Ministerial meetings: the latest guidance on how departments should publish vital transparency data
This week has been about one DC setting a series of stories running about scandal at the heart of government. A few weeks ago, it was a different DC and a different set of stories about a different scandal.
One of the minor threads of the Greensill scandal was the quality of data on ministerial meetings (and gifts, and hospitality) which departments are required to publish, as it transpired a ‘private drink’ between health secretary Matt Hancock, David Cameron and Lex Greensill had not been included in the Department of Health and Social Care’s releases.
Though there is some public guidance on how departments should publish this data, much of it remains private. Tim Davies successfully obtained a version of it back in 2018 thanks to a Freedom of Information request, so I decided to do the same thing this time round.
Thanks to FoI, Cabinet Office have sent me the latest guidance. This appears to have been last updated in November 2017 — no different from the version Tim obtained a few years ago. (The passage from the Ministerial Code it quotes — 8.14, in annex D, page 9 of the guidance — has actually changed since in the Code itself.)
Cabinet Office also volunteered a couple of other pieces of information: a one-page pandemic-related update and a template spreadsheet for publishing the data. This was a pleasant surprise after a number of previous FoI battles (including for documents Cabinet Office had responsibility for telling other departments to publish but hadn’t published themselves in accordance with their own guidelines), and given the general downward trend in departmental disclosure.
I don’t think there’s anything earth-shattering in what I’ve been sent, but some points worthy of note:
- The Covid guidance says ‘Remote formal meetings using conferencing technology are assumed to have taken the place of in-person meetings’. Unless they are taking the place of a meeting, departments would not normally be required to record audio calls, in line with previous guidance (leaving ‘unsolicited or informal’ calls outside scope). The main guidance says that only meetings with media proprietors, editors and senior executives should be declared regardless of whether they took place in an ‘official, political or social’ capacity. This leaves some grey areas when it comes to lobbyists and other figures who are not related to the media. And it prompts questions as to exactly what communications with ministers we think should be declared in the WhatsApp age, and with the migration of meetings online during the pandemic blurring some distinctions between what counts as a meeting and what doesn’t — does the medium matter if the interaction could influence government policy?
- The publication guidance and spreadsheet template are a useful attempt to standardize how departments publish this data, and to give practical advice on implementing high-level policy. But the published data can still sometimes be more difficult to digest than it should be. Some further tweaks to the guidance — for example, in how departments record names of ministers and officials (maybe a dropdown list to avoid typos and errors) or how meetings with multiple attendees are logged (say, a row per entity with a new column allowing for a consistent meeting description, allowing the different organisations at that meeting to be linked) — could be helpful.
- There’s nothing in the documents released that couldn’t be published as a matter of course. The publication of high level guidance for publishing ‘transparency data’ on GOV.UK was a step forward in helping civil servants to publish and those of us on the outside to scrutinize (even if it can’t always be enforced). Why not publish this more detailed guidance too?
Those documents in full: