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Most government departments won't publish data on sector funding

Simon Blake, chair of Compact Voice
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Most government departments won't publish data on sector funding1

Finance | Tania Mason | 1 Nov 2012

Most central government departments will not publish full information about levels of funding to the voluntary sector so it is impossible to track whether they are making disproportionate cuts or adhering to Compact principles, Compact Voice has discovered.

In the summer, Compact Voice sent Freedom of Information requests to 15 central government departments asking them to report levels of funding to the sector, recent changes to this funding, engagement with the sector through consultations and whether they assess the impact on voluntary groups of changes to funding.

The watchdog body wanted to find out how the departments were implementing the principles of the Compact, following the publication of the shorter revised document in December 2010. It hoped the responses would provide a consistent data set that would enable comparisons between departments.

But the responses from the departments were highly unsatisfactory, according to Compact Voice.

Of the 15 departments targeted, responses were received from 12. The three that did not bother to reply were the Department of Education, the Government Equalities Office and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Of those that did respond, just seven provided direct answers to the questions submitted. They were:

  • Cabinet Office
  • Communities and Local Government
  • Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Department of Work and Pensions
  • Department of Health
  • Home Office
  • Ministry of Justice

However, their responses ranged from full replies to just one or two specific answers. The most comprehensive responses came from CLG and the Department of Health.

Five departments refused to answer at least some of the questions because of the cost of compiling the data; among them was HM Treasury.

The Compact Voice report detailing the research said the lack of data provided meant Compact Voice was unable to make any comparisons between departments or assess whether commitments made under the Compact are being met.

This made it impossible for departments to prove that they are not cutting sector budgets disproportionately. If the government cannot even evaluate its own progress then civil society and ordinary citizens cannot hold it to account, the report said.

The project also highlighted issues with the government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. “It is worrying that departments are not even replying to requests, with other requests responded to late. Further, when information is held and signposted to in answer to FoI requests, it is often difficult or impossible to interpret,” said the report.

The report contains several recommendations of ways in which the government can better report on its interactions with the voluntary sector.

Compact Voice chair: a wake-up call for all of us

Compact Voice chair Simon Blake said: “Government has repeatedly committed to accountability and transparency with the sector which I welcome. But to achieve this, the data requested must be recorded. We expected some variation across government, but this report is a wake-up call for all of us and shows there is clearly lot to do.”

Compact Voice provided Cabinet Office response

The press release issued by Compact Voice came complete with a response from the Cabinet Office. This said: “The government views the Compact with high importance. The Compact was specifically cited as one of only six cross-cutting Whitehall priorities in all departmental business plans, against which government reports on annually in a public and transparent way. It was specifically cited in recent government guidance on consultation.

“Every central government department is now required to publish spend to the voluntary and community sector within their business plans. This is the first time government has done this which demonstrates our commitment to transparency in this area. We are committed to making data available and Cabinet Office is happy to work with Compact Voice on this agenda going forward.”

Jay Kennedy
Head of Policy
Directory of Social Change
8 Nov 2012

In other news, 'local man surprised to find that balls roll downhill, the sky is blue, and he gets wet outside in the rain'.

The lack of comprehensive information about Government spending on the voluntary sector has been recognised as a problem for at least ten years - and was supposed to be a Government priority for voluntary sector policy going all the way back to the 2002 Cross Cutting Review (remember that, anyone?). The picture since that time has become steadily muddier, not clearer.

The relevant recommendations in that review were quite sound, but were over time shelved, watered down, forgotten. The Government quite simply has no idea how much money it puts into the voluntary sector, and has over time dismantled its limited and imperfect initial attempts to find out. Instead it relies on the sector's own best estimates! And it is next to impossible to get comprehensive information about local spend, which is so key to understanding the impact.

Keep up the pressure Compact Voice, and don't let them forget that this is a problem where progress has been in reverse - they need to do far more than issue press releases citing good intentions and business plans.

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