Monday, November 29, 2010

Armchair auditors and their weapons in the war on waste

Last week I heard a local authority Head of Internal Audit refer to Eric Pickle’s army of “armchair auditors” as “nutters”.

I looked the term up on The FreeDictionary. “Nutter” is a slang term for:

“A crazy or eccentric person.” or
“An enthusiast; a buff” or
A part of the male anatomy.

This made me think as I am interested in issues of public finance and mental health.

I suspect that those who want to scrutinise records of public spending may be slightly eccentric. Perhaps this is only a matter of degree – these armchair auditors choose to do their stuff for free unlike professional auditors.

I do think that there is potential in “armchair auditors”. Look at the creation of a huge encyclopedia online from the crowd-sourcing endeavours of those who right and edit articles using wiki technology.

Technological mashups might offer them an impressive arsenal. In the UK Mysociety introduced a range of tools for improving democratic accountability: They work for you; FixMyStreet; Whatdotheyknow. These got taken up by the last government with its No 10 petitions site.

In September Dan Herbert in Public Finance surveyed what the current government’s “data-sharing revolution” had prompted. It is worth looking at some of the tools he refers to. Some – like - provide interesting information for tax payers on how public funds are spent but this is not really raw material for armchair auditing. Others set out more detail – such as Spotlight on Spend and Armchair Auditor – but not really enough to give any armchair auditors scope to drill down to provide either comfort or concern.

As the Reluctant Armchair Auditor on The Guardian’s Datablog noted last week:

For this to work in the way envisaged, councils must put out a lot more information and in a format that can be used by anyone. There has to be sufficient context to enable anyone reading the information to understand what is being bought and why. Then you can have a sensible discussion about whether the spending makes sense or is value for money. We can then deal with the material figures not the trivial ones which cause most of the negative publicity.

Of course, it is early days. The army of “armchair auditors” may have a long march ahead of them. But it is vital that government – local and national – provide assistance in terms of useful data in helpful formats.

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