Working to make government more effective


Getting government to show its workings

Our new evidence transparency framework will give citizens a tool to understand governmental transparency.

The Government is now in full policy making mode – able to translate manifesto commitments into action. But if it is also to meet its commitment to transparency, citizens need to be able to understand what problems the Government sees its policies as addressing, why they have chosen these interventions – and whether they deliver. Our new evidence transparency framework will help assess the extent to which they can.

The last Parliament saw the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, the Regulatory Policy Committee and the What Works centres – all designed to ensure that policy was based on robust evidence and assumptions. But this progress in specific areas was not translated into a transparent approach across the board. Our earlier work suggested that there were few external incentives to promote demand for evidence by policy makers. At the suggestion of Cabinet Office ‘What Works’ adviser David Halpern, we decided to accept the challenge of developing a method for benchmarking government departments’ use of evidence to make policy. What appeared to be a simple idea in theory proved to be much harder in practice, as we came up against the following barriers to openness:
  • The government website,, contains a long list of ‘policies’. But it is often hard to track down the initial proposition and harder still to see how it evolved through rounds of consultation and legislation. Many entries simply consist of an uncurated list of links, with no explanation of how they fit together and what problems they are seeking to address.
  • It is often hard to determine what evidence is being used to support a proposition.
  • For non-experts, even if there are clear links it is impossible to judge what evidence has been omitted, what has been cherry-picked and what has been misused.
We rapidly concluded that it would be impossible to develop a way for non-experts to judge the quality of evidence behind policy. But we also realised that transparency was an essential first step towards allowing quality to be assessed – and that transparency was often lacking. That is why we have launched our evidence transparency framework, together with the Alliance for Useful Evidence and Sense about Science. It sets out what ‘good’ should look like and offers clear explanations of why government is saying or doing certain things, together with an appreciation of where there are uncertainties and gaps. Its aim is to provide a checklist for departments – but also allow outsiders to assess how open government is. The Science and Technology Select Committee have just announced that they will use it as the basis of their new evidence check exercise (which follows from one that the Education Committee carried out last Parliament. Next year Sense about Science, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Institute for Government will use the framework to assess evidence transparency – to give plaudits to departments who do this well and incentivise those who lag to do better. That benchmarking will show who is doing well and who less so – but it will also show to what extent the Civil Service is meeting its commitment to greater transparency about the evidence behind policy outlined in the 2012 Civil Service reform plan. In the accompanying report Show Your Workings, which explains how we developed the framework, we also set out two recommendations:
  1. Heads of policy should find a way to present policy more clearly on
  2. Chief Scientific Advisers (and chief analysts) should set out how they will make sure their departments can meet the demands of the framework.
In turn, they can demand that those who seek to lobby them are equally transparent about their evidence. Is this an attempt to depoliticise policy making? Not at all. Politics is, first and foremost, about the choice of priorities to tackle within the limited resources available to government. But sometimes politicians simply judge that things are the right thing to do – and as long as they are clear about the basis of their decisions, that will score top points in our framework. We also hope that by getting government to be clearer on the rationale behind policies and how they will judge success, we can raise the standard of public debate – and better distinguish between good and bad failures, where these occur. Ultimately though, this is about accountability to citizens. Citizens elect governments to take decisions in their name. But citizens are not Victorian children, simply to be told that something is right and never to be questioned. Government showing its workings to those who elected them, and those whose job it is to hold them to account, is an essential building block of an effective democracy. We welcome your feedback on the framework.
Institute for Government

Related content