Communicating transparently

Despite David Cameron’s commitment to the open government agenda, between 2010 and 2016 many departments failed to answer information requests or publish key transparency releases on time (if at all), while becoming more likely to withhold information in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. Theresa May’s Home Office was one of the worst-performing departments in some of these areas.

Communicating transparently with Parliament and the wider public is an important part of departments’ work; it ensures they can be held accountable for their actions, and is also an indicator of administrative competence. Departments communicate in a number of ways: through FoI requests, correspondence with ministers, answering parliamentary questions and – since 2010, when Cameron committed the Coalition to making government more open and more accountable – mandated publication of important financial and organisational data.[1]

May’s Home Office was among the worst-performing departments in responding to requests for information on time.

Percentage of parliamentary questions, ministerial correspondence and FOI answered on time

The Home Office under Theresa May was consistently poor at responding to different types of information request, scoring worst of all departments for FoI and second-worst for parliamentary questions. It did receive a high volume of requests in all categories; it had more ministerial correspondence than any other department, with more than 300,000 pieces between 2010 and 2015 (where it was a decent sixth-best at responding on time). It ranked third in volume terms for parliamentary questions and fourth for FoI, but there is no apparent correlation between volume and timeliness for any type of request – and those departments with a high volume should ensure they have the capacity to deal with it.

DfE came bottom of our ranking, but was largely dragged down by its performance at the start of the parliament: for example, it answered only 18% and 23% of parliamentary questions on time in 2010-12 and 2012-13, but has answered more than 90% on time in each session since. DH and DfID have been consistently good at responding to requests on time since 2010. Departments were generally slower at responding to ministerial correspondence than to FoI or parliamentary questions.

Percentage of FOI requests answered on time against current and possible future target

Closer inspection reveals that HO was one of only three departments (the others were DfEand MoJ) that responded to under 85% of FoI requests on time in total between the third quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2016. This is the current target for timeliness, below which departments can be subject to special monitoring. The new Information Commissioner has mooted a possible tougher threshold of 90% timeliness; the Cabinet Office would be one of four additional departments to fall short of this, despite being responsible for government FoI policy.[2]

Departments have become less transparent since 2010 and have not consistently fulfilled their requirements.

Percentage of FOI requests fully withheld, total for all government departments

Timeliness of response is a useful measure of administrative competence, but the amount of information released is a better indicator of transparency. In terms of FoI, government departments have become more protective of their information, withholding all information in response to 40% of FoI requests in Q2 2016, as against 25% in Q3 2010. The same trend is seen across all monitored government organisations: 37% of requests were fully withheld in 2016, against 25% in 2010.

The Home Office withheld all information in response to 25% of requests in Q3 2010, and 40% in Q2 2016. Even relatively open departments such as DH and DfID increased the proportion of requests for which information was fully withheld. There may be good reasons for not releasing information. The Freedom of Information Act provides a number of exemptions – between 2010 and 2016, requests withheld because of the personal data exemption rose by 25%, for example. Nonetheless, this retrenchment is not encouraging.

FoI is not the only aspect of government transparency we can measure. David Cameron wrote to all departments shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 2010, encouraging greater transparency involving the release of data, and set some specific commitments. One of these was publishing monthly expenditure over £25,000 (according to HMT, by the end of the following calendar month – in our analysis, we’ve given departments a few days’ grace beyond that).[3]

Percentage of monthly releases of spend over £25,000 published on time

Altogether, 51% of these monthly releases were published late, and 3% were not published at all. The Home Office again performed relatively poorly; between November 2010 and October 2016, 35% of its monthly releases were published within the time set by HMT. The Cabinet Office, DfT, Defra and DCMS published under 20% of their releases on time; notoriously, CO – responsible for government transparency policy – published some of its spend data, 13 months late, only after FoI requests from the open data start-up Spend Network.[4] Just five departments – HMRC, DH, FCO, DfE and DWP – definitely published more than 50% of their data on time. DfT, HMT and HO failed to publish more than 5% of their spending data at all.

Publication of departmental organograms

Departments’ records in publishing their organograms – detailed lists of employees, their pay and their seniority – are better, but still patchy in some cases and have worsened over the past couple of years. For March 2011, all departments published some data in some form; for March 2016, eight departments failed to publish any data. BIS, DECC (both now abolished), and DfID are among the worst performers, with HMRC and DH among the best (as with data for expenditure over £25,000).

Encouragingly, data.gov.uk has recently revamped its system for publishing this data, making it easier for departments to do so.[5] However, even where organograms and spend data have been published, there are problems: the organogram data has inconsistencies over time (e.g. the names of units within departments), and between it and other datasets (e.g. the ONS on professions of civil servants), while our previous work with Spend Network has shown that some spend data is not recorded. There is also a lack of clarity about how government organisations are defined and about which private companies are ultimately benefiting from government contracts.[6] All of this suggests departments are not ‘dogfooding’, or using their own data, to understand their operations better and ultimately improve them.[7]

It is unclear how transparent the May Government will be – and new departments need to get up to speed quickly.

Departmental publication of £25,000 spend

As departments divert resources towards planning for Brexit, there is a risk that transparency could drop down the agenda. In addition to organogram publication tailing off, some departments have stopped publishing expenditure data over the past few months; since the June referendum, DfT, HMT, HO and DCLG have failed to publish at least three months’ data, and no monthly releases have yet been published for DExEU, DIT or BEIS (as of December 2016).

Number of parliamentary questions received by departments

The departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – will need to get used to responding to information requests as well as publishing their transparency data. Parliamentary questions are already being asked, although since the end of the summer recess, only BEIS has received more parliamentary questions than the government average. DIT and DExEU have so far received fewer questions than any other departments apart from the territorial offices. DExEU received fewer parliamentary questions in November than October, although the volume received by BEIS and DIT has been climbing since September.

The departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – will need to get used to responding to information requests as well as publishing their transparency data. Parliamentary questions are already being asked, although since the end of the summer r

The new departments received few FoI requests in their first quarter – BEIS had 195, DExEU 54 and DIT 42. But DExEU (72%) and BEIS (75%) both fell below the 85% timeliness threshold, and DIT (86%) was just above it. DExEU and BEIS in particular need to get better at responding on time, or risk special monitoring by the Information Commissioner.[8]