Points of View 25th April 2013

Civil society participation in drafting the UK National Action Plan – Has it been worth it? | Graham Gordon, Tearfund

by Tim Hughes

This was originally posted on the international Open Government Partnership blog: http://blog.opengovpartnership.org/2013/04/civil-society-participation-in-drafting-the-uk-national-action-plan-has-it-been-worth-it/ 

Today the UK government planned to publish its first draft of the new National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership. The aim was to coincide with the Steering Group Meeting in London and to show the progress made so far in developing commitments to be included in the final plan in October. Due to the internal clearing process for government policy, they haven’t been able to publish it as hoped, but the plan is for this to happen in the forthcoming weeks.

Developing this draft plan has been the product of a lengthy process of open policy making led by the Cabinet Office, with extensive involvement of civil society throughout. Tearfund, along with about thirty other organisations, has been heavily involved. So, 6 months later, I ask myself whether it has been worth it. Is this evidence of the UK becoming “the most open and transparent government in the world” as David Cameron committed to in 2010 after being elected Prime Minister? Or is it just a consultation exercise with little to show for it?

In terms of content, without doubt the second plan (latest draft seen last Friday) is streets ahead of the first one published two years ago. There is a much broader understanding of open government, which moves beyond an open data focus to include wider issues of transparency (such as tax transparency), citizen participation in policy-making and government accountability. With a section on global partnerships there is welcome recognition that the open government agenda goes beyond national borders to include, for example, an encouragement for other countries to pass laws for greater transparency in payments by extractive industries, or to work with other governments to reach the highest standards of budget transparency and citizen participation in the budget process.

Furthermore, the plan doesn’t shy away from tackling some thorny issues such as working with the UK’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories to support them in signing up to global anti-corruption conventions.

However, there are some worrying omissions. Commitments around Freedom of Information Legislation are not included because government and civil society are pulling in different directions. Commitments to opening up company registers to include requirements for transparency in beneficial ownership are weak and links between the OGP and G8 agendas haven’t really been made in a way that represents an emerging global agenda.

Civil society has put together a list of areas for future discussion and these are to be included in an annex. We will continue to push government to include commitments in these areas in the final plan.

As far as the process goes, there have been significant benefits. Cabinet Office colleagues have shown great personal commitment to the open policy-making process and have been responsive to many of the commitments civil society has asked to be included. The process has helped to build good working relationships as well a better understanding of the issues involved and government plans. Debates over Freedom of Information and more transparent data on companies are two areas where a frank and open discussion have led to greater clarity about what is needed, although as yet no further commitments to action.

Perhaps the greatest frustration has been the limited involvement across Whitehall as the open policy making process hasn’t penetrated all areas of government. This has meant that some commitments in the draft plan are vague and not as advanced as we had hoped and others as yet have no timescale attached. This clearly shows the need for greater cross-departmental coordination and engagement, a process which is time-consuming.

In terms of self reflection, one challenge for civil society has been to manage expectations of the process. As mentioned above, developing the action plan has the potential to bring together different departments and develop government policy, but this will not replace ongoing lobbying and policy discussions with the lead departments on each issue.

The next few months will be crucial to engage all relevant government departments and ensure that the final action plan includes specific commitments, responsibilities and a timescale for implementation, so that the UK government can really lead the way in open government.

Graham Gordon, Senior Policy Officer – Governance and Corruption, Tearfund