Over 12 months ago I started a process of engagement with the Oireachtas in order to try and more fully understand how our parliament spends public money. The Oireachtas does publish some information on where it spends money, but I wanted to understand it in much greater detail.
The start of this process was an attempt to obtain all expenses claims by all TDs and Senators since 1998. This process was spread out over a number of months – and the processing of large amounts of data. Some information was released in PDF format (which requires conversion to spreadsheets) and the rest was provided in paper (most of which is still stacked in my living room waiting to be scanned and converted).
The second part of the process was an attempt to obtain the expenditure of the Oireachtas when it arose directly from the activities of Members. This would include things like trips abroad where the Oireachtas pays directly for flights for Members, rather than an expense being claimed. This would give a fuller picture to the public of exactly how much TDs and Senators cost – precisely, as broken down by Member.
The third part of the process was an attempt to understand the totality of Oireachtas expenditure. Every three years the Oireachtas spends about €393 million to run itself. I wanted to start with this figure, and work backwards. I wanted to know exactly how this figure was arrived at, and where every cent was spent.
This was not an easy task. And it is still underway. But I have had some success.
The first stage was to understand sufficiently how the record was held. As has previously been mentioned the Oireachtas uses a financial management system called Integra. Portions of the expenses data I had received already had been exported from Integra into tables. These tables were then printed. Then photocopied. Then scanned. Then sent to me as PDFs. But obviously there was a database sitting behind it, a database that existed since at least 2005.
Integra doesn’t just hold the expenses and salaries of politicians. It holds a record of the entire expenditure of the Oireachtas. Every time the Oireachtas has an incoming or an outgoing, it is recorded. What I sought was for all of this data to be exported to a spreadsheet, and released.
The Oireachtas refused. As well as arguing that the request was voluminous in nature, they decided that my request was: “in accordance with section 10(1)(e) and in light of the fact that the information has already been provided to you, the request is considered an abuse of the right of access and to be frivolous and vexatious.” They also argued that the information was “trade secrets of a person other than the requester and (ii) scientific or technical information as described in subsection (1)(a) and (b) of section 27 of the Freedom of Information Act 1997.”
The record contains 1.35 million line items (rows). They argued that since every line would have to be checked, this would impose an unreasonable burden on the Oireachtas.
However I appealed this decision to the Information Commissioner. It was agreed via the Information Commissioner that I would limit the scope of my request first by year (2009 first) and then by subhead (the Oireachtas breaks down its budget by what are called subheads, or categories of expenditure). I was given a list of subheads and from that list I chose three subheads. These subheads contain line by line expenditure, detailing in never before seen detail how a public body spends money.
This is significant in a number of respects. Firstly, it is the first time that a database (or at least portions of one) have been released that comprehensively details how public money is spent – and not just the expense claims of public bodies as I have published here before. Instead we see how much is spent on contractors, services, consultants – and not just in summary tables, but in actual records of a database – row by row, who got what, for what, and for how much.
There is a larger point here. Upon release of the data, I requested that the Oireachtas pro-actively released all other subheads and data. Either that, or I will spend the next two years sending a request every month for another three subheads, and so on, until I have all records. They refused, saying it would take too much resources.
I believe this information is sitting on servers in all government bodies. It is our information. It records in fine detail how every cent of public money is spent. Why is it sitting on servers, but not on the internet for all of us to see, and scrutinise? Why can the information not be published as it is recorded, in real time? Why keep a record of it at all, if it is not going to be open to public scrutiny? Why do we have 19th century style government auditors who look at the figures on our behalf, and then give us summaries of the data once a year? Why is all the data not just published day by day, week by week?
As the Oireachtas has refused to release any more data voluntarily, I will instead be forced to request data on your behalf, month by month. So you can see where your money goes.
The total amount of 2009 spending revealed by the data is €38,042,971.24.
Here is the 2009 data:
1(a) Salaries, wages and allowances in respect of members of staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas €26,075,956.30
1(c) Incidental expenses €5,686,779.24
6(a) Dáil Éireann (Other allowances and expense of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) € 6,280,235.70
To download the spreadsheets click File -> Download As -> Choose your format
What does the data contain?
The data contains significant detail on how our parliament spends money, including:
The titles of books purchased for the Dail Library and much they cost.
The individual expenditure for local advertising for TDs in local newspapers, line by line
Details on how much the Oireachtas spends on things from window cleaning to toilet paper
A breakdown of PR consultancy costs, including the names of PR companies employed and how much was charged
A breakdown of companies who have provided services within the subheads given
Expenditure on envelopes and postage
Expenditure on photography services
Expenditure on websites for TDs
There’s tonnes of details (and no doubt lots of interesting stories) in the data. Feel free to comment on what you find here.