Evidence transparency review sees lowest scores at DfE and highest at DfT

Charity Sense about Science scores 94 policies from 12 departments against criteria determining how far they publish evidence underpinning decisions

Department for Transport's policy to reduce noise pollution of night flights was the highest ranking in a new table. Credit: Patrick Pleul/DPA/PA Images

By Tamsin.Rutter

31 Jan 2018

A Department for Education policy has scored bottom in a transparency review of 94 policies from 12 government departments, which analysed how open civil servants had been about the evidence underpinning their proposals.

One DfE policy – to remove the speaking assessment from some modern foreign language exams – scored the lowest possible marks in all criteria because “scorers could form no idea of what it was based on”, Sense about Science said in a new report.

Conversely, the Department for Transport’s policy on cutting noise pollution from night flights was a top scorer in all criteria, and the campaigning charity commended its “range of innovative citizen-centred ways of presenting the government’s thinking”.

Sense about Science, a charity that challenges the misrepresentation of science and evidence in public life, found that DfT, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had the “most consistently high scoring examples of sharing policy evidence” of the ministries evaluated.


The charity conducted the research as a follow up to a 2016 review of departments’ use of an evidence transparency framework drawn up the previous year. The 2016 review, conducted alongside the Institute for Government and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, found that “it was often hard for even the most motivated citizen to work out what assertions were based on, how evidence had been used, or the assumptions behind projected costs and benefits”.

The update published today found that improvements had been made in efforts to share the evidence base and reasoning behind policies with the public since 2016, but that transparency standards still varied widely between departments

The policies were assessed on how far someone from outside government could see what was being proposed and why – not on the quality of the evidence they used, or the merits of the policy.

“A well-founded policy and a poorly founded policy may both score well for transparency; a transparent evidence base enables a better conversation to determine which is which,” explained the report.

In her introduction to the report, Sense about Science director Tracey Brown said the team had found “examples of excellence in every conceivable circumstance”, and she particularly commended DfT’s approach to communicating policies and their underlying assumptions “very clearly and in human language”.

But she outlined the multiple excuses offered by departments to explain a lack of transparency in certain cases.

“During this review, departments variously told us, this policy was not typical because it… was at consultation stage, was dropped, became the focus of public debate, was not a focus of public debate, was developed jointly with other departments, is derived from manifesto commitments, was announced in the Budget, is low priority, concerns a specific group of specialists, had to be done in a rush, was inherited from a previous government,” said Brown.

“Perhaps further improvement now depends on acknowledging that there just are no ‘normal’ circumstances for policymaking and that showing the workings, being clear about the chain of reasoning behind proposals, applies to all situations.”

The Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport’s policy on a public services incubator for small charities was as low scoring as DfE’s on modern foreign languages. The report pointed out that for the DCMS policy, all that citizens had to go on to understand the evidence base used was a press release.

The Treasury and the Cabinet Office also collected relatively low scores for their policies. The report pointed out that in the case of the Cabinet Office, which leads on government transparency, this “may be surprising given the high quality of its output in our 2016 report”.

Just six Cabinet Office proposals were analysed, compared with eight each from the other departments, and Sense about Science noted that while they did not meet the sample criteria, “these documents were noted by the research team to show clearly the reasoning, the case for change and measures of success”.

David Halpern, What Works national adviser, commented on the report: “If governments want to be better at listening and learning, a good place to start is to be open about setting out their thinking and evidence behind their actions and policies.

“Without this basic form of transparency, it’s hard for others – whether expert or lay – to assess whether the policy or proposal is based on strong foundations, or to add helpful additional material. This report marks where departments are on transparency and shows how they can improve further, not least by learning from each other.”

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