Project description

Whitehall Monitor is the Institute for Government’s data-informed analysis of the size, shape and performance of government in the UK. We chart all aspects of government – literally – from the political leadership to the civil service workforce, from how government departments spend their money, to how transparent they are. The project seeks to turn open data about government into information, helping those inside (politicians, civil servants) and those outside (journalists, civil society, the general public) better understand government and hold it to account. It seeks to encourage government to better use data to inform its decisions.

Whitehall Monitor consists of an annual report and ongoing analysis (‘explainers’ and comment pieces) published throughout the year as data is updated, including quarterly analysis of staff numbers and live-blogging in charts of government reshuffles. A second data-informed report, Performance Tracker – which provides a data-informed view of how well government is running public services – has spun off from the project, and the team also provides support to others across the Institute in using data and data visualisation in their work. We will also be launching Parliamentary Monitor, a data-informed view of parliament, later this year.

What makes this project innovative?

Whitehall Monitor is the most comprehensive data-informed view of government in the UK. We use clear and compelling (and sometimes unconventional) data visualisation to make technical data, such as the grade balance of different government departments, relevant and interesting.

Unlike many data journalists, we are not a news organisation - we are a thinktank, using journalistic techniques in storytelling and creating impact. For example, as well as producing an annual compendium on the size, shape and performance of government in the UK, we update our analysis throughout the year as data is published, turning it round within minutes and hours. Perhaps the most innovative example of this is our live-blogging of ministerial reshuffles in charts, updating visuals as and when new appointments are announced and providing context using the Institute's library of qualitative research.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

We measure our impact in a number of ways, including web visits and report downloads, social media likes and shares, and also trying to understand how our analysis is being used more broadly by others. The latter is difficult, since we hear that our charts are often used inside government, but it is difficult to capture definitive evidence of this.

Our impacts include:
Providing facts for, and influencing the narrative of, public debate (e.g. our analysis of the January 2018 government reshuffle showed that there had been more disruption than many analysts thought)
Providing compelling analysis used inside and outside government, informing decision-making and reporting
Encouraging improvements in how government publishes and uses data.

Source and methodology

The vast majority of our data comes from government - either specific departments (such as annual reports and accounts), or the Office for National Statistics. In some cases, we are required to build our own datasets - whether recording departments' priorities (from their Single Departmental Plans) in a consistent way, or building a database of ministerial appointments and moves.

We download all of the open data and add it to existing spreadsheets on our internal 'data platform'. These spreadsheets are often set up to already have our standard charts - many of them tested with user feedback - ready to update. We also have templates of some of our key chart styles which we can use to speed up our analysis. By publishing our analysis throughout the year, we are able to test our conclusions in public before compiling them all into our annual report.

Technologies Used

Nearly all of our analysis is conducted in Microsoft Excel. This is something that all researchers across the organisation have some familiarity with, and so allows all of our staff to feel more confident in working with data. (It's also amazing what you can make Excel do, visually, when you start experimenting.)

We also use QGIS for maps, and PowerPoint in conjunction with Excel for some diagrams. Our analysis of ministerial reshuffles is built on a Microsoft Access database used in conjunction with Excel.

Project members

Gavin Freeguard
Emily Andrews (Performance Tracker)
Alice Lilly
Aron Cheung
Lucy Campbell
Graham Atkins (Performance Tracker)
Charlotte Baker

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