Look on the local government fees and charges, ye Open Data people, and despair!

Or… I didn’t need flying cars, but is a coherent and consistent data schema really too much to expect?

my frustrated tweet

Well. I have literally not got words strong enough to explain my sincere and deep dissatisfaction at the state of local government data. It’s, not to put too fine a point on it, a fucking disgrace. Of course, it’s nobody’s fault, but that’s rather the problem, isn’t it?

A colleague got in touch wanting guidance on getting comparative fees and charges data for an authority we are working with — should they organise an FOI campaign, of the sort they have been so used to responding to within local authorities.

So, my instinct was to say no — definitely not FOI — waste of officer time, and because it’s public data, they’ll only direct you to their publications schema anyway. And anyway, if the data’s to be gathered by FOI, it will all be out there anyway. And anyway, it’s bound to be available centrally — even if you have to pay a CIPFA benchmarking fee…

This is exactly the sort of thing we have open data for, it’s exactly the sort of thing we have data schemas for, it’s exactly the sort of thing we have benchmarking clubs and comparative data for, it’s something every single local authority has to do every year, it’s something that has to be public information, it’s something in the public interest to know and be shared, it’s exactly the sort of thing where we need to #fix the plumbing.

And not to hark back to that misguided but ultimately well-intentioned pickle situation, this is exactly the kind of thing that would be valuable to ‘armchair auditors’ and concerned citizens as genuinely comparable data across local authorities.

So, that’s easy, I thought… this is the sort of thing local government got a grip on in the first few years of the century…

- can’t find anything about the CIPFA benchmarking club (benchmarking info gone and search on the cipfa website doesn’t work)

- nothing sensible on the LGA (shocked)

- nothing on gov.uk (not even ironically shocked)

To be fair, there are some actually useful bits on element of charging *policy* from the LGA:

https://www.local.gov.uk/fees-and-charges-review-community-protection-transport-and-environment

https://www.local.gov.uk/briefing-licensing-fees-hemming-westminster-and-aylesbury-vale

https://www.local.gov.uk/open-business-lga-guidance-locally-set-licence-fees

Then I went back to the Electronic Service Delivery toolkit, now known as LG Inform

https://www.local.gov.uk/benchmarking-data-lg-inform

The local government transparency code doesn’t cover it https://www.local.gov.uk/our-support/guidance-and-resources/data-and-transparency/local-transparency-guidance

Building control and development control are there, as is ‘total income’ from, umm.. archives, heritage, foreshore (that one is going in the RedQuadrant Christmas quiz), and all kinds of other areas (including Public Conveniences) — but it doesn’t specify what the fees and charges are for, or how much…

Still, I suppose they are a sort of benchmark — but it’s just a single fee for all English authorities…

The dataset ‘income from fees and charges as a percentage of total spend’ is there buuuut… discontinued in 2017 https://lginform.local.gov.uk/reports/lgastandard?mod-metric=1758&mod-area=E92000001&mod-group=AllLaInCountry_England&mod-type=namedComparisonGroup

The processes and website navigation lists (which could have given coherence to the web search, at least — https://standards.esd.org.uk/?uri=list%2Fnavigation) have been — sob — discontinued…

The good old ESD power and duties list https://standards.esd.org.uk/?uri=list%2FpowersAndDuties&tab=children might be a starting point for what councils can charge for…

I sent the folks at Porge a message on their webchat… I’m sure they’re as frustrated as me.

But I do see that in 2016, Nesta ran a research programme — ‘identifying opportunities to help local authorities use data better’, (their final report, ‘Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government’ sheds no light on my problem) and ‘Between 2014 and 2016, the LGA facilitated some £2.64 million in grant funding for local government through the “Open Data Breakthrough” programme and the “Open Data Incentive Scheme”.’

I found e-learning, video and written case studies, lots of positive friendly stuff…

And whatdotheyknow doesn’t have the goods from publicly searchable FOIs either:

…but I suppose even when it is asked, they’re just referred to the publication schema… which is different for each council

Because I’m truly a massive nerd, I then tried Room 151 (www.room151.co.uk) , the only place to go for local government Treasury, Technical, and Strategic Finance in-talk… nothing.

Even the legal guidance is as disparate as the services local government provides — a case in point of how local government starts from the point of trying to make coherent what is essentially incoherent.

So, yeah. Long story short, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere it should be. Nor is there any consistent guidance or information (outside individual small technical niches)…

The good news is, every LA has to publish this, both in its budget/committee papers, and accessibly online. But, of course, there’s no longer any coherent website structure or reliable schema, there’s no way to consistently find them. The bad news is, it’s buried in appendix xii in the papers, and for public access it’s in a random mix of pdfs and html, sometimes with a whole list, something by category (and you’ll have seen on twitter, there’s a mysterious pdf from Lincoln called ‘social inclusion fees and charges’ which turns out to be a badly-formatted automatically-ouput table for annual landlord charges for housing benefit enquiries…).

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Complete contents of Social inclusion fees and charges.pdf from Lincoln Council

And sometimes you get directed to the FOI fees and charges page, just for fun…

So it’s a very boring, slow, methodical putting together of the data, requiring someone who can interpret it well enough… but if that was done, it would be a major public boon to make it public!

So, do I really have to have someone download about 650 pdf documents, and go through them and type into some home-made database? Or am I missing something here?

Well, I’ve tweeted CIPFA — there might still be a benchmarking club, which would be a good deal. I’ve asked a friendly S151 officer if she knows more — and I’m getting a lot of confirmation on twitter that it’s nutso…

There must be some better data somehow. But I’m pretty good at web search and local government and nerdy stuff.

Really, really, something needs to be fixed here. It is such a mess…

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