Which government departments are the least transparent?

Written by Beckie Smith on 4 October 2021 in News
News

Report from think tank identifies which parts of Whitehall are worst at publishing data on spending, meetings and other information

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The Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice are the least transparent departments in Whitehall, a think tank has found.

In a report looking at how reliably departments stick to rules requiring them to publish regular information on spending, meetings with people outside government and other areas, the Institute for Government found several departments routinely publish data late, in formats that are unhelpful, or in some cases provide no data at all.

Among the worst offenders is the Home Office, which published mandated data on senior civil servants’ meetings in just three of 23 quarters between the 2015 election and March 2021. Two of the three were late.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office meanwhile did not publish any information on meetings held by ministers or officials until a full year after it was set up in September 2020. 


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Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has been dubbed the “least reliable department” on special adviser data, after failing to publish on six occasions.

The report looked at how frequently since the 2015 general election departments had published data in four areas: ministerial gifts, hospitality, travel and meetings; special advisers’ gifts, hospitality and meetings; senior civil servants’ business expenses, hospitality and meetings; and advice given to senior civil servants under the business appointment rules. 

The so-called “central government corporate transparency commitments” were first set up by then-prime minister David Cameron, and made a requirement by his successor Theresa May.

The think tank noted that Boris Johnson reiterated the requirement for all ministers to publish this information when he updated the ministerial code after becoming prime minister in 2019.

But the report noted: "Revelations throughout 2021 about lobbying by former ministers, including Cameron himself on behalf of finance firm Greensill, have raised questions about whether the government has the right systems in place to manage lobbying properly, and whether ministers and their departments take this responsibility seriously enough."

Across all four areas, the FCDO – along with its predecessor departments, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – was the least reliable at publishing quarterly releases. The Ministry of Justice and Home Office ranked only slightly higher.

The Department for Work and Pensions was the most reliable publisher. The think tank assigned each ministry a score out of 400, depending on how frequently it published quarterly reports in the four areas, and DWP scored 348. The Department for Business, Energy and International Strategy was second most reliable, followed by the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade.

The report noted that simply publishing the bare minimum information is not enough to enable scrutiny of departments’ work. It said too often, quarterly releases lack detail, despite guidance to the contrary; for example, it says for records of ministers’ and officials’ meetings, ministries “should make every effort to provide details on the purpose of the meeting”.

Contrary to this guidance, for example, Treasury minister John Glen – the minister responsible for financial services – attended 39 meetings in the first quarter of 2020 to discuss “financial services”.

“This was not the least informative example: the Treasury described the purpose of five meetings held by its permanent secretary in July to September 2018 simply as 'meeting', while the then Department for International Development failed to provide any description at all for more than half of its permanent secretary’s meetings in January to March 2020,” the report added.

Data on meetings held by special advisers, however, was of the lowest quality overall. Departments are only required to disclose meetings that special advisers have with media organisations – although some do go further – but these were often recorded in vague terms such as “general catch-up” or “lunch”.

To improve transparency, the IfG said the Cabinet Office should “properly” coordinate departmental releases, enforcing guidance to ensure departments publish releases every quarter. It should also work with the Treasury to “simplify and enforce” guidance on information about NEDs, the think tank said.

Poor performing departments like the Home Office and MoJ should meanwhile set up new systems to provide the information they are supposed to – learning from better-performing counterparts like DWP – the report said.

And permanent secretaries must also take notice, ensuring departments “take the government’s commitments to transparency seriously”. This means not leaving them up to junior admin staff, the report said. It also recommended select committees hold perm secs to account by questioning them on their department’s publishing record.

A government spokesperson said: “We will carefully consider the recommendations of the recent Boardman review in this area [into supply chain finance and lobbying], along with the ongoing work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and we will respond in due course.”

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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