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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 Data.gov.uk, 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:

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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.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


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