10 May 2017

A new report says government needs to do more to make financial data usable by Parliament and the wider public. Gavin Freeguard says it’s on the money.

Tracking government spending is still more difficult than it should be. We’ve highlighted this issue in reports like Whitehall Monitor and Performance Tracker – but don’t just take our word for it. One of the many select committee reports published before Parliament dissolved thoroughly backs us up.

Published by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee (PACAC), Accounting for democracy: making sure Parliament, the people and ministers know how and why public money is spent argues that government spending is still too opaque. The report says annual reports and accounts published by departments are still “badly written and difficult to understand or follow” and therefore are not being read or used by MPs or citizens.

PACAC says the Government should give Parliament and public the data they need to hold it to account for its spending and performance, and provide those running departments – ministers and civil servants – with “the information that they require to run the department and its agencies efficiently and effectively”.

The report recommends several actions we also argue for in Whitehall Monitor and Performance Tracker.

Government accounts should be designed with users in mind…

The Treasury needs to do more to engage current and potential users, and ask how they are currently using the documents, and how they might be improved. Accounts shouldn’t just be for accountants.

…which means helpful formats and information.

Departments should explain results where necessary, include a named contact for any statistical queries, and publish data in Excel or other open formats.

Accounts should make it easier to track government spending at policy level and explain why spending plans have changed…

Readers should be able to understand:

  • How outturn – actual spending – compares to spending plans and why they’ve changed, without having to root around in several documents.
  • Spending by policy area, as well as by organisation – “it is almost impossible” for the public to find spending on mental health services, for example, and “assess the value for money of that spending.” Performance Tracker underlines the importance of tracking spending and performance by policy and service area.
  • Change over time – responsibilities shifting between departments, as well as departments taking flexible approaches to the baselines they measure from, can make tracking change over time difficult. The report recommends clear explanations and a rolling time series for five years.

A recommendation that departments should report on any spending commitments made by press release or in Parliament could also force politicians into more credible fiscal promises.

…and tie this to government performance.

Departments should relate spending to performance for policy areas and significant projects “so that citizens can evaluate how effectively departments are spending money”. Single Departmental Plans – which we described as “a laundry list of nice-to-haves” – have “potential” but “clearly need to be used and published in order to fulfil that potential” and are currently insufficiently open with “too little detail on spending or performance”.  

The report is clear on the importance of being open…

Data should be published in open formats (and use Full Fact’s ranking system) so analysts inside and outside government “can swiftly extract the data and make use of it”; earlier outside scrutiny “would allow those outside government to assist in identifying issues and avoiding mistakes”. Fuller publication – for example, of Single Departmental Plans – can also “assist in embedding a culture of management information within government”.

…and of government, Parliament and the public actually using the available data.

PACAC argues that select committees’ “reluctance” in using annual reports to date comes in part “from the nature of the information those documents provide, and the difficulties of using them”. If their recommended reforms are implemented, there can be no excuse for parliamentarians not using them to scrutinise government.

There can also be no excuse for departments themselves: management information should be a “key function” and not a “nice to have”, and all senior civil servants should know it is “impossible” to deliver public services effectively without good data and decisions should be made “on the basis of a full understanding of the practically available data”.

These issues are not confined to the UK – key parts of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) came into effect in the US yesterday, ensuring consistent spending data is available to “taxpayers and policy makers” alike.

But whatever government we have in the UK after 8 June could put government accounts on a strong and stable footing by implementing PACAC’s recommendations.