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IfG expresses fears over open data ‘drift’ in Whitehall



Institute for Government report points to major shortcomings in departments’ efforts to create transparency

The Government has been criticised for allowing its open data policy to drift and becoming less transparent with delays in publishing monthly spending figures.

Think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) makes the claims in its new Whitehall Monitor 2017 report, which while dealing mainly with the consequences of Brexit for the Civil Service, includes a focus on the Government’s record on transparency issues.

It says that when departments release data it is often in a format that makes it difficult to re-use, despite the Government’s commitment to doing so. It is often in PDF rather than more usable spreadsheets, and there are issues around the quality. These include the way departments are defined and variations around the presentation of datasets that makes comparisons difficult.

This leads to the conclusion that departments are not making enough use of their own data; otherwise it would be better and more easily accessible.

There are other worrying signs. The report says the open data movement has lost some of its champions in government, including former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, and the UK failed to send a minister to the recent Open Government Partnership meeting.

Some good work

“Some have detected a sense of drift,” says the report, but it acknowledges good work has been done on open data in some areas – notably the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Register Design Authority of GDS – and that there are communities in and outside of government that champion the cause.

The IfG report also says the delays in publishing data are undermining the principles of freedom of information (FoI).

Embarrassingly for Prime Minister Theresa May, the Home Office under her former stewardship was among the worst offenders last year. It was the third worst department for replying to information requests on time – withholding information in response to 40% of FoI requests in 2016, a big increase from 25% in 2010.

Across Whitehall, departments have been late in publishing monthly spending details over £25,000 more than half the time, with the Cabinet Office over a year behind with some data. And six months since their creation, three new departments – for Brexit, International Trade and Business – have yet to publish any information at all about their spending.

Gavin Freeguard, the IfG’s head of data and transparency, said: “The decisions taken in Whitehall – the centre of British government – impact on people all over the country. Understanding the way it works is vital.

“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.”

Raise game

Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “Last year I said departments needed to up their game on transparency. 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.”

Under rules introduced by David Cameron, departments are supposed to publish their monthly spending by the end of the following month. But between 2010-16, “even allowing a few days’ grace”, 51% of datasets were published late and 3% not at all.

Departments have also been inconsistent in publishing their organograms, which record details of departmental units, salaries, grades and lines of management.

Image by Jan Ainali, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

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