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How transparent is government in sharing evidence behind policies?

By Nuffield Foundation

A new report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, scores 94 government policies produced by 12 departments, to assess how transparent they were about the evidence behind the policy.

Produced by Sense about Science, Transparency of evidence: a spot check of government policy proposals July 2016 to July 2017, scored policies against a framework looking at the Diagnosis, Proposal, Implementation and Testing & Evaluation plans of policy proposals.

Why spot check evidence transparency? Without clarity on what the government has looked at, it is very difficult for citizens to understand the motivations for policy, decide whether they agree with it, participate or consider whether it is working.

This report follows on from Sense about Science’s assessment of good and bad practice across government – the first ever review of whether the UK government is transparent about its use of evidence when developing policies. That report, published in November 2016, found that the public and researchers would struggle to follow the government’s reasoning, with standards of transparency varying widely between and within departments.

The report’s findings

This report shows a general improvement since we highlighted good and bad practice in 2016’s report. But there were also large discrepancies and some frustrating cases where an otherwise transparent policy lost points on one section of the framework.

The findings include:

  • The scores reveal considerable variation in practice between departments, but more consistency within departments.
  • There were fewer examples of departments failing to publish evidence. One of the most alarming findings of the 2016 report was the discovery that many departments held valuable evidence but did not publish it. However, there were still some significant omissions, including on areas likely to be of considerable public interest.
  • Policies with Impact Assessments scored more highly, and were rarely awarded 0s.
  • Testing & Evaluation – evidence about whether the policy works, or plans to gather it – showed the most disappointing results and gave little indication of improvement since 2016.
  • The highest scoring policy was Department for Transport’s ‘Cutting down on noise from night flights’, which scored 3 against every section of the framework. It was commended by scorers for a range of innovative citizen-centred ways of presenting the government’s thinking and how the department had arrived at conclusions.
  • The lowest scoring policy was Department for Education’s ‘Modern foreign languages A and AS level content’, to remove the speaking assessments from some examinations. This was given 0 for every section of the framework. Scorers could form no idea of what it was based on.

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