NSW Govt data cube to encourage 'citizen auditors' for spending

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NSW Govt data cube to encourage 'citizen auditors' for spending

But can the state walk the transparency talk?

NSW Finance and Services Minister Dominic Perrottet is taking inspiration from the Texas state government as NSW moves slowly towards offering its own goods and services expenditure 'data cube’.

The NSW Government has been tapping away at the data cube for a couple of years now, but the results are yet to be made public. 

A spokesman for the Office of Finance and Services, which is heading the initiative, said the data cube should become available within the coming 12 months, as it continues to corral and standardise data sets held on agency servers.

"In line with international good practice and the Open Data Policy principle, it is intended that expenditure data will be broken down by categories and subcategories, suppliers, small and medium enterprises and regional content," the spokesperson said.

Under the state’s new procurement strategy, agencies will be asked to publish “procurement–related expenditure data aggregated to the category and sub-category level, as well as information about the numbers of suppliers identified by category and the dispersion of expenditure” starting from Q3 2014.

At an open government forum at NSW Parliament House earlier this week, Perrottet said the state was taking cues from international counterparts on how to best allow public scrutiny of the state purse.

Perrottet highlighted efforts in Texas, where the state’s treasurer has made a name for herself by posting details of government expenditure online.

Commentators have claimed the strategy resulted in ‘citizen auditors' hunting down $8.7 million worth of savings by picking out duplicated expenditure that went previously unnoticed by the state.

The minister conceded that by contrast, tracking where and when taxpayer dollars are spent by Australia’s largest state is anything but easy.

“Much of this information is in fact already publically available, but is trapped in paper documents or online PDF forms. It is not in a format that is easy to understand, use, or make sense of,” he said.

Perrottet also endorsed a bill introduced by his fellow Liberal Alistair Coe to the ACT Parliament which would see the Territory Government publish details of all contracts over $10,000 online. NSW currently only publishes deals over $150,000.

“Governments actually have no money. We make no money. We earn no money,” Perrottet said.

“The only reason governments have any money at all is because our citizens or businesses earn it through their labour and entrust a portion of it to us in taxes.

“I personally would like see governments here in Australia follow the lead of overseas jurisdictions in this regard, especially when it comes to financial data – what money we have and what we spend it on."

But some outside the bureaucracy have raised questions about whether NSW will be able to live up to its own rhetoric.

Matthew Landauer, founder of transparency advocacy group The OpenAustralia Foundation, said he was heartened by the minister’s comments but remained “cautiously optimistic”.

“I think despite what everybody has said, NSW is still very much still at the beginning of this process,” he told iTnews.

He described the current accessibility of NSW spending data as pretty poor, and suggested the government should think about opening its data coffers up to third parties like app developers before it spends more time trying to build its own visualisation tools.

Only time will tell how meaningful the state's data cube will be, Landauer forecast.

“The devil will be in the detail. What level transactions will it be broken down to, how will they be categorised, what will we actually be able to understand from the information?”

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