Government should use National Data Strategy to address ‘serious problems’ with outsourcing data, think tank urges

The Institute for Government wants to see more and better data on contracts and the civil service workforce

As part of the upcoming National Data Strategy, ministers ought to publish more coherent details of how public money is spent, as well as detailed data on the Whitehall workforce, the Institute for Government has urged. 

In a new report – written by the think tank’s head of data and transparency Gavin Freeguard – the IfG identified outsourced public-sector contracts as an area in need of greater transparency. It noted that the Cabinet Office had to ask Carillion for data on the extent of its public-sector contracts beyond those with central departments after the construction and outsourcing giant went into involuntary liquidation in January.

“Government spent £277bn procuring goods, works and services from third parties in 2016/17, but we still know too little about what it is spending, with whom, [and] to what effect,” Freeguard said. “Government could manage contracts more effectively if it could link tenders, contracts and spending; those outside government could bring greater insight and better hold government to account if such data were published. There are serious problems with the available data.”

The report also says departments should make sure their annual reports and accounts present spending by policy or service, in a way that the public can understand, and that data should be shown in a way that is consistent between years.

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Freeguard said parliamentary analysts complained that when new ministers came into office, data was reorganised to reflect their new priorities in a way that could “destroy the ability to make changes with previous years”.

He added: “In short, government departments should design annual reports with the reader in mind, to help those outside government make sense of the information they contain and allow meaningful comparisons with the past and across departments.”

Elsewhere in the report, the think tank said that the public, ministers, and civil servants would benefit from more robust and digestible data sets on departmental workforces.

It says that staff turnover at government departments and agencies has long been regarded as a problem. The Department for Exiting the European Union now has a 9% quarterly turnover, the same as the civil service-wide annual rate. But the IfG report says departments do not have a common definition of turnover and do not collect good data on how staff move around within the civil service.

Freeguard said there should be more regular publication of the numbers moving within departments, moving between departments and leaving government altogether.

“A government that has the right data about the composition and diversity of and change in its own workforce should be in a better position to manage it effectively,” he said.

Freeguard added that although the 2017 Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy referred to efforts to find a suitable measure of socio-economic diversity for staff, little data was currently collected and only the Fast Stream published anything.

“Socio-economic data can provide an important measure of diversity, revealing whether people from all backgrounds can rise equally easily through the civil service,” he said. “The strategy includes a pledge to benchmark ‘SEB [socio-economic background] diversity’ within the civil service and compare the civil service with other employers, by 2020. The civil service should start publishing what data it has.”

The IfG report also suggested that departments should be required to publish and update a comprehensive list of datasets that they are responsible for, to help people understand what data is available and what the gaps are.

Government data policy is currently the responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The National Data Strategy was part of a package of measures announced in June.

Sam Trendall

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