The Whitehall data deficit

30 Aug 13

A lack of useable public information on how Whitehall performs means that assessing its overall effectiveness is an impossible task for any ‘armchair auditor’

Over the past year, the Institute for Government has analysed more than 500 pieces of data, including budgets and departmental accounts, civil service staff numbers, and departments' management information. Our aim: to build a picture of how effectively Whitehall is performing.

That we could mine such a huge tranche of data is in itself a marker of how far the government’s commendable commitment to transparency has travelled. Officials and politicians deserve credit for supporting improvements in government data.

We took a pragmatic approach – looking for the information that government was itself using, considering how complete or robust the information appeared to be, and assessing how easy it was to access and use it.

Ultimately, what we’ve found is that a lack of useable data means that it is impossible to get an overall picture of Whitehall’s effectiveness. Specifically, there are insufficient links in the data between the resources that departmental leaders receive, how they are deployed and performance against the government’s aims.

Overall we found that where Whitehall uses the data it produces it tends to be of better quality. This reflects earlier IfG research, which found that good data is demand driven – and that where it is used for decision-making, there are incentives to improve its quality.

Departments themselves clearly feel that Business Plans, introduced by the coalition in 2010 to replace Public Service Agreements, do not meet their own need to know how they are doing. Eight out of seventeen ministerial departments have developed their own performance measures.

One example: the Ministry of Defence has developed a new tool, a model of defence capabilities that shows future confidence ratings forforce elements over time. This lets leaders see where and when weaknesses might appear and provides information about the lead times required to build capability in these areas.

It allows the leadership to address the issues highlighted, indicating when decisions will be required and identifying trade-offs across Defence. It has helped balance immediate concerns and the department’s longer-term requirements in a more informed way.

So there is good news. But the development of measures by departments in an uncoordinated way is one reason that makes it difficult for us – and difficult for the civil service leadership - to use the data to compare performance, to see which departments are using resources effectively – and which are not. And it is impossible to get a picture of the whole.

Our report also identifies straightforward improvements that, if made across the board, can make government data much easier to use.

These include providing key data in a machine-readable format, with an index and explanation of what it covers; and reporting consistent sets of information across government based on consistent organisational boundaries – for example, ensuring ‘Cabinet Office’ or ‘DCLG’ are defined in the same way across government publications.

The whole set of recommendations is set out in Annex A to the IfG's Whitehall Monitor 2013 report. We believe these improvements will allow better scrutiny by Parliament and others, and pave the way for better decision-making.

Some improvements are already in train. In June, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced a review of financial management. We have previously put forward evidence on the roles a central finance function could play in improving financial management. Good financial information is key in this respect.

The Treasury has also been soliciting views on improving departmental accounts. All this gives us hope that when we start working on the next edition of the Monitor we will find it easier to achieve our ambition of building a complete picture of Whitehall’s effectiveness - and that better use of data will have driven performance improvement in Whitehall itself.

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