23 November 2016

It’s often difficult to work out the evidence behind government announcements – whether we’re talking about reforming schools or changing the tax system. Jen Gold says this matters more than ever, given mistrust underlined by Brexit and Trump victories.

Today’s Autumn Statement will likely see a raft of new policy announcements. But if the public – and, for that matter, Parliament – are to understand and engage with the rationale behind these policies, the Government will need to be transparent about the evidence behind them. Such transparency – as Lord Kerr pointed out at our event last week on making policy in a divided country – is critical to restoring trust in an era of “post-truth” politics.

A new report, published today by Sense about Science in partnership with the IfG and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, asks how transparent policymakers have been over the past year. It uses a transparency ‘framework’ that our three organisations created in 2015, to assess whether someone outside of government could tell what evidence has been used and how the government has reviewed or used that evidence. Today’s report examines a sample of 78 policies produced by the Cameron government, highlighting both good and bad practice, ahead of a full benchmarking exercise next year.

The report points to a number of ways that May’s government can improve on transparency going forward. For me, five stand out:

1. Be clear about work done

The policies examined often hinted at the fact that departments had gone to significant lengths to consider available evidence, but documents were light on details (the Treasury’s abolition of the carbon reduction tax was one such policy). Disclosure about work done, as the report’s authors point out, is a basic “prerequisite to informed discussion”. Good practice was out there: the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport scored highly for publishing the review behind its proposal to set up a unitary board for the BBC.

2. Quality, not quantity

Citations have to be meaningful, and readers need to be able to understand the relevance of source material to make their own assessments. For instance, one footnote in the white paper behind the Department for Education’s academisation policy rather unhelpfully sent readers to a collection of almost 200 publications on the GOV.UK website! In contrast, Defra’s consultation on protection measures against the flea beetle, Epitrix, was an example of good practice – relevant source material was just one click away.

3.  Mind the gaps

There will be times when government will need to make a decision where the evidence is limited. But they ought to be transparent about this. Take, for example, the Gender Equality Office’s proposals to address pay inequality, which gave little consideration to obvious weaknesses in the evidence base. But, again, there were many examples of good practice, including Defra’s air quality plans, the Ministry of Justice’s proposed panel for publicly-funded criminal advocacy, and the Department for Transport’s proposals to reduce roadwork disruption on local A roads.

4.  Manifestos are not an excuse

Policies based on election campaign promises must be held to the same standards as policies developed in office. The 2015 Conservative manifesto was the source of some of the highest and lowest scores for transparency.

So government’s manifesto commitment to “reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed and injured on our roads every year” led to a well-referenced policy proposal by the Department for Transport to increase the number of penalty points and the fines associated with using hand-held mobile phones while driving. By contrast, the vow for “a truly 7-day NHS” saw a poorly-sourced assessment by Department of Health. Contrary to what some officials told the report’s authors, there is no reason why manifesto-based policies should be exempt from a thorough diagnosis of the policy problem and review of appropriate responses.

5.  Clarity around spending announcements

As we look to today’s Autumn Statement, it’s worth noting that policy proposals that had their origin in a budget or spending review scored among the lowest for transparency.

This evidence deficit chimes with the findings from our tax policy project with the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Our final report, due in January, will look at ways of addressing it.

Many of the policies that emerge from the Autumn Statement will likely form part of the full benchmarking exercise next year. As departments grapple with the key announcements and work up their proposals, they must be more transparent about the evidence they use. If politicians are to recover some public trust in a 'post-truth era' then it’s vital that government takes transparency seriously. After that, it’s up to the rest of us to hold government to account.