115. We welcome the progress the Government has
made in improving online provision of Government information.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations told us: "Directgov
and Business Link are good examples of single points of access
to government information and services for individuals and businesses"
(p 164). Citizens' Advice said: "Directgov is, on the
whole, a very good source of government information for the public
and we admire its plain English style and its ease of use. It
is an improvement on the previous arrangement of multiple sites"
116. However, our witnesses also had criticisms
of Directgov. Citizens' Advice noted that the site often links
to local authority sites for information about an issue such as
housing benefit. It is concerned about this as the quality of
local authority sites varies greatly (p 100).
117. There is also concern that improvements
made to the online provision of information have been at the expense
of more traditional information sources such as leaflets and phone
lines. Citizens' Advice told us: "In recent years the Government
has switched from providing public information in the form of
leaflets, letters and other written communications to providing
information on the internet or by electronic communication"
118. Such a shift in emphasis is of concern because,
despite the Government's intention over time to make broadband
available to all, not everyone as yet has access to the internet.
Nor is everyone able to use it. Indeed, it is often the most vulnerable
citizens, most in need of Government help, who are least likely
to be able to access and use the internet. Citizens' Advice particularly
highlighted the problems for the elderly and those from the poorest
backgrounds. They explained that:
"it is not evident to us that government
departments are recognizing in their delivery plans that switching
information to web channels may have the effect of increasing
the need for voluntary sector information and advice providers
to act as a bridge to reach the most excluded members of our society
If certain groups in society need to turn to advice agencies
and intermediaries simply to help them locate and 'translate'
government information, then the government's methods of delivery
are not working effectively for those expected to benefit. What
is more, such actions effectively displace the responsibility
to deliver services equally well to all government service users
away from government" (pp 97-8).
119. In 2006, Sir David Varney, then Chairman
of HM Revenue and Customs, was asked by the Chancellor to advise
him on the opportunities for transforming the delivery of public
services. According to Citizens' Advice, the Varney report found
that a multiplicity of different helplines led to confusion and
problems in accessing information (p 98).
120. Citizens' Advice also supported the aim
of simplifying phone access to government information and services,
but pointed out that, like internet services, telephone services
are not accessible to all. They said that there:
"are other people for whom the phone is
simply not the most suitable or appropriate method that they would
choose to deal with government, or any service provider. This
is true of many people with mental health problems, people with
physical and in particular hearing and speaking disabilities.
Telephones may often be inappropriate for people in hospital or
for prisoners who may face very high call costs and for other
people who have no access to landlines or have to rely on expensive
pay as you go mobiles" (p 98).
121. We recommend that Government information
should always be available and accessible to as many people as
possible. In particular, the Government must be clear about its
target audiences in communicating information and use the most
Working with the voluntary sector
122. There is considerable scope for the Government
and the voluntary sector to work together to improve the provision
of information about public services and policies. In 2007-08,
Citizens' Advice helped 1.9 million people with 5.5 million new
problems on issues such as debt, benefits, housing, employment
and consumer matters (1.5 million of these problems concerned
benefits). Its public information website (www.adviceguide.org.uk)
has 7.3 million visitors a year (p 95). Citizens' Advice
said that the fact that so many people rely on them to provide
and explain information suggests that Government services in this
area are not in themselves sufficient (Q 436).
123. Citizens' Advice highlighted particular
ways in which the Government could help them improve services.
- Providing Citizens' Advice with drafts of new
Codes etc before they are published and giving clear notice of
their expected publication date. This would enable Citizens' Advice
to make sure the information was in their system and their advisers
were knowledgeable about the changes before people started asking
for information about them.
- Being responsive to requests by Citizens' Advice
to check their material (Citizens' Advice report huge variations
between departments to requests for support to enable them to
get accurate information out to bureaux in time).
- Advising Citizens' Advice when all/any government
leaflets are revised and reissued and alerting them when government
websites are amended.
- Bringing the UK Statute Law Data Base (http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/)
fully up-to-date with revised legislation.
- Drawing on Citizens' Advice's expertise by consulting
at an early stage on whether an information campaign makes sense,
and when it might be best to run it.
124. We can see only benefits from a closer working
relationship between Government communications departments and
recognised voluntary sector organisations involved in information
provision. We therefore recommend that Government departments
should consult the voluntary sector about appropriate delivery
mechanisms at an early stage when planning new information campaigns
or revising old guidance.
125. We recommend that the Office of the Third
Sector and the GCN, both of which are based in the Cabinet Office,
should develop guidance for all departments on working with and
consulting voluntary-sector organisations, in order to ensure
the public can get help in accessing reliable, up-to-date information
from well-informed sources. There is a similar case to be made
for the importance of local government and other stakeholder consultations
being held at an early stage.
41 Ibid., pg 12. Back
Ministerial Code, Cabinet Office, July 2007, paragraph 9.1, p 19. Back
Written ministerial statements are a procedure introduced in 2004
that we welcome, as they make the process of written Government
announcements to Parliament much more open and transparent; HC
Deb 13 February 2001 col 160. Back
HC Deb 30 October 2000 col 513. Back
Phillis Review, p.10. Back
Ibid., p. 26. Back
Phillis Review, p 2. Back
Civil Service Order in Council 1995, Article 3. Back
Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, paragraph 2, p.1. The Code
was first published in 1997; the current version is dated November
Ibid., paragraphs 10, 11, p 3. Back
Propriety Guidance, Cabinet Office, p 7. Back
Phillis Review, p 15. Back
Ibid., p 19. Back
Ibid., p. 21. Back
Ibid., p. 18. Back
Ibid., p. 19. Back