Home Office pledges to clear two-year backlog of spend control data

Department has missed seven consecutive quarters but tells PublicTechnology it will ‘work with the Cabinet Office’ to get back on track

Credit: Adam Diaz/CC BY-SA 4.0

After failing to publish spend control data for the last seven quarters in a row, the Home Office claims it has “sought to clear” its backlog and that it will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure that it meets its transparency responsibilities in the future.

Government spend controls apply to eight categories of expenditure, including digital and technology. Departments wishing to spend an amount above the specified threshold – which is £100,000 on digital projects and £5m on technology – must first request approval from the Cabinet Office.

Guidelines stipulate that all central government departments, executive agencies, trading funds, and some arm’s-length bodies are “responsible for publishing quarterly data summaries” of these requests and their result.

A PublicTechnology examination of data released by a wide range of major government departments finds that the vast majority are fully compliant with their responsibilities, with 14 having published spend control information on GOV.UK for all quarters up to the first three months of the current fiscal year – covering April to June 2019. The Department for Exiting the European Union is one quarter behind its peers, with data available up to the end of March 2019.

Most departments stick to a regular publication schedule, with the vast majority releasing their latest batch of data in early October. DExEU published its Q4 data in late August. 

The Home Office stands out as a major exception.  

The department has published nothing since October 2018 when it – rather belatedly – published data for the three-month period up to the end of September 2017.

This means that, as it stands, it has failed to meet its publication responsibilities for seven consecutive quarters, encompassing the latter half of FY18, the whole of FY19, and the opening quarter of the ongoing year.

In October last year, PublicTechnology submitted a freedom of information request to the Home Office asking the department to clarify: why it has failed to publish spend control data; whether it has faced any censure for doing so; if and when it plans to publish any further data; and whether it could release to us any such available data for any period since September 2017.

The response supplied this week by the Home Office declined to answer any of these questions – citing an exemption under section 22 of the FOI Act. This exemption relates to information that “can be withheld if it is intended for future publication”.

30 September 2017
End of the period covered by the most recently available Home Office spend control data  

Number of quarters in a row for which data is unavailable

Approval threshold beyond which all departmental digital projects require approval

‘As soon as possible’
Date by which Home Office claims it will publish its 21 months and counting of outstanding data

In a note explaining its decision, however, the Home Office did acknowledge the “legitimate public interest” in disclosing the information requested.

It added that it intends to clear its huge backlog, and work with the Cabinet Office to ensure that, in the future, information is published in a more timely fashion.

“The Cabinet Office Spending Controls are a cross-government approach to spending, designed to improve capabilities and efficiency within government organisations, and support implementation of government policies,” the response said. “As part of the process, information on spend that falls within the criteria are published on a quarterly basis.”

It added: “The Home Office has sought to clear the outstanding spending control data and will publish outstanding data as soon as possible. Going forward the Home Office will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure they are able to publish current and future data releases in line with Cabinet Office timelines.

“All data needs to go through an approvals process before release. Once this is complete, it will be published on gov.uk, but will not be released prior to publication.”

Going forward the Home Office will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure [we] are able to publish current and future data releases in line with Cabinet Office timelines

The spend controls policy was introduced in 2010. It has since been updated four times, and the current iteration came into effect in April 2018. Its publication marked perhaps the most wide-ranging revamp of the controls process since they were brought in; departments are now asked to keep the Cabinet Office in the loop with an ongoing 15-month “pipeline” of expected spending – rather than simply filing approval requests when a project is ready to launch.

The 14 departments PublicTechnology found to be completely up-to-date with their publication schedule are: the Department for Education; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for International Development; the Department for International Trade; the Department for Transport; the Department for Work and Pensions; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; HM Revenue and Customs; HM Treasury; the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government; and the Ministry of Defence.


Sam Trendall

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