share them below or @thedatadayblog

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