How well does government show its working?

23 November 2016

The first ever review of whether the UK government is transparent about its use of evidence when developing policies finds that the public and researchers would struggle to follow the government’s reasoning, with standards of transparency varying widely between and within departments.

Transparency of evidence: an assessment of government policy proposals May 2015 to May 2016 is published by Sense about Science, from research conducted in partnership with the Institute for Government and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Using a framework the three partner organisations produced last year, it asks, ‘Can someone outside government work out what the government is proposing to do, and why?’

The report highlights examples where the government is transparent about the use of evidence and warns against practices that obscure it. The findings include:

  • Departments often appear to have assembled an evidence base to inform policy decisions but don’t share it openly, making it hard for the public or parliament to understand or scrutinise their thinking.
  • Policies based on manifesto pledges can be transparent about their evidence base – particularly where the commitment is to an outcome rather than a means to achieve it. However our sample suggested that policies announced in the Budget and Autumn Statement were less transparent about the underlying evidence than other policies.
  • The best proposals demonstrated a clear chain of reasoning from the assessment of the problem to the choice of policy intervention and a discussion about the limitations of the evidence.

Researchers counted a total of 593 policy announcements between May 2015 and May 2016 from 13 domestic government departments. They scored a sample of the underlying policies against the evidence transparency framework, asking ‘Can we tell what evidence has been used? Can we tell how the government has assessed or used this evidence?’ under each of the following headings:

  • Diagnosis (the issue the policy is designed to address)
  • Proposal (the government’s chosen intervention)
  • Implementation (how the intervention will be introduced and run)
  • Testing and evaluation (plans to assess whether the policy has worked)

Today’s report highlights good and bad practice. Next year Sense about Science, together with the Alliance for Useful Evidence and Institute for Government, is planning to score and rank departments on their evidence transparency. Today’s report demonstrates what departments need to improve to perform well in that exercise.

Tracey Brown, director, Sense about Science and main author of the report, said: “We found cases of very good practice, such as discussion of gaps in the evidence base. But there were many areas where departments need to be more open with the public about the evidence they are using to justify and shape policies. People need to see government’s reasoning to understand what the government is trying to do and whether they think it will work. Without transparency, the public cannot understand or question proposals, and researchers can’t evaluate the evidence the government is using, or improve on it.”

Jill Rutter, programme director, Institute for Government, said: “Being clear on the evidence base behind policy – and its limitations – is an essential first step toward better policymaking. It is particularly worrying that policies announced in the Budget and Autumn Statement appear so prone to be unclear on the thinking behind them. The good news is that the examples of good practice we highlight suggest there is no barrier to transparency – we just need all policies to meet the standards of the best.”