Oireachtas spending – line by line

Background:

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.

39 thoughts on “Oireachtas spending – line by line”

  1. Pingback: Anonymous
  2. Thank you for going to the effort to acquire this. I cannot help but throughly agree that this kind of information should be widely available for the Irish public to scrutinse. After all, they are in the service of the Irish public and it is our money being spent. There must be some dubious expenditures contained on their records, otherwise why not post it online for all to see?

  3. so for a start why are we the public handing over a telephone allowance bill for exactly the same amount (€ 1587.17) for every TD, in the private sector you submit your bill/it is submitted directly and a rate is agreed with the provider for the different call types, over a certain amount (mins etc) people have to submit for approval justifying the amount above the mins (average user) , this is a PERFECT (if small) example of how peoples tax is being WASTED, this amount would be the tax take from a mid salary earner and it goes to pay the phone bills in a constiuency office (I wonder if VoIP calls has been installed to reduce costs – I also doubt it).. WHAT WASTE and TWO fingers up to the individual tax payer…

    300200000026004 – MembOSS TDs Constit Phone Dáil Tele Allow 1/4/09 – 30/6/09 € 1587.17

  4. My God this is great stuff! I’ve already found something I intend to pursue further with the TD in question and I only downloaded it about 2 minutes ago. My hat off to you sir

  5. In Dáil Éireann (Other allowances and expense of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) spreadsheet…. lines 520 to 525
    Does Noel Tracey really get 6 payments on the same day (08/04/09) with all but one being for over 8,000 euros!!!!?!

  6. Well done, thats amazing to get your hands on it all! Please keep up the great work

    Im downloading now, and when the election is over I am going to go through these for my own research, thanks so much indeed, from the entire nation 🙂

  7. would it be good idea to make a copy of that sheet and start matching expenses to the politicians and companies with sources where possible, owner would have to create and allow it

  8. Looking at the big figures, I think most interesting is:

    1.2m paid to An Post (what appears to be mostly prepaid envelopes)

    €740,000 + paid to one particular records management firm

    €690,000 + paid to another records management firm

    What about file, save as, back up = Records managed?

  9. Phenomonal persistence, hats off and enormous credit due to you for getting this information which clearly we should all be entitled to see.

    I’m looking forward to trawling thru this stuff

  10. The thing that strikes me here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Subject to better analysis there does not appear to be anything all that unusual disclosed.

    It then begs the question: Why the resistance to publication?

    The Oireachtas cites checking the data as being burdensome and also quite unusually that it contains trade secrets and scientific information. Given the information sought is no more than would normally be disclosed after a public tender it is hard to understand why such checking would be necessary and why basic descriptions of goods and services together with the name of the supplier and the price paid would fall within the trade secret or financially prejudicial exceptions of the act.

    When I walk into a shop all the prices are on display, when I go to Amazon they don’t make me sign a confidentiality agreement before disclosing their prices. On the other hand the public sector in general seems to think that disclosure of pricing information is always excepted on commercial confidentiality grounds. Information Commission cases both here and in the UK categorically find that pricing information is not presumed to be commercially sensitive. Rather it is a company’s cost base and business model that benefit from this exception. So prices should be disclosed unless they reveal these trade secrets. Knowing a competitor’s prices generally does not advantage a company without the cost information.

    Finally on the vexatiousness point, isn’t it a little ironic that the public sector insists on producing hard copies or pdf scans of original electronic data in order to make it as difficult as possible to analyse and use FOI information but then accuses a bona fide request such as this on the grounds of vexatiousness.

    Well done Gavin for bringing this out. It will be interesting to follow the story that it tells.

  11. Great work Gavin, just what we need in hand for the canvassers… not that they’ve ever knocked on my apt door in the fifteen years I’m there 🙂

  12. Well done Gavin, a fantastic milestone & there are many, many interesting details there. Your ordeals to obtain and publish this information will not go unnoticed or I hope, unrewarded.

    But there are two key differences between the information you have obtained so far and that obtained by the Telegraph in the UK which led to reform of politicians’ expenses

    (1) You don’t have expenses comprehensively by politician, so we can’t seach for say our local politician and see exactly what they have claimed. If we had that, you would suddenly take on a staff of thousands who would analyse the information for you and alert you to issues.

    (2) Many of the expense lines contain such vague descriptions that we don’t know what they are. We need copies of invoices or at the very least, descriptions which are sufficiently clear to understand what the expense was.

    If (1) and (2) are addressed and fulfilled then there might be a revolution in the way politicians incur expenses in this country.

    Best wishes to you

  13. This is not strictly the case. The Telegraph obtained the information through a leak, not through FOI. They also received expenses, not expenditure.

    In relation to 1) I already have published expenses comprehensively by politician. 2005 to 2008 data totalling over €100m was published on the site last year. I will be adding 1999 to 2004 and 2009/2010 this year (they need to be digitised). The fundamental difference between the expenses claimed in the UK and the expenses claimed here is that the majority of expenses in the UK are vouched while here they are unvouched – there is no paper trail.

    In relation to 2) it would be nice to get invoices. Unfortunately the search and retrieval fees for this endeavour would be tens of thousands of euro (which I can’t afford). The benefit of having the data I have published is that it is a lead to submitting more FOIs for interesting looking invoices. Ideally I would get the entire database, along with all the invoices – but it is quite simply impossible. I can only deal with the system through the legislation.

    Again the database is not expenses – it is expenditure of the Oireachtas, with some counted as expenses claims. Most of the data related to the Oireachtas itself spending money, not politicians claiming expenses. This type of release has not happened before.

    The UK parliament has an annual budget of about £1bn – nowhere have I seen a line by line breakdown of how the HoC spends its money (except in relation to recent pro-active releases by the Tory administration).

    But the work goes on..

  14. “Soakage Pads 180 mm x 20 mm for Bar”, €1792.13, 5/14/2009 …. so the country has to pay for the dribbles of these idiots now as well when they drool their drink down the front of their shirts???

  15. Nice work.

    Mary Hanafin’s mammy’s fall cost us €62,577.28. She was represented by ex-FF Councillor Paul Kelly – recently appointed to District Court by exiting Government.

  16. Xwerx design of interactive games….

    16305 euro!!!

    We don’t even have up to date licenses for our adobe products in college.

  17. Well done Gavin. Superb persistence and resourcefulness. As we all sit and moan, you go and do the work. More power to you.

    Their use of the word vexatious suggests they were being deliberately bothered beyond reason. Us public are such a nuisance.

  18. Incidental expenses, line 2566. Listed on Amazon as “What Color Is Your Parachute? 2010: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers”.

    /lesigh

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