Scottish Exchequer: fiscal transparency discovery report

This report seeks to understand the accessibility and connectedness of current fiscal information and data and describes how we could implement improved fiscal transparency services and the benefits that could generate.

Summary of Report

Project background

This Discovery project was undertaken in Spring 2021, as part of the commitment on financial transparency in Scotland's second Open Government Action Plan (2018-20), and in response to a recognition by the Scottish Government that the current presentation of fiscal information is not easily accessible or presented in a way that meets most users' needs:

  • Ministers have asked for better presentation of fiscal information to aid their budget choices
  • The Scottish Parliament and human rights / equalities organisations have called for improved published fiscal information
  • Open Government stakeholders have called for better information to enable them to "follow the money"
  • People may not be using the information, or not using it to its full potential.
  • The current presentation of information does not compare well with best practice of other Scottish organisations and key comparators internationally.

Using the findings of this Report the Government has committed to improve the presentation and accessibility of its fiscal information as part of the ongoing commitment on financial transparency in Scotland's third Open Government Action Plan (2021-25).

The current situation

There are currently at least ten separate parts of the Scottish Government and associated public sector organisations who own and publish core fiscal information (i.e. data and text relating to the revenue and spend of the Scottish public sector), in the form of over 40 separate regular outputs, with additional ad hoc outputs. There are also a number of external organisations who consume and publish fiscal information, for example think tanks and academic institutions. Many of these organisations also collaborate to source and publish fiscal information.

The current outputs are fragmented across many websites, and are generally inaccessible – often consisting of very detailed and large, text heavy, documents - with embedded data tables and charts (or very complex spreadsheets). Document contents and formats are often driven by conventions, internal government processes and organisational structures, accounting standards or parliamentary requirements, rather than transparency or a need to communicate in an accessible way with external stakeholders. Information on front-line spending and outcomes by government departments, agencies, the NHS and Scottish local authorities is very fragmented and poorly signposted, with poor linkages between budgets, actual spend and outcomes. There is no consistent assessment of the fiscal picture by key themes, e.g. the National Performance Framework, equality themes or geography.

There is a limited amount of open data published, with infrequent use of dynamic data visualisations or accessible and short summary documents. The use of social media to publicise outputs is uncommon, and feedback on usage is rarely obtained (with some creditable exceptions in these areas).

Most current outputs are laboriously hand crafted from a fragmented set of data sources – often involving spreadsheets.

User research has shown that external users are frustrated with the scattered information; disjointed timelines, dense and opaque nature of the current outputs and processes; inflexible and impractical documents as well as inconsistent data.

User research identified three main overlapping user types: Translation user, Assurance user and Context user – with differing needs and competencies in fiscal engagement. Section 2.4 describes how these types of users currently interact with Scottish Government fiscal information.

The future picture

This report describes how the Scottish Government could implement improved fiscal transparency services, and what these services should look like. Section 3 defines who the users and stakeholders of a future fiscal transparency services would be, across all relevant parts of the public sector (including the core Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and arms-length bodies), as well as external stakeholders such as citizens, the media, academia, the third sector etc.

Section 3 also assesses the many benefits that are expected to arise from improved fiscal transparency, as determined by research with international bodies, user research, and discussions with internal stakeholders. Benefits are expected to the Scottish Government as a whole (e.g. via improved reputation and more effective policies); to government administrative functions (e.g. as a result of improved efficiencies); to citizens (e.g. through better targeted resource allocations and greater say in government policies); and to the economy of the country (including benefits to businesses). Many of the benefits are qualitative, and hence will be hard to measure, except by means of ongoing engagement with internal and external stakeholders to gather their opinions on the benefits they see. The defined benefits will feed into a business case for the project.

The report defines five high level goals for a Scottish Government fiscal transparency service in Section 3.3, then describes the user needs that must be met to achieve these goals – broken down by: information sources; content; presentation and collaboration / communication.

A key goal is to make the existing large amount of fiscal information more accessible, understandable, linked and open - rather than publishing more, new or different information.

Section 3.4 reviews the scope of fiscal transparency for the project in terms of information ownership and types of information.

Several speculative mock-ups are presented in Section 3.6 to give an idea what a possible future Scottish fiscal transparency portal could look like – based on the research undertaken during the Discovery. Further work will be required to define detailed user requirements and an underpinning platform architecture before proper wireframes can be designed as a basis for a production implementation. The report also briefly reviews the digital accessibility issues that will need to be take into consideration – including the accessibility of data visualisations.

Examples and guidance

Section 4 describes several overseas fiscal transparency portals that contain many good examples of how fiscal information can be presented in an accessible and meaningful way. Section 4.3 summarises and links to a number of publically available guidelines and standards for fiscal transparency and other relevant areas such as open data, accessibility and data visualisation. These examples and publications can be used to shape what the project wants to achieve, and how the project objectives are achieved.

Project approach

Section 5 outlines the project activities required to deliver the proposed project objectives and needs. The activities, resources and partners involved in a subsequent Alpha phase are described, within the context of a long-term project roadmap. High level external dependencies and possible significant risks to the project achieving its objective are documented.



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