Inadequate data and poor IT continue to hinder Britain’s cross-government working efforts

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 13, 2024
For years now central government has had grand plans and argued the case for cross-government working to better deliver services. But it seems little progress has been made, as poor data and IT continue to be a thorn in the side of effective change.

An image of Houses of Parliament in London
(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay )

Central government in Britain, like most other governments around the world, is divided up into departments that take responsibility for specific policy areas - e.g. education, healthcare, transport etc. However, whilst having siloed policy makes sense in some cases, often it would be beneficial for different departments to work together on a policy that cuts across Whitehall. 

The current Net Zero targets are a good example of this, where responsibility for the outcomes does not sit with one department. But there are other more niche examples too, such as the relationship between the tax department, HMRC, and the delivery of welfare and benefits, which sits within the Department for Work and Pensions. There have been success stories, but more often than not a plethora of challenges make the delivery of cross-government policy and/or services incredibly difficult. 

And let’s face it, if you’re a citizen interacting with government, you are unlikely to know the ins and outs of which policy areas lie with which departments (which was the thinking behind GOV.UK, the centralized website for government, and the now long forgotten Government Platform-as-a-Service strategy). 

Despite many strategies in recent years (see herehere and here), it’s clear that Whitehall is still being held back by inadequate data and poor IT infrastructure. That is the view of MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has today released a report, arguing that effective cross-government working must be more than a ‘nice to have’. 

The Committee said getting different parts of Whitehall working together is fundamental to the successful delivery of much government policy, but that it regularly sees important programmes hindered by difficulties. During its inquiry it heard that common barriers include structures and bureaucracy getting in the way of planning and delivery; poorly-understood ministerial priorities; inconsistent join-up in spending decisions and allocations; a lack of routine data-sharing between Departments; and poor arrangements for sharing best practice and learning.

Commenting on the Committee’s findings, Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

So many important Government projects are dependent on Whitehall working in harmony with itself. Yet so often difficulties with cross-government working are precisely what is hindering these projects and the benefits for citizens. While departments are rightly focused on their own policy areas, complex societal issues cannot be solved in departmental silos.

Both the Treasury and Cabinet Office have made good progress in naming the problem by identifying the barriers preventing good working across government. The Government must now continue the process of toppling these barriers. We hope the recommendations in our report help it to do so.

Conclusions and recommendations

The Committee attempts to make a number of recommendations in its report, having heard evidence from a number of experts and stakeholders. However, as someone that has been an observer of numerous government digital strategies over the years, it’s quite clear that a lot of what is being asked of Whitehall has been asked a number of times before. 

For instance, the PAC notes that many cross-government projects that come before the Committee are “hindered by missing or inadequate data” and that the government has historically had an issue with poor quality data and ineffective data sharing arrangements. 

It adds that whilst establishing data standards across government has gone some way to improve this situation, difficulty with data sharing was the most commonly identified barrier in a recent HM Treasury survey about cross-government working. In addition, insufficient data capability across government also means that the skills needed to interpret data are not always available.

Furthermore, the PAC once again highlights the impact of poor IT and the complexity and inconsistency of data systems across Whitehall. For instance, the Cabinet Office told the Committee that across government there are approximately 205 core systems that run HR, finance and payroll, which are then supported by a further 655 systems. 

The report urges HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to work with the government’s Evaluation Taskforce and the Analysis function to: identify the key data needed to deliver, monitor and evaluate cross-government projects; and help departments to collect the data and have the analytical capability to interpret it. 

There’s also suggestions from the Committee that HM Treasury could do more to encourage cross-government work. For instance, the Treasury has set out six delivery models for cross-government working, including details on responsibilities and accountabilities for each model. But it has not yet analyzed how these models are being used across government, or which approaches work best in different circumstances. 

The report recommends that HM Treasury carry out this analysis and provide more support to departments on which models work best for different projects. It should then use these insights to develop training for departments on how to approach cross-government working. 

Equally, the Treasury admitted to the Committee that it could do more in its next Spending Review to encourage cross-government collaboration. The report states: 

Efforts have been made to incentivise cross-government working through reward and recognition but HM Treasury acknowledges there is a lot of work still to do. In 2019, the Shared Outcomes Fund was set up to fund pilot projects that test innovative ways of working across the public sector, with an emphasis on thorough plans for evaluation and whether these small-scale projects can be scaled-up. 

More recently, HM Treasury has developed guidance to encourage joint-bids at spending rounds. But HM Treasury concedes that it is disappointing there were only 28 joint bids at the last Spending Review. It recognizes that it is going to have to do more in the next Spending Review to encourage joint bids from departments and to make more top-down requests for joint bids.

As such, the PAC is urging that the Treasury and Cabinet Office work together to share lessons learned from the Share Outcomes Fund and produce guidance for Departments, which should set expectations on cross-government working ahead of the next Spending Review. 

My take

I’ve long argued that if we were setting up a government today, the models of delivery would look fundamentally different because of the influence of digital technologies. Instead of siloed departments, we would probably have teams that are structured around different platform capabilities, as well as centers of excellence/knowledge, to help deliver policy. But that’s not the world we live in and so Whitehall needs to figure out how to shift to a more collaborative approach, where standards are set and data is easily accessible across government. The other point that was largely missed from the report that often is a barrier to cross-government work, is the political support required to make it happen. Often Ministers view their respective departments as their ‘kingdoms’ and aren’t willing to share responsibility with another Minister that has their own agenda. Civil servants are often trying their best to make this happen, but politicians need to adapt too. 

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