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IFG - Whitehall Monitor 2017: Government doing too much as it prepares for Brexit

The Government is trying to do too much as it prepares for Brexit, according to new report from the Institute for Government. It is also becoming less transparent in areas such as FoI and spending.

This Whitehall Monitor annual report finds that the civil service continues to function despite fewer staff and less money. But as it prepares for the massive challenge of Brexit, the workforce is the smallest it’s been in 70 years.

The report finds that the Government is still nowhere near to reducing its workload by 30%, as the Chief Executive of the civil service advised. The major projects portfolio remains too big and half of departments have 50 or more listed priorities. So, from the ‘just about managing’ to Heathrow, the civil service has a demanding to-do list even before Brexit.

Some of the departments facing the biggest challenge around Brexit experienced the deepest cuts. Defra, for example, estimates 80% of the department’s work is framed by EU legislation but cut one in three staff since 2010. The Home Office – also affected by Brexit given its immigration responsibilities – had its day-to-day budget reduced by nearly a fifth.

The report argues the Government became less transparent over the last six years. Theresa May’s Home Office was the third-worst department for replying to information requests on time. It withheld information in response to 40% of FoI requests in 2016, a big increase from 2010.

Departments are late publishing monthly spend over £25,000 more than half the time. The Cabinet Office, responsible for open data policy, was over a year behind in publishing some spend data. And six months since their creation, the new departments – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – have yet to publish any information about their spending.

Gavin Freeguard, Head of Data & Transparency at the IfG, said:

“The decisions taken in Whitehall – the centre of British government – impact on people all over the country. Understanding the way it works is vital. Whitehall departments are continuing to function despite big reductions to staff and budgets. But it’s difficult to know what their priorities are and how they’re performing, which is worrying as it faces the challenge of Brexit.

“The patchy performance on publishing some key transparency data and withholding more information in response to FoI requests raises questions about the future of openness under this Government.”

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee

“Last year I said departments needed to up their game on transparency. Whitehall has yet to rise to the challenge. Too often we find that departments have a lack of meaningful data. Not only does this make it difficult for the taxpayer to find out what is happening but departments themselves can't always measure the effectiveness of policies. 

“Information also needs to be provided in a meaningful way – it is not acceptable to just dump spreadsheets on the internet. Departments have a long way to go before citizens can readily access information in an easily digestible format.”

For more information, please contact Nicole Valentinuzzi on 07850313791.

Notes to editors

  1. The Whitehall Monitor 2017 annual report can be found here or available upon request. The underlying data is available on request. Whitehall Monitor analyses the size, shape and performance of Whitehall. It is divided into eight chapters: political leadership, the civil service, government finances, spending, legislation, major projects, transparency and accounting for performance.
  2. Further details on the launch event.
  3. The Institute for Government is an independent charity founded in 2008 to help make government more effective.
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