29 August 2013

Our first Whitehall Monitor Annual Report and supporting web area has just gone live following a year-long project to develop it. Here we provide a look behind the scenes at how we built the Whitehall Monitor.

What is Whitehall Monitor?
A year ago we embarked on a project to explore and analyse the data on government to get insights into the effectiveness of Whitehall. We’d previously put out short ad hoc Whitehall Monitor bulletins, but we wanted to expand this into a more comprehensive review of the information about Whitehall’s effectiveness. The result is our first Whitehall Monitor annual report and a beta website that presents the underlying data and analysis.

Why focus on Whitehall?
Though Whitehall is small relative to the scale of the whole of government and the wider public sector, it plays a pivotal role. The majority of government’s resources get channelled through Whitehall departments and the strategic decisions taken here can have significant effects downstream for the public.

Whitehall also forms the crucial interface between elected politicians and the machinery of government. It is the route through which ministers get their ideas turned into action.

Finally, it’s an area that can often appear to be a bit of a black box. While there’s reasonable coverage of how particular public services like schools or hospitals operate, understanding what goes on within Whitehall departments and whether they are working effectively is more challenging. With leaders in Whitehall undertaking wide-reaching reforms whilst contending with reduced resources to deliver them, having a clear view of department’s effectiveness has never been more crucial.

What data did you use?
The government’s transparency agenda has seen vast volumes of data published by government over the last few years with new information being released all the time. Rather than attempt the impossible task of trying to analyse everything, we focused on the key sources of information that would help us assess the effectiveness of Whitehall.

We reviewed the main published sources of information on Government’s finances (such as Budgets, departmental Annual Reports and Accounts, Treasury PESA data, Whole of Government Accounts and many more), the civil service workforce (ONS Civil Service Statistics, Public Sector Employment figures, Civil Service Engagement Survey and Workforce Management Information) and also some of the main publicised frameworks that Government uses to demonstrate its performance (Structural Reform Plans, Impact Indicators, Major Projects Authority, Permanent Secretary Objectives).

Our focus was to find information that would allow us to judge the effectiveness of Whitehall itself rather than assess everything about government or the performance of specific sectors. We took a pragmatic approach – looking for the information that government was using itself, how complete or robust the information appeared to be, and assessing how easy it was to access and use the available information.

What did you find?
We set out to review Whitehall’s effectiveness using a basic inputs/outputs/outcomes framework – tracking the resources Whitehall has, what it does with them, and the end effect this has.

•Overall, there’s a huge amount of information available on Whitehall, especially when looking at the resources it receives.
•We also found that where there were clear objectives set around resource reductions (budgets and staff cuts), to date, departments have been meeting or exceeding these plans.
•However, the available information on Whitehall’s outputs and outcomes was less comprehensive and in many cases did not seem to be locked into reporting or accountability mechanisms inside departments.

Though there’s lots of data now available, in some cases, this can be tricky to access or analyse. To support government in its efforts to improve its data, we also set out some simple, practical steps that should be taken to make the information more accessible (see Annex A, Whitehall Monitor 2013).

What’s next?

We will continue to publish new data and analytical bulletins on a regular basis via our new Whitehall Monitor website and follow up on the steps for improved information in government. The analysis will support the Institute’s continued work on government effectiveness, and will, we hope, be used by others to hold government to account.

We welcome feedback and suggestions on how we can improve these resources further – contact the team at whitehallmonitor@instituteforgovernment.org.uk

Then of course it will be on to the next annual report - Whitehall Monitor 2014.