Making council data and spending public

The ‘open data’ agenda places a duty on councils to make as much data available to the public as possible, including information on spending, accountability and performance. The London Borough of Redbridge was one of the first councils to adopt this policy.

View all Data and transparency articles

The ‘open data’ agenda places a duty on councils to make as much data available to the public as possible, including information on spending, accountability and performance. Data should be published without restriction (unless sensitive or personal), in useable formats, and available to everyone. The London Borough of Redbridge was one of the first councils to adopt a policy of publishing all data by default wherever possible. Early on, the issue was championed by the Chief Executive, Roger Hampson, who was keen for Redbridge to publish data as quickly as possible across all service areas. The leader backed this approach.

With more than 200 systems containing information across the council, the challenge fell to its relatively small ICT team to develop a platform to enable data to be published, viewed and analysed. Lee Edwards, Chief ICT Officer, says the objective was clear and having the chief executive’s backing was immensely important. However, Redbridge was facing the same budget cuts and service pressures as other authorities, so the decision was made to help service heads achieve the goal by making the DataShare system as easy to use as possible.

Edwards says:

We had to find a way of embedding it in the culture of the organisation to make it easy for managers to sign up to this. It had to be easy for a council department to extract the information from their own system and feed it straight into DataShare.

Training was provided for key people with ‘ownership’ of information within different service areas so that they could upload the information themselves. London Borough of Redbridge Council: open data.

Public access

The other side of the coin was to ensure that the system was accessible and useful to the public. It had to be designed so that people could easily search on key words, register their own requests and see information in graphic forms.

The result, Redbridge DataShare ( is a clear, uncluttered and easy-to-use resource containing information on every council service, from planning applications to finance, school performance and carbon emission. The data is published within context (service area lists, financial information and democracy). People can query, link, map and visualise the data in different formats such as tables, maps, graphs and pie charts, and can download and re-use the information.

The data can be viewed in varying levels of detail and can be “mashed up” (combined with other data sources). For example, the council’s spending across the borough or across the UK can be clearly shown as pin points on a map, and by hovering on a particular pin point viewers can see the full details of the company involved in that transaction.

Efficiency savings

The chief ICT officer attends the management board once a month, presenting all the datasets that are live/planned, and flagging up new ones that could be incorporated. A colour-coded system of green, amber and red measures progress against the schedule.

The main benefit to the council is that its data quality has improved dramatically with minimal resources needed. As a result there are some efficiency savings, although the amount has not been quantified. As Lee Edwards says, the aim was to be open and transparent rather than to make cash savings. However, DataShare has led to the identification of some duplication, with more than one information system doing the same thing. Other systems have been identified as having the potential to be easily adapted for future demand.

The improvement in data quality has come about through a more rigorous system of checking within each service area. Managers can identify possible savings by seeing information on their department’s spending more clearly and putting it in context. Lee Edwards believes that the benefits for the council will increase over time as the public and officers make more use of open data. Redbridge is now well placed to respond to future government directives around data.

For the public, the benefit is being able to access information at any time and not having to obtain data through freedom of information (FOI) requests. While Redbridge has not yet noticed a large drop-off in FOI requests, requests are expected to become more refined as people gain access to more data. Service areas can identify when they are getting a large number of FOI requests on a certain issue, for example abandoned cars, and react by publishing or updating that data. Eventually more people making FOI requests can be directed straight to DataShare.

Improved outcomes

The Redbridge DataShare tool is now available for other authorities to download and use through CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting), which is helping Redbridge to recover the costs of developing it. It has been widely praised by experts, including Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Chair of the Local Public Data Panel. He said: “This is great stuff. Clean, clear and some really cool datasets – really first rate. Something for others to aspire to.” Local government is embracing the open data agenda, recognising that the benefits will include better targeted services, greater collaboration and greater efficiency. It also supports the localism agenda by engaging citizens and communities and empowering them to hold councils and their partners to account.

Open data has the potential to lead to improved outcomes for councils in five key areas:

  • fostering greater accountability and scrutiny
  • supporting sector-led improvement to provide better, more productive and efficient services
  • empowering communities, citizens and businesses to choose or run services
  • innovating through better use of data • driving economic and social growth. For further information please contact Lee Edwards, Chief ICT Officer at the London Borough of Redbridge: [email protected].