Straight answers, or slippery digressions? The art of the Written Answer – in numbers

House of Lords Library: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.

But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.

That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:

“Does this answer the above question?”

Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.

That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.

Is the current administration more slippery?

It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.

In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.

In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.

Best and worst departments for a straight answer

Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.

Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.

We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.

 Facts and figures

The data runs from 5/1/2004 to 9/12/2013.

Total number of Written Answers published on TheyWorkForYou during this time: 551,286

Total number of  survey responses by TheyWorkForYou users: 275,681

Number of Written Answers with at least one user assessment: 128,234

Notes:
- Due to the way in which the House of Lords publishes Written Answers, we were not able in the time available to ascribe questions asked of any Minister sitting in the House of Lords to that Minister’s department (around 8k questions in total).
- Departments change names more than you might think. In creating the league table of departments, we have used best endeavours to match data from appropriate predecessor departments to their present-day successors. For example, we have assumed that data from 2004-2007 for Department of Trade and Industry should be ascribed to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which took over from DTI in 2007. See the table below for a breakdown of the departments we’ve bunched together.
- We’ve only included significant government departments in the league table. For example, we’ve not included the Electoral Commission Committee.

Department Yes, it answered the question No, it did not answer the question Total Straight Talking percentage Gov 2005-10 Gov 2010-2013
Wales 751 384 1135 66 48 86
International Development 1362 778 2140 64 65 60
Transport 4205 3979 8184 51 51 53
Deputy Prime Minister 809 1124 1933 42 40 53
Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 2456 2484 4940 50 48 53
Women and Equalities 237 232 469 51 51 51
Justice 2652 2728 5380 49 50 49
Defence 4184 3892 8076 52 53 49
Energy and Climate Change 907 1030 1937 47 43 49
Business, Innovation and Skills 3079 3207 6286 49 50 48
Environment Food and Rural Affairs 3074 2842 5916 52 54 48
Culture Media and Sport 1894 1678 3572 53 56 47
Cabinet Office 712 843 1555 46 44 46
Communities and Local Government 2785 2849 5634 49 51 46
Northern Ireland 1072 1008 2080 52 53 44
Scotland 337 498 835 40 40 43
Home Department 4890 6645 11535 42 43 42
Education 3046 3371 6417 47 51 41
Health 4867 6972 11839 41 42 40
Treasury 2518 4356 6874 37 36 39
Prime Minister 444 1097 1541 29 26 38
Work and Pensions 2620 4133 6753 39 44 31
Average 52480 60908 113388 46 47 45

 

 Averages for each year, all departments

Percentage of ‘yes’ responses to the TheyWorkForYou user survey

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
45 47 49 45 48 47 49 46 43 42

 

 

 

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. Original image

2 Comments

  1. Frankie Roberto

    Interesting data!

    I’m intrigued as to how consistent the poll results are, as that might reveal how clear cut the judgement about whether the answer answers the question is (I imagine there’s a lot of sort-of answers).

    Would you be able to run the stats and tell us:

    * the percentage of answers where all the poll results concur (where there’s at least 2 answers). Also perhaps whether this has changed over time.
    * the average percentage of poll results which differ from the majority answer (eg if 2 people answer yes and 8 answer no the percentage would be 20%).

    Cheers,

    Frankie