A "retreat from openness"? How Whitehall departments are faring on transparency

The Institute for Government warns that Brexit could lead to departments slipping on transparency goals — which have already seen a steep decline since David Cameron’s 2010 open government claims

By Suzannah Brecknell

26 Jan 2017

Departments’ publication of key financial data has slowed since the June referendum on the European Union, analysis from the Institute for Government reveals, as researchers warn of a possible “retreat from openness” across government.

The think tank’s annual Whitehall Monitor report offers an in-depth overview of the size, cost, performance and transparency of government since 2010, based largely on open data sets made available by public bodies.

The report considers whether departments met David Cameron’s 2010 pledge to publish monthly expenditure over £25,000 by the end of the following calendar month. 

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Even allowing a few days flexibility in this target, the researchers found that, across all departments between 2010 and 2016, 51% of these monthly releases were published late, and 3% were not published at all.

The Home Office under Theresa May performed relatively poorly, publishing just 35% of releases on time. The Cabinet Office — responsible for government’s transparency policy — published some data 13 months late and only in response to FOI requests, while three departments (the Treasury, Home Office and transport department) published under 5% of their spending data on time.

Publication of organogram data showing departmental structures and pay grades has also declined over the period: all departments published some data in March 2011, but eight failed to publish any data in March 2016.

In recent months, publication of financial data has also declined. Between June and December 2016, the Home Office, Treasury, transport and communities departments all failed to publish at least three months data, and the new departments DExEU, DIT and BEIS have published no monthly data.

“As departments divert resources towards planning for Brexit, there is a risk that transparency could drop down the agenda,” the report says.


The report also found that departments are withholding more information in response to FOI requests than they were in 2010. 

In the second quarter of 2016, departments withheld information in response to 40% of FOI requests, compared with 25% in the third quarter of 2010. 

While there may be good reasons for withholding data — including personal data exemptions — the authors say “this retrenchment is not encouraging”, particularly when combined with poor and declining performance against the transparency commitments set out by David Cameron in 2010.

The report also raises concerns about the difficulties in monitoring government’s performance and financial data – in particular criticising Single Departmental Plans as a step backward from earlier performance monitoring mechanisms.

The report says: “It may be that the internal versions of SDPs offer a much clearer sense of what government is actually doing. But ministers obviously no longer see the value of being transparent about their priorities and progress.

“This is a mistake — public accountability is desirable in itself, but also provides a way to focus activity in the complex organisational environment of a modern state.”

Retreat from openness

The quality of published permanent secretary objectives has also declined, the authors say, with an increase in the number of objectives and a retreat from the improvements secured in 2014-15 after a review by the DFID perm sec Mark Lowcock. 

“It has been suggested that, in future, PSOs may be aligned with the SDPs. But until the SDPs that are in the public domain are of higher quality, this risks worsening the objectives further,” it continues. 

The authors conclude: “The continued difficulty of monitoring government finances and government performance suggests a possible retreat from openness and a failure of government to utilise its own data properly.”

Gavin Freeguard, head of data an transparency at the IfG, said: “The patchy performance on publishing some key transparency data and withholding more information in response to FoI requests raises questions about the future of openness under this government.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee said she had already warned departments “to up their game on transparency”.

But she added: “Whitehall has yet to rise to the challenge. Too often we find that departments have a lack of meaningful data. Not only does this make it difficult for the taxpayer to find out what is happening but departments themselves can't always measure the effectiveness of policies. 

“Information also needs to be provided in a meaningful way – it is not acceptable to just dump spreadsheets on the internet. Departments have a long way to go before citizens can readily access information in an easily digestible format.” 


The think tank also considered departmental performance in responding to FOI requests, ministerial correspondence, answering parliamentary questions and meeting targets to publish key financial and organisational data.

Theresa May’s Home Office was consistently poor at responding to different types of information request, scoring worst of all departments for FoI and second-worst for parliamentary questions, the researchers found.

The department did receive the highest volume of ministerial correspondence and the third highest volume of FOI requests, but “there is no apparent correlation between volume and timeliness for any type of request — and those departments with a high volume should ensure they have the capacity to deal with it.”

The Home Office was also one of only three departments — the others being MoJ and the education department — that responded to under 85% of FoI requests on time between the third quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2016.

This the current target for timeliness, and below this rate departments may be monitored by the Information Commissioner. 

The new Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has suggested she might lift this target to 90%, which would see four more departments including the Cabinet Office come into the scope for special monitoring.

Elsewhere in its repor, the IfG notes that the that civil service, as well as being 19% smaller than in 2010, is now older and more concentrated in senior grades. In 2016, 40% of the civil service was over 50 years old, up from 32% in 2010. Over the same period, the proportion of civil servants aged under 30 fell from 14% to 10%.  

“This ageing process is probably due to recruitment freezes and could have an impact on the types of skills coming into the civil service,” say the reports authors.

Although the service is becoming more diverse overall, representation of disabled and BAME staff particularly in senior levels remains low. The proportion of women in senior grades is growing, but progress on ethinicity and disability has plateaued.

"More with less"

There has been considerable change of civil service as well as political leadership, the report notes, with only six departments now led by the permanent secretary that was in post at the 2015 general election.

But the authors conclude that, despite budget and headcount reductions, Whitehall is “performing reasonably well” — with steady engagement among staff and core functions still operating.

“Ministers continue to receive policy advice. Legislation continues to be passed. Major projects continue to be delivered (although with slightly less confidence than in some previous years). Requests for information continue to be answered. 

“The business of Whitehall continues even after reductions to staff numbers, reductions to budgets, and — in some cases — major changes in what departments do and how they do it,” says the IfG.

However, it raises concerns about the public services for which departments are responsible, such as prisons, social care and the health service.

“All of these services face challenges in the future – and the same can be said of Whitehall departments that continue to be asked to do more with less,” concludes the report.

The report also flags up the IfG’s ongoing concern about the extra work required of the civil service following the Brexit vote.

It warns: “Drafting the great repeal bill – which aims to transpose EU law into UK law where practical – is also proving a more complex challenge than expected, which could further add to departments’ workloads.

“Departments thus face big challenges in planning for and beyond Brexit, many doing so with fewer staff and less money, while needing to carry out relatively unfamiliar tasks.” 

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