Points of View 31st October 2013

Immediate reflections on the UK National Action Plan for open government | Simon Burall, Involve

by Tim Hughes

In a couple of hours David Cameron will be up on stage at the Open Government Partnership international Summit launching the UK’s National Action Plan for Open Government [http://data.gov.uk/sites/default/files/library/20131031_ogp_uknationalactionplan.pdf].

The development of this plan has taken nine months of intense work for both Government and organisations in the UK civil society network. Our role has been to support and coordinate the civil society organisations (CSOs) during this process.

The plan commits government to some ambitious and challenging commitments. CSOs in the network particularly welcome the government’s commitments on transparency of aid flows and the global extractive (oil, gas and mining) industries. And of course the significant prize that the Prime Minister will announce, that the Government will create a publicly accessible register of beneficial ownership of companies. This means that the public will be able to identify who ultimately controls, owns and profits from companies and legal arrangements. This will help to reduce the scope for the misuse of companies for illicit purposes including tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and bribery.

There are a number of other smaller and larger commitments which will help to open up the British Government allowing citizens to hold it to account.

But the process of developing the National Action Plan has been as important as the commitments that are in it. The CSO forward to the plan commends ‘the commitment to openness demonstrated in the development of this plan by officials from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team, as well as government teams involved in drafting commitments.’ This recognises the very different way that this plan has been developed when compared to the last time round.

This has not been a process of co-option though, but a genuine search for a partnership. CSOs have not accepted all of the commitments that the government wanted to include in the plan, either because they were not stretching enough, or we did not believe that they contributed to genuine open government. At the same time the government has not accepted every proposal that we have made. The relationship has been challenging at times, but I think that the strong endorsement in the CSO forward demonstrates that it has been positive and productive overall.

The process has delivered a plan that is far stronger than the government could have developed alone. The commitments are stronger for two reasons. First, CSO are genuinely supportive of some of the most challenging commitments in the plan. This will help to ensure that they are implemented effectively (rather than sniped at from the sides for not being stretching enough). Second, I believe that we have helped government to spot flaws in early drafts of some of the commitments. Removing these flaws will help to ensure that the resulting actions lead to more genuine open government.

I believe that the relationships and trust that has developed provide a solid basis for CSOs to work with the government to develop even more ambitious commitments in the future, while at the same time holding it to account for the implementation of the commitments in this plan.

Simon Burall, Director of Involve and coordinator of the UK OGP civil society network