Coffee House

Getting the GIST on government spending?

30 July 2013

8:27 AM

30 July 2013

8:27 AM

Did you know that DFID cost each person in the country £97 last year? Or that the DWP spent £173 billion in 2012-13? Or that the BBC cost each person £21.59 last quarter? Well, you do now thanks to GIST, the government’s new spending website launched today.

In an attempt to fix the messy, GIST ‘presents government spending data in a clear, intuitive and user-friendly way’, according to the Cabinet Office. It is, apparently, the most advanced site of its kind in the world. Taxpayers, journalists and politicos can now all see where and how the government spends our money — at least that’s the theory.

The hip kids at the Government Data Service (who brought you GOV.UK) and the Cabinet Office has undertaken the arduous task of compiling spending data across all government departments in a consistent and highly visual format. Take a look at how spending for all departments last quarter is displayed on central accounts reporting (OSCAR) section:


Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 08.36.39

The problem with GIST is that explorers can only drill down through two more levels of spending. Beyond that, one has to go away and look in the actual spreadsheets, defeating the purpose of GIST. The site is useful for providing an overall view — and putting huge spending figures into context — but less so for finding spending miscreants (like which department spent the most of biscuits, for example). Finding efficiencies and empowering citizens is a key aim for GIST, as minister Chloe Smith explains:

‘Greater transparency can help identify wasteful spending. That’s why we’re launching a new, easy-to-use, interactive tool that gives the public the chance to compare data in a smart and intuitive way.’

But take the Department for Work and Pensions — after choosing the budget type, all you can see are the general areas where money has been allocated. Even downloading a spreadsheet does not reveal any more information. This is as far as I could delve:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 18.16.03

GIST has only been released in beta, so it would be unfair to criticise deeply when it is not a finished product. Making Whitehall more open and accountable should always be welcomed, but will GIST lead to more savings and increase public interest in public finances? Let’s find out. Go and browse through, then let us know in the comments below about any interesting tidbits. We’ll post the most interesting (or disgraceful) later today — or not, if there’s not enough information.

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Show comments
  • Smithersjones2013

    Putting aside that transparency is generally the last resort of the inadequate, impotent and incapable (do we not actually elect representatives (MP’s) such as David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and George Osborne to monitor and control public spending for us?) the level of information provided is risible. How on earth can one be expected to discern whether the Department of Health spending £137 million on ‘goods and services’ is value for money or not?

    Furthermore there seems to be no relationship between Oscar and the QDS. For example in the case of the Cabinet Office all Oscar shows is Civil Service Pension Costs (but no costs of administering the pensions) whereas the QDS seems to refer to unrelated operational Cabinet Office costs. The about us page provides no indication of if and how they Oscar and QDS are in anyway related

    Furthermore there are no guarantees that the views of the data provided are the most pertinent or even relevent or what the per capita costs are (e.g.. How many staff of what type does £110 million payroll bill buy in the Cabinet Office [QDS>Full Year>Transaction Type>People Costs])

    Frankly there is just enough random (meaningless) information here to distract, confuse and raise 1000 additional questions but not enough to provide any real answers or make sense of the expenditure so one can only assume that this exercise is nothing more than the government attempting to put up a smokescreen.

    How on earth did the Cabinet Office spend £138 million on the “Big Society” in 2012-13 [QDS>Full Year>Internal Operation>Policy & Implementation], I thought it was dead in the water? So much for the Cabinet Office being the “masters of efficiency”

    Of course as I highlighted above I thought we employed MP’s to keep control of Government and manage our interests generally but clearly that is no longer the case. All this is is another indication of how our establishment political classes have failed. Its seems the people would be better off getting rid of the political class and keeping government in order themselves. After all there it is something of an affront to have your noses rubbed in how much the government is spending when the Government refuses to reduce the amount spent on large swathes of it (Education, Health, Dfid, frontline military etc etc) and opersists with its debt addiction.

  • Daniel Maris

    I think this is a welcome development. The more clued up the public becomes about such matters, the better.

    Now, I’d like to see one showing how much the income of the top ten per cent of earners has increased over the last ten years compared with that of the bottom ten per cent.

  • itdoesntaddup

    The real problem is the poor quality of spending data (and to a lesser extent government revenue data). No normal business could run with such poor quality management information. What we really need is cash spending forecasts, monitored against cash spending actuals. Cash does not lie. Accruals can be fudged in an instant.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    There is a far more useful site available, which has long been providing spending data, and making it available in more useful form than this “GIST” site, so that historical spending can be properly studied and analyzed:

    This new “GIST” business drills down no more deeply than the above site, and is nowhere near as useful. Perhaps as the existing site is already up and available, and more valuable for those interested in spending data, the government can work to provide that existing site with the most accurate data. That would be a win-win, and a simpler and less expensive solution to the data presentation issue.

    Or is it that government seeks to cloud the issue, and avoid that type of clarity?

    • itdoesntaddup

      I agree that the history of spending is key. After that, you need to look at the spending drivers: how many unemployed, getting housing benefit, how many getting state pension/civil service index linked pension, how many GPs and nurses, etc. alongside the history. Then you can begin to see where value for money has eroded.

  • Noa

    “Did you know that DFID cost each person in the country £97 last year? Or that the DWP spent £173 billion in 2012-13?”

    And just like the painters who painted the Forth Bridge those smart urban kids are going to have to re-do all their work because as David Blackburn pointed out the other day, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has admitted that the government hasn’t got a clue how many people are in the country in the first place. Whether the true number is the 63.4 million of the census or the 77 million plus the supermarkets calculate on staple food sales.
    The good news is that, if it’s the supermarket number the average person’s liability on the various government vanity projects drops by some 25%. The bad news is that the actual taxation revenue base remains unchanged, so a relatively constant number of taxpayers have an unknown but growing burden to carry.

  • Jack

    Hi Seb, you raise some good points about the site, but I think the main thing to bear in mind is that this is a Beta version. The company I work for are involved in similar projects (thought not this one!) and because GDS have thankfully changed the way government IT is procured, sites like GIST are being released in smaller, more efficient iterations rather than spending months (and millions) developing a site in one go that ends up being unfit for purpose. They’ll also actually be listening to user feedback as it’s easier than before to incorporate this into a final product. It’s therefore worth getting in touch with GIST through the Feedback function to ask if they’re going to incorporate further drill-down, as this may be part of the next stage. And if it’s not, tell them it damn well should be!

    • Sebastian Payne

      As I said in my last paragraph “GIST has only been released in beta, so it would be unfair to criticise deeply” so I completely agree. Stay tuned for more on GDS and government procurement…

      • HookesLaw

        But it does not stop people criticising deeply or indeed using it as an excuse to bring up all those nasty immigrants.

        I repeat there is nothing secret about these figures. this may make it a more colourful way to access them. its a good idea in that respect.

        • Smithersjones2013

          Ah isn’t that sweet. Hookeslaw likes the ‘pretty colours’.

      • Smithersjones2013

        Its impossible to criticise the site ‘deeply because there is insufficient data to ‘go deep’ about. It’s an extremely superficial site and if one wants to be superficial one can simply point out that this government will have borrowed an additional £600 billion to meet government expenditure in the five years it will have been in power. Government spending is out of control. There is no need for a web-site and its associated costs to tell us that.

  • Diogenes

    Where is the interest payments on the debt?
    As Guido Faukes pointed out.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …and better yet, they should show the interest payments required as interest rates rise over time, after QE ceases and the printing presses are idled.

      Those interest payments are going to grow massively, at that point. And now that publicly held debt is at 100% of GDP, that means that interest payments are about to soak up several multiples of the entire national defense budget, once rates rise.

      That’s why you don’t skyrocket the debt, as the Cameroons are doing. Some day, you’ll have to pay the piper.

      • itdoesntaddup

        Perhaps this may help:

        It isn’t just the interest bill, but also the uplift on index linked gilts. See for example the last page of this from the DMO:

        And then there is that pesky guarantee on QE gilts to consider. The Bank of England correctly records the true mark to market position in its accounts – but the Treasury does not until it actually pays out to fund losses. This article gives a useful introduction to the realities:

        A quick calculation suggests the modified Macaulay duration of the QE gilts portfolio is close to £30bn for a 1% parallel movement in yields.

        • Johnny Bravo

          Duration is for holders of debt, not issuers. It wont cost DMO anything if rates go up, that’s one clever thing the government (both this and the last) did in locking in extremely low rates for a very long tenor. Those who will feel the brunt of interest rate rises will be the pension funds that have to hold this long dated debt…

          • itdoesntaddup

            Perhaps you haven’t read the guarantee given by the Treasury to the Bank, nor read the BEAPFF accounts? Please remember that the taxpayer is holding £375bn of the debt directly as QE, and will suffer every bit as much as a pension fund. In effect, QE is money that has yet to be borrowed properly, and is a low start payday loan from the BoE. Read the BEQB article to understand some consequences.

            • Johnny Bravo

              A quick lesson in what a bond is: you borrow at par, pay fixed rate of interest, pay back at par. If the interest rate goes up, it is the PRICE of the bond that goes down – not the amount of interest you pay. Yes, there will be paper losses but no real losses if held to maturity. If, held to maturity. The real issue will be the unwind.

              • itdoesntaddup

                A quick lesson in buying bonds: if you pay over par for them, there will be a capital loss on redemption. The premium to par so far totals about £50bn (and will increase every time the BoE rolls a bond over on redemption, even if it doesn’t add to the £375bn). If you try and sell £375bn of QE bonds on top of the regular deficit and redemption financing remit, you will depress bond prices, and cause yields to rise.

                Or is that Lesson 2 that you haven’t studied yet?

  • HookesLaw

    There is nothing secret or deeply difficult to search out about government spending. And we have an audit committee and office producing endless reports.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …and Gaia knows, the Cameroons do their level best to grow that debt pile and keep it relevant, eh?

      • HookesLaw

        No, the govt are cutting its discretionary spending from the horrible levels inherited. The notion that they are actively acting to deliberately grow it is farcical.
        You are a one trick pony who has lost its charm

    • Smithersjones2013

      If that is so why is the government wasting more taxpayer’s money developing this site?

  • ajwillshire

    They spend £11.6b at HMRC? Drilling down, the vast majority of that is “CURRENT GRANTS TO PRIVATE SECTOR – HOUSEHOLDS” – is that Child Benefit etc?

  • Seth_the_pig_farmer

    And the EU budget payment? Where is that?

  • Seth_the_pig_farmer

    They should do the same for revenues and show the deficit as a red block.

    • HookesLaw

      HMRC do an annual report which does just that – except the red block.
      They also tell you how much they pay out – 30 billion tax credits and 12 billion child benefits.
      Well in 2011/12 anyway

      Its all nothing terribly secret.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Yes, it’s no secret that the LibLabCon monolith has long been driving for bankruptcy.

        • HookesLaw

          No secret that your brain dead.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Yes, “your [sic] brain dead” .

            You’re impossible to parody, laddie.

    • itdoesntaddup

      They do a monthly spreadsheet here:

      It’s actually quite useful because it is on a cash basis, and allows the impact of tax changes to be monitored.

      Less useful are the PSF tables, because they depend on accrual assumptions that are easy to fiddle. Latest version here:—public-sector-finances-tables-1—12.xls

      They also give less of a breakdown – but do allow the true PSND figures including the £1 trillion or so of financial interventions to be seen: about the only place they are published.

  • Arch Bang

    Looks like we should cut all existing pensions massively.

  • Denis_Cooper

    Pages not found when clicking on your “GIST” and “browse through” links.

    • Roughyed1963

      The links work for me.

      • Denis_Cooper

        And they work for me as well, now.