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Government transparency: Departmental releases: ministers and officials

Government departments are failing to live up to transparency commitments made by successive PMs

With revelations around David Cameron’s lobbying and Matt Hancock’s relationship with a non-executive director in his department showing the importance of transparency in government, this report analyses government information – published between July 2015 and March 2021 – on who ministers, civil servants and special advisers meet and the gifts and hospitality they receive.

Measuring ‘reliability’, ‘quality’, and ‘accessibility’, the tests set by Theresa May when she was prime minister and which still guide the government’s approach to transparency releases, it finds that government departments vary massively in the speed at which they publish data – and the level of detail they share. Things have got worse during the pandemic, but performance was already patchy.

The report finds that:

  • The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which was created in September 2020, did not publish any information on meetings held by ministers or officials in the newly-merged department until September 2021.
  • The Ministry of Justice is by far the least reliable department on ministerial releases, often publishing data late, and failing to publish any information on five occasions.  
  • The Home Office has published the required data on senior officials’ meetings in just three of 23 quarters between the 2015 election and March 2021. Two of those releases were late.
  • The MoJ is also the least reliable department on special adviser data, failing to publish on six occasions.
  • Even when information is published, it is not always useful. The Treasury described the purpose of five meetings held by its permanent secretary in July–September 2018 as simply “meeting”.

It recommends that

  • Permanent secretaries ensure that departments take the government’s commitments to transparency seriously, and do not leave them to be completed by junior administrative staff.
  • Poor performing departments like the Foreign Office, Home Office and MoJ set up new systems to provide the information they are supposed to.
  • The Cabinet Office properly co-ordinates the departmental releases – enforcing the guidance to ensure that each is published within one quarter, is easy to find and provides high quality information.
  • The Cabinet Office works with the Treasury to simplify and enforce the guidance on what departments are supposed to publish on their NEDs.

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