How much do you know about the Northern Ireland Office? How much do you want to know? And how much should the Northern Ireland tell you, just in case you wanted to know?
Transaction number 00150255492, for example, tells us it paid a £10,871 cleaning bill. Transaction 0012020182 — event fees of £21,676.
The promise to publish unprecedented levels of detail on government spending was part of David Cameron’s promised to lead the most transparent government in the world.
But whether data like this, contained in vast spreadsheets with little or no context, is genuine transparency is another matter, as a committee of MPs pointed out last week.
“It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand,” said Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee.
They agreed that the Government had sharply increased the information available in the public sector — but questioned how much use this was if people are unable to understand it.
Four-fifths of people who visit data.gov.uk, the website that is supposed to turn us all into “armchair auditors”, give up without clicking anywhere because it is so complicated, the MPs found.
On other hand, there is the Freedom of Information Act, which was the previous administration’s Big Idea to open up government.
FOI’s question and answer format means people don’t have to sift through endless documents to find what they want. But it’s costly, and a nightmare for the public servants facing endless e-mails asking for information. Tony Blair described FOI as one of his greatest mistakes in government — and branded himself a “nincompoop” for bringing it in.
David Cameron has said FOI is “furring up the arteries” of government. And last month we learned that the Northern Ireland Civil Service wants to see charges for requests. You can understand that wading through the 18,353 demands made to the NICS since 2005 must be a pain, but asking people to pay for data would completely undermine the spirit of the legislation.
FOI requests might be annoying, but they are a simple, powerful tool and it’s easy to see why proposals to introduce fees generated such strong opposition when floated by the government.
It’s a better model than simply dumping out endless spreadsheets that nobody will ever read.
But it could yet be watered down. Successive governments have shown us that transparency is a great idea in opposition that becomes an irritation in government.
Tom Moseley is the Belfast Telegraph’s parliamentary correspondent