What concerns have OSR dealt with to date on public funding announcements?
OSR have published a number of letters in correspondence to public queries around public funding announcements or statements by government departments over the last two years. The concerns raised in these queries can largely be grouped under five headings:
- Complexity of funding structures and arrangements
- Use of cash terms versus real terms.
- Lack of context and use of other relevant statistics to complete the picture.
- Selectivity of data. Inappropriate or inconsistent choice of comparisons being made.
- Visual presentation of public funding announcements – particularly on social media.
Why is it important to be clear in public funding statements? What should people expect from those making or contributing to these statements?
Understanding the way public services are funded is essential in informing public debate about the use of taxpayers’ money and can influence the way people view the government of the day. It is important that statements on public funding are clear and not open to misinterpretation so that fair and transparent public debate can be facilitated.
In the context of this guidance, we are considering public funding statements to reflect any claim made by the government and its departments about the allocation of either new funding, changes to existing funding or claims about the levels of funding as compared to historic time periods. This can take many forms including published government statements, articles, Prime Minister’s Questions, interviews or even social media posts.
We recognise that it can be difficult to include all of the necessary detail within some methods of communication. We also acknowledge that the level of detail will differ somewhat between initial funding announcements and more detailed worked through proposals where the full supporting analysis is available and can be referred to. However, we would expect that any information needed to clarify the statement is readily available in the public domain as soon as possible after the announcement and that it provides the relevant context for the figures in a way which can be easily understood. This information should be accessible, presenting a clear source for the statement that sets out the funding arrangement in an unambiguous way.
We anticipate that people may wish to understand how funding has changed over time and where relevant, how this compares to other countries in the United Kingdom or internationally. Any comparisons made in the statements themselves or supporting information should be appropriate and justified. This means avoiding selectivity of data points or metrics and ensuring any context which could impact the suitability of comparisons (e.g. changes to policy or funding arrangements within the time period) are made clear.
Who else can I look to for guidance on understanding public funding announcements?
There are a number of fact checking organisations which tend to investigate public funding statements made by the government. These include Full Fact, BBC Reality Check, Channel 4 Fact Check, FactCheckNI and The Ferret. These organisations often produce helpful summaries of the data and information which supports the statements being made and help clarify any elements which may be open to misinterpretation.
As well as fact checking organisations, it is also worth keeping an eye out for think tank summaries of statements on public funding. Organisations such as the Institute for Government and the Institute for Fiscal Studies provide independent analysis and commentary on public funding announcements – particularly for the Budget.
Transparency and clarity are the key elements in avoiding the risk of misinterpretation or misleadingness in public funding statements. We encourage people to challenge and question the basis of statements and hope that those making the statements are proactive in pointing to readily available material to support understanding of the announcements being made. In doing this, it is hoped that transparent and fair public debate can be facilitated on the issues that matter as opposed to the validity of the data in question.Back to top