Think tank urges UK to improve data transparency

By on 30/09/2018 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at think tank IfG says of the 5 things the government should publish, the most important is a list of all datasets for which each department is responsible.

A UK think tank is calling on the government to publish better data on public spending, outsourcing, and the civil service workforce.

The report, ‘Gaps in government data: Five things the UK government should publish’, was released last week by the Institute for Government. The report’s author, Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the think tank, argues that plugging the gaps in public data would improve government effectiveness and help people hold it to account.

Freeguard notes that the government has made some progress in collecting data in recent years, but says that problems remain. “Some relate to the way data is published – often late, or in a form that is hard to use or to compare. Others are outright failures on the part of government to record or publish data which would be of immense value to many people dealing with government”, the report states.

Five star data

The five things the think tank says the UK government should publish are: an over-arching list of all datasets held by government; more comprehensive reporting on government spending; better outsourcing data; more extensive performance information on public services; and a better overall picture of the public sector workforce.

Freeguard told Global Government Forum that he hopes his report will feed into the government’s development of its National Data Strategy. “It’s not just about gaps, but about how the data is collected, organised, and used,” he said. For example, poorly organised information on government spending makes it difficult to “allow meaningful comparisons with the past and across departments”.

The report also highlights a lack of information about the civil service workforce, and argues for improved data on staff turnover and socio-economic backgrounds. On staff turnover, it says there should be better information on civil servants moving within departments, between departments and leaving government. The report also points out that without relevant socio-economic information, it becomes difficult to measure diversity and “whether people from all backgrounds can rise equally easily through the civil service.”

Secret shoppers

Government spending on outsourcing remains stubbornly difficult to pin down. “Government spent £277 billion [$361bn] procuring goods, works and services from third parties in 2016-17, but we still know too little about what it is spending, with whom, to what effect,” the report says. To rectify this, the Institute for Government wants to see a list of all government suppliers and one of all public sector contracts.

Of the five recommendations, Freeguard believes the government should prioritise the first: that departments should pull together a list of all the datasets for which they’re responsible.

“That should be the first step in understanding how they use the data they’ve already got, how to make it easier for people inside and outside the department to find and use that data, and to spot any other gaps that need to be filled,” he explained.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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