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A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Universe of Government Information

 

Have you ever wondered what the Government is doing about x, y or z? Or asked why the Government hasn’t taken a certain course of action that you think is an obvious way to solve a particular problem. “Why don’t they tax the rich?” the rich being the people who earn quite a bit more than I do. Is the government keeping to its election pledges? What is happening about ‘levelling up’? Is Social Reform going to happen? How much tax do the richest in society pay? The answers are almost certainly available on Government websites. It’s the Government’s objective to be transparent and to make all information available digitally and they seem to have achieved that, but how do you find what you are looking for amongst the vast amount of information? This guide is intended to help with that.

 

Gov.uk Gov.uk

 

This is the principal web site URL with hundreds of sub-sites. It gives the public and businesses access to services such as Passport Office, HMRC, DVLC and Benefits. It also gives information on all 23 ministerial departments and over 400 other agencies and public bodies. In addition you can find  news and communicationsstatistics and information on consultations. All local councils in the UK have gov.uk domains e.g. https://www.reading.gov.uk/bin-calendar/ .

 

The gov.uk sites do not include operational information for the Departments e.g. the NHS and schools and universities. They have their own websites for this purpose.

 

You can search from the home page using double quote marks for a specific term, and sub-searches can be made for ‘topic’, ‘sub-topic’, ‘content type’ and date range of the publication. ‘Content Type’ subheadings are context sensitive headings that appear with the initial results. As an example, searching the term “Artificial Intelligence” returns 1,015 results and gives options to sub-search under ‘Research and statistics’, ‘Policy papers and consultations’, ‘Transparency and freedom of information releases’ and ‘Updated’. There are 50 results under ‘Research & statistics’ and 75 under ‘Policy Papers and Consultations’.

 

It is encouraging to learn (May 2021) that the government is committed to improving navigation on gov.uk recognising that any web site, let alone one with more than 500,000 pages, needs constant reviewing. Read details here.

 

Parliament.uk (http://www.parliament.uk)

 

The website provides information on the structure, duties and working of Parliament, how it checks and challenges the work of Government, makes and shapes effective laws, and debates/makes decisions on the big issues of the day. Beyond that you can see the progress of Bills in the current Session and previous sessions going back to 2012-13.

Searches can be done using keywords. Searching for a term using double quotes does not work but if two words are typed in e.g. genes + misuse, the results tend to list documents with both words included first. Using more words should give more relevant results than two e.g. digital + democracy + consultation.

 

Parliamentary Bills (https://bills.parliament.uk/)

 

Bills are proposals for new laws. If they pass every stage of scrutiny in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and receive Royal Assent they become Acts of Parliament, and Law. These pages show all Bills from 2004/05 onwards; older Bills are available at Bills in previous sessions. Bills can be searched by Title (full or partial), Type, Session and Stage. The search facility asks for the name of the Bill but also works if any single word or combination of words (in any order) is used, but doesn’t work if the words used are not in the Bill title.

 

Do you want to contribute to consultations on proposed Government policies?

 

See consultations that are currently open    

 

The Office for National Statistics  https://www.ons.gov.uk/ is the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics and is responsible for collecting and publishing statistics related to the economy, population and society at national, regional and local levels. It also conducts the census in England and Wales every 10 years. It produces statistical data on a vast number of topics. It is remarkably interesting to know that among many other things the ONS presents data on Productivity of public services such as education and healthcare. This shows how services change over time and crucially is adjusted for quality of service rather than just numerical changes.

 

The search facility works very well e.g. search for ‘Covid deaths NHS workers’ yields 12 ‘all results’, 3 ‘data’ results and 0 ‘publications’. All three data results give information (over different periods) on the number of deaths involving Covid-19 and all causes among social and health workers with comparisons to deaths in the general population of the same age and sex.

 

There is an email address for further information specific to the associated data.

 

If the information is not available there is a link to request it under the freedom of information act.

 

Note that the NHS also collects its own statistics.

 

When it comes to watching how the Government spends money there are three bodies involved: Public Accounts Committee, Public Accounts Commission and The National Audit Office; we could also add the Office for Budget Responsibility.

 

Public Accounts Committee looks at how effectively departments spend money rather than justification of the policy concerned. It examines the value for money of Government projects, programmes and service delivery. Drawing on the work of the National Audit Office, the Committee holds Government officials to account for the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending. You can look at inquiries that have been conducted on this link https://committees.parliament.uk/inquiries/ . You can submit evidence to open inquiries. The inquiries search allows you to use different filters to find inquiries and other committee work, including by name and/or keyword(s). The free-text search can also match different variations of words, such as plural versions and inflections, as well as partial matches. You can provide one word or phrase, or multiple. You can also put phrases in double quotes to ensure the exact phrase is matched.

 

The role of the Public Accounts Commission  is to examine the National Audit Office Estimate and lay it before the House; it looks at work carried out by the National Audit office.

 

The National Audit Office (NAO) is the UK’s independent public spending watchdog. The NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of Government and the Civil Service. It helps Parliament hold Government to account and uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies to improve public services.

 

This is a topical example of NAO’s publications ‘Initial learning from the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

 

You can search for publications by key issues, keywords and department.

 

It shares information gathered on its blog that may be of use to organisations outside of Government. Intriguingly its blog (1st June 2021) discusses a purist’s view of the correct meaning of artificial intelligence i.e. algorithms vs machine learning (if only they would tell the rest of the world!).

 

Office for Budget Responsibility

 

Tasks: Economic and fiscal forecasting, Evaluating performance against targets, Sustainability and balance sheet analysis, Evaluation of fiscal risks and Scrutinising tax and welfare policy costing.

 

The OBR produces a variety of publications in pursuit of its duty to examine and report on the sustainability of the public finances. It produces a forecast every year, and perhaps surprisingly also produces a report on how its forecast stood up one year later. This is the latest such report. https://obr.uk/fer/forecast-evaluation-report-january-2021/

 

Want to know how the Government is keeping up with its policies and 2019 election pledges?

 

The Institute for Government Policy Tracker analyses the progress of major Government legislation, policies and projects, with a particular focus on commitments made in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The Institute of Government holds debates on topical subjects; by signing up for updates you will get invitations to future debates.

 

Watch debates and inquiries in the Commons, Lords, Committees

 

https://parliamentlive.tv

 

Research Commons Library

 

The Commons Library publishes politically impartial policy analysis and statistical research, free for all to read. Explore quick-read articles, in-depth research, and interactive data visualisations. The information is mainly intended for MPs to use but seems to be available to the public as well.

 

Keith Hill
9th June 2021