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Canada shows the way on government financial transparency

Canada makes all its government financial and performance data available through one easy-to-use web portal. The UK Government could do the same.

Canada makes all its government financial and performance data available through one easy-to-use web portal. Martin Wheatley says the UK Government could do the same.

Would you like to know how much money the Department for Transport is planning to spend this year? How that compares with previous years? What is it planning to do with the money?

Well, you can’t. In the UK, the Government either publishes information (for example, spending plans or departments’ annual reports) buried away, in a format only experts can understand or not at all. The Single Departmental Plans describe each department’s objectives and how they will achieve them. But they are apparently not suitable for MPs’ and other lesser mortals’ eyes, despite the Chief Executive of the Civil Service John Manzoni admitting “it is not as though they are full of state secrets”.

But if you’re Canadian, you can go to one web portal and find all the spending information you want. Whether you are interested in the whole of government or one arm’s-length body, the Canadian Government’s Infobase is a standard-bearer. Canada’s system of government is very similar to the UK, including the way its Parliament signs off and scrutinises public spending. The Treasury and Cabinet Office could easily set up a UK-version of Infobase so that Parliament and the public know what is being done with their money and can hold the Government to account. 

There is more of interest to enthusiasts for government data and transparency than I can do justice to in a short blog, so I’ll just pick out three good features.

1. A handy section called 'The Government at a Glance' 

Click on the section...

and you get to this.

Interested in defence? Click on the Department of National Defence to get through to this:

And then this page, whose panels lead you on to a mass of information about the department.

2. Infobase also enables you to find out about the results the Canadian Government has achieved

These pages present past results in a clear graphic form, and enable you to see what the Government is planning to achieve next.

3. Canada also publishes much more informative departmental plans than the UK

Search for “single departmental plans” on GOV.UK and you end up with 61,856 results. Find your way through that to the actual departmental plans, and you will get 8–10 pages of inconsistent and very high-level commentary, with no indication of how departments are spending their money on the various objectives they set out.

 Via Infobase, you can either download departments’ plans as pdfs, around 40–50 pages of informative, consistently presented material, or click straight through to the different sections.

Despite some cautious but useful reforms to the reporting of departmental spending and results announced recently by the Treasury, there is, regrettably, no sign of the UK Government getting close to the quantity, quality and ease of access of information in the Canadian system. Indeed, we have gone backwards in recent years: before 2015, the Number 10 website hosted a rudimentary tracker of all departmental plans.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in facts and figures about central government and public services performance, the Institute’s Whitehall Monitor and Performance Tracker have spared the rest of us the time and trouble of searching them out of government’s array of hard-to-navigate data sources.

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