Perm secs should take more responsibility for transparency, IfG report argues

Think tank says government has focused too much on the burdens of transparency and not enough on the benefits
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By Tevye Markson

02 Feb 2024

Permanent secretaries should take more responsibility for their department’s performance on transparency, a new report from the Institute for Government says.

It suggests that the UK government has been focusing too much on the short-term “burdens” of transparency rather than long-term gains of a culture of openness.

Recommendations  in the report include ensuring civil servants have the skills needed to take a more transparent approach.

“The government has lost some momentum on transparency in the last few years… part of this is because transparency can be difficult for government in the short run, whether by exposing politicians to criticism or creating work for officials,” IfG researcher Sachin Savur told CSW’s sister publication PoliticsHome.

“As our report shows, there are clear benefits that can outweigh these costs in the long run – but ministers need to commit to doing transparency properly and sustain their focus or they won’t see the pay-off.”

The report says perm secs should take responsibility for their department’s releases by ensuring that teams throughout the department are focused on meeting clearly defined transparency commitments. This would mean “transparency is not just a box-ticking exercise that involves costs without seeing any benefits”, it says.

Additionally, the report calls for select committees to hold permanent secretaries accountable for the quality of their department’s transparency publications, something the IfG previously recommended in a 2021 report on transparency.

Departments should also improve civil servants’ capacity for taking a more transparent approach, the report argues. It says transparency should be ultimately integrated into everyday processes, to limit costs, but those working in data modelling and information management should be given whatever support they need to prepare data for release.

The government should also ensure that communications officials have the necessary skills to describe data, and that policy officials can clearly justify how they have drawn on information for decision making, the report adds.

The analysis paper – based on seven case studies – also calls for an increased focus on learning lessons from outside the civil service. It says civil servants already take useful lessons from the approaches of international partners – such as the Cabinet Office’s 2020 public procurement green paper, which cited the positive experiences of Ukraine and South Korea when making the case for a transparent digital procurement strategy.

It suggests valuable lessons can also be learnt from the experience of local authorities too, highlighting the Local Government Association’s digital database LG Inform, which allows for transparency data to be compared in a meaningful way across authorities.

The UK has fallen to its lowest-ever position in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index this week, from 18th (out of 181 countries) in 2022 to 20th in 2023.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, told PoliticsHome that members were time and again seeing examples of "opaque and unaccountable policymaking".

The PAC published a report recently which scrutinised the New Hospital Programme, in which multiple large-scale projects were removed and added to the programme at the last minute.

"We don’t know whether government special advisers were involved, and this is a classic case of public confidence being undermined by that lack of transparency," Hillier said, adding that they had seen similar examples with the Towns Fund in 2020 and levelling up funding in 2022.

"The civil service is populated with public servants of great integrity and dedication, but with the UK continuing to sink in Transparency International’s rankings for perceived corruption levels, efforts must be doubled and redoubled by senior officials to lead from the top in letting that sunlight in.”

In October, then-Committee on Standards in Public Life chair Lord Jonathan Evans warned that departments not taking transparency seriously could breed corruption.

“If you look at, for instance, the very unsatisfactory way in which transparency reports are published in respect of lobbying, it's pretty clear that that is not a priority,” he said. “Financial interests and conflicts of interests must be disclosed and the information must be accessible to the public.”

The government committed to several reforms to transparency in July last year in response to the recommendations in the CSPL's 2021 Upholding Standards in Public Life report.

These included: developing a single platform to collate and publish departments' transparency returns; requiring departments to disclose diarised phone calls and virtual meetings, as well as in-person meetings; and extending transparency obligations to directors general, finance and commercial directors, and senior responsible owners in the government's Major Projects Portfolio.

The Cabinet Office has been approached for comment.

This story includes original reporting by Zoe Crowther, a reporter at CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome


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