Report finds ‘warning signs of government becoming less open’

Annual study from Institute for Government flags up patchy approach to transparency and ‘mixed’ progress on digital transformation

Credit: Twemoji Project/CC BY 4.0

A major annual report from the Institute for Government has identified “warning signs of government becoming less open”.

In its yearly Whitehall Monitor study, the think tank said that, despite growing recognition within the civil service of the importance of open data, a great deal of information that departments are mandated to publish for transparency purposes is released “late, if at all”.  Examples cited by the IfG include data on organisational structure and details of all spending over £25,000.

The think tank said that its freedom of information requests to obtain this information had also, in some cases, been refused – “even by the Cabinet Office, the body responsible for telling other departments to publish this data”.

The report added: “Departments are also, in general, releasing less information in response to FoI requests than in the past. And the low quality, inconsistency and lack of availability of some data suggest that departments themselves cannot be using it. Between the long-expected National Data Strategy, and the new focus on the potential of data from within No.10, 2020 provides an opportunity for government to fix some of these problems.”

The amount of FOI requests denied by departments has been growing markedly in recent years, the IfG said.

During 2019’s third quarter, 9,654 requests were made to central government, of which just 39% were granted in full. A further 11% were partially granted.

18 million
Approximate number of weekly unique visitors to GOV.UK

FOI requests submitted to central government in Q3 2019

Proportion of FOI requests entirely denied by departments in Q3 2019 

Number of services that currently use GOV.UK Verify – less than half of the 2020 target of 46

Cumulative value of the 4.3 million transactions conducted via GOV.UK Pay since its 2016 launch

In 44% of cases, the information requested was entirely withheld. This compares with 25% in the corresponding period of 2010, and 15% in Q3 2005 – five years after the FOI Act was introduced.

The report said that “the decrease in granting of requests has been consistent across all departments… though, for many, the rates only slipped to levels below 50% from early 2016 onwards”.

Mixed picture on digital
Whitehall Monitor also examined government’s progress in the area of digital transformation, where it found that “results are mixed”.

It pointed to the growing adoption of the GOV.UK Notify and Pay tools, developed by the Government Digital Service to allow public sector bodies to send messages and process payments, respectively.

“In contrast, Verify, the government’s flagship identity assurance scheme, continues to fall short of targets,” the IfG added. “This component has failed to build its intended user base and it is not delivering the efficiencies that the government sought.”

The think tank claimed that a number of government organisations are already engaged in pilot schemes for emerging technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence tools.

“But despite this ambition, many of these new technologies are immature and their use in government, in the near future at least, is likely to be limited,” the report said. “The inconsistent and incompatible approach from government to the management and use of its data is a further obstacle to all forms of digital transformation.”

Citizens’ use of digital government services and information appears to have grown rapidly in recent years; shortly after GOV.UK launched in 2013, the site attracted about four million unique visitors a week, the IfG found. By the end of last year, this figure had risen to about 18 million.


Sam Trendall

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