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Improving the transparency and accountability of public bodies

A new survey shows just how many public bodies do not clearly report their performance. Without more transparency, there will be little improvement or accountability when things go wrong, argues Daniel Thornton.

Many public bodies are not transparent about their performance, a new survey by the Institute for Government, the Public Chairs’ Forum and Association of Chief Executives shows.

This lack of quality performance information makes it hard for Parliament and the public to understand how public bodies are performing, for Government departments to provide assurance about the use of public money, and for the bodies to manage themselves.

For example, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) has unclear targets for housing and does not provide information about the social housing that it regulates.

For many years the Institute for Government has called for better transparency. As the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has recently said, transparency helps to build trust.

For public bodies, making performance information clear and accessible to the public on a regular basis creates an incentive to make sure performance information is reliable and up to date, and helps to reduce the need for Government departments to frequently ask public bodies for this information.

At the moment, those who want to find out how public bodies are performing must piece together information from different documents, often with no explanation of the rationale for an initial target or why those targets have subsequently changed. Performance is rarely measured over consecutive years, so it’s hard to establish trends.

The Government should push for more transparency in all public bodies.

The Government’s new code of practice on partnerships with public bodies encourages them and Government departments to develop more mature relationships. But it makes no mention of transparency. This is a missed opportunity.

A new version of the code should follow the example of New Zealand by providing a clear reporting framework, which for large public bodies should include published performance information updated every year at the very least. This should set out progress and explain any changes in targets.

Some public bodies are more transparent than others.

Let’s start with the least transparent. The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) falls under Sajid Javid’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Despite Javid’s call for transparency in local government, the merger of the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) into the HCA has led to a loss of information about how social landlords are performing: for example, how many complaints there were against registered providers of social housing and what action was taken as a result.

This information used to be provided in TSA annual reports, but no longer features in HCA reports and the performance information that HCA does provide is unclear.

The HCA’s corporate plan for 2014-2018 notes that the HCA will “contribute to the government’s ambitions to deliver up to 165,000 new affordable homes by April 2018” but only sets a one year target for the HCA for 2014-15 of 29,000 affordable homes. The report of 2015-2016 has an HCA target of 13,500 affordable homes, and the latest report 17,000. It is not clear where these lower targets come from, or how they relate to the government’s overall housing targets.

HM Land Registry provides a better example of transparent performance reporting. Its annual report provides a table setting out key indicators and objectives, how they are approved and their performance against each of them.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) provides an even better example. Its annual report provides a table with objectives and targets, and reports against them. Its strategic plan reports on the previous plan and sets new long term goals, objectives and targets for the year ahead.

This mixed picture on public bodies’ transparency is also reflected across government. In 2010 Francis Maude led a move towards greater transparency which is in danger of losing momentum. Part of the problem is that information about performance is often hard to find on GOV.UK.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) should require all departments and public bodies to report on their performance in a consistent open data format in a dedicated section on performance; rather than burying information in inaccessible formats in hard to find places.

As Ofsted’s Chief Inspector recently warned, indicators and targets need to be set carefully to avoid perverse incentives, and will never provide the whole picture of an organisation’s performance. But where they have been set, they should be easy to find and analyse.

Government should make this a priority to improve the performance of public bodies and to hold them to account when things go wrong. 

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