My life as an armchair auditor

PICKLES would be proud of me. I think. I’ve been doing some of that armchair auditing he’s banged on about in the past. It’s supposed to be peas easy, you should all do it.

You see Camden Council was one of the first to follow the big man’s idea for local authorities to publish all spending it makes over £500. Bravo! They didn’t mess around. You can go the Town Hall’s website right now and see a list of where the cash went.

If only it was so simple.

Armchair auditors will find it hard to do anything with the bare bones information provided on that list, as that is exactly what it is, just a list. There is no context to the names and the amounts, no explanations. It is virtually impossible to judge from it whether money has been well spent or wasted.

I looked through the list when they first came out and wondered why private schools were getting payments from the council, why money had been paid to certain catering companies, the story behind certain hotel bills and a large spend on encyclopedias. But who knew from a simple list of companies and amounts whether further armchair auditing into these invoices would reveal a big news story or a perfectly reasonable explanation?

Next step: a call to Camden Council’s press office asking for a few of the transactions to be put into context. Already feeling overworked (NB: the figures for staff numbers in that department quoted by the Liberal Democrats recently quoted at a full council meeting are disputed internally), press officers bumped these requests to Camden’s Freedom of Information team.

Now, whereas press requests generally come back in a couple of days, sometimes on the same day, the transfer to the FoI gang kickstarted the 20 day cycle for returning enquiries under that separate process.

Tick, tock. This armchair auditing takes longer that it looks.

I wasn’t going to just look at the original list, click copy, click paste and publish a story in the Camden New Journal which said COUNCIL SPENDS LOADSAMONEY ON CONSULTANTS, HOTELS AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS without any explanation or context. That’s easy, but lazy. No doubt other local papers around the country will take that option but it won’t necessary present an accurate picture of where and why public money is spent.

So, I was stuck. Others will be too.

The FoI timetable ticked over until a few weeks later the council told me that payments to private schools were for important help for special needs pupils, the fees at the Holiday Inn were for a conference for schools and those encyclopedias – surprise, surprise – were for the libraries and not a luxury addition to the chief executive’s bookshelves. Nothing too out of the ordinary, my auditing had come to not much.

Camden was right to rush to open up the books but the armchair auditors are going to need more than fragments to start from. I reckon a few armchair auditors might to decide to watch telly instead.

4 Comments on My life as an armchair auditor

  1. Constantine Buhayer // March 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm //

    Trying to make sense of Camden’s numbers. I may be gone for a while.

  2. There’s some variety in how different councils are presenting this figures. I found a similar situation with Greenwich’s figures:

    Greenwich has printed the bare minimum of information, posing more questions than answers. But in Lewisham, Bexley and Bromley, there’s some information about who spent the cash and why. It struck me that Greenwich was leaving itself open to wasting money on dealing with FOI requests when it could just be upfront about what the money’s for.

  3. Cllr Peter Brayshaw // March 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm //

    Another option for armchair auditors would be to attend the Council’s Audit and Corporate Governance Committee, where Councillors receive reports on audit issues, and have the benefit of input from the internal auditors and the external auditors. We meet in public, and the press and public are welcome. We will soon be embarking on the receipr and signing-off of the Annual Accounts for the financial year 2010/11.

  4. …hmm cllr brayshaw – you would possibly wanna request from the housing directorate, or indeed your own corporate & governance cttee. details of £2.8 milliom spent on tenant participation>?
    no report exists – FACT.

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