Government must improve ‘basic housekeeping’ of its data, says IfG

The government must improve “basic housekeeping” of its published data to ensure that the public can assess its overall effectiveness, a report by the Institute for Government (IfG) says today.

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

29 Aug 2013

The first annual ‘Whitehall Monitor’ - a 12-month study, which analysed more than 500 data releases - found “inconsistencies and gaps” in publicly available information about how Whitehall operates and performs, rendering it “impossible” to properly scrutinise government operations.

It also found that neither the structural reform plan nor the permanent secretary individual performance objectives are locked into a "properly functioning system of accountability" and that it is in many cases unclear when or on what measure performance against these objectives will be judged (see IfG graph at bottom).

Senior researcher at the IfG, Justine Stephen, who co-wrote the report, said it is currently difficult to comparably measure outcomes in departments, because they often apply their own bespoke progress reporting, rather than cross-departmental indicators.

“To lead Whitehall effectively,” she said, “it is crucial that departmental leaders have a clear view of all their resources and activities, and can trace this to what happens in the real world.

“Individual departments are developing good ways to track their outcomes, but at a cross-government level, it is much harder to build a picture of Whitehall or to see what impact it is having.”

The report’s suggestions for improvement include practical steps based on “principles that anyone wanting to provide genuinely useful data should follow”, such as labelling and naming files in an “informative way” and enabling users to “find all of the data in a given series easily”.

Stephen described these measures as “basic housekeeping of the information that’s out there”, adding “it's a case of bringing everything up to a good standard”.

The report also said that there have been attempts by government to shed more light on departments’ assets and liabilities, but that departmental leaders are “subject to very few constraints on how they manage their own balance sheets” – an area that “appears to be comparatively ignored, with no central direction or management … despite the significant sums involved”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We note the recommendations in the report and recognise that, while much has been done, our efforts to collate good departmental data must continue.

“In support of this, the Chancellor has announced a review of financial management across Government to improve quality and consistency, including strengthening the role of the head of the Government Finance Profession.”

Download the full report here

IfG report graph 580

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