Points of View 25th September 2015

The Open Government Partnership: How far have we come?

by Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy is the IRM for the Open Government Partnership and a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

The UK’s 2013-15 OGP Progress Report was published on Wednesday. Here Ben Worthy, the UK’s Independent Reporting Mechanism researcher, reflects on progress since the publication of the UK’s second National Action Plan.

The UK government is now nearing the end of its Second National Action Plan created as part of the Open Government Partnership process. The plan is a series of 21 open government commitments drawn up in 2013 with the co-operation of civil society groups (see a history here). The government itself published a series of updates and self-assessments on how it has done as it went along.

The new IRM is a separate independent assessment based on a series of interviews and desk research. One thing to note is that it looks at implementation (whether policies have been put in place) not impact or effect (what has happened as a result of the policies). You can read the new report in full here.

What Went Well?

There were some eye-catching commitments that have been strongly pushed by the government. Probably the most high profile, unsurprisingly given David Cameron’s support, is the move to publish data on Beneficial Ownership. As of April 2016 there will be a public register of who owns or exercises ‘significant control’ over all UK companies. Another similar move has been to open up UK companies engaged in natural resource activity (e.g. oil and gas) by implementing two new EU Extractives Transparency laws and joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Finally, Aid Transparency is being extended with data publication offering new ways of understanding who is giving what aid to whom. Less about data, but still significant, is the government’s new Anti-Corruption Strategy.

A little further below the radar, but equally as important, are the initiatives around local community data such as tax, homelessness or help to buy. All politics is, of course, local and so is a lot of data. It is locally that data is often of most interest to the public and where it can kick-start innovations.

Behind the scenes, there’s been important work started on the ‘building blocks’ of openness such as strengthening records management, with work by TNA turning UK legislation into open data and on digital records, and creating frameworks, with the Cabinet Office led National Information Infrastructure.

What Went Not so Well?

The commitments involving public participation in decision-making were a disappointment to many civil society bodies, as they did not go far enough. Some of the areas of work offered some interesting ideas but faced difficult problem of co-ordination and bumped up against the all-important issue of privacy (as, for example, care.data showed). On a more practical level, some of the commitments were rather vague.

Looking across the plan as a whole, while there were big, eye-catching moves forward on transparency, there has been a lot less progress on two of the other OGP’s aims of accountability and participation. Data alone does not, of course, automatically bring these things. Across many of the commitments there is a need to ‘link up’ data to means of engaging the public. All this new data needs to work and fit with either old or new tools of accountability and participation to make it truly effective.

And Now?

One important recommendation I made is to follow up on the commitments after the plan ends. It is very important that someone (such as a Parliamentary select committee or an expert) gathers evidence on what happens to all these different policies over the coming months and years. The devil is, after all, in the detail, especially for the complex or wide-ranging reforms.

It’s also important to look at the ‘gaps’ and what is not covered. I highlighted government surveillance and lobbying as two important missing pieces. Other external issues, such as changes to the Freedom of Information Act, may influence the future direction of openness. Perhaps most importantly, as the government has recognised, the devolved bodies and local government, some of who have been developing their own policies, need to play a far greater part in developing future ideas.

As attention now moves to putting together the third NAP, there is a bigger question lurking underneath. What are these reforms around Open Data and open government all about? This is not only about how all these disparate ideas and approaches fit together but what the ‘vision’ of state and society, politics and government is that guides it all. Perhaps asking it a different way, what would all these commitments mean for how government will look 20 years down the line? More politically, who wins and who loses?


You can see the full IRM report here

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