News 26th March 2018

Discussion on UK IRM Mid-Term Report: The Positives and Worries

by Ben Worthy

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

As you may have noticed from the tweets last week, the UK OGP IRM hosted a discussion event in the Speaker Room’s in the House of Commons. Below is a summary of some of the reflections and recommendations, in advance of the public comment period for the IRM 3rd mid-term report, which should begin in the next few weeks. Follow the online discussion: #UKIRMdiscussion

So how has the UK’s third Open Government National Action Plan gone so far?

In short, much of the Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) programme is being delivered, though with delay.

It’s important to remember than this NAP began long ago in May 2016 when David Cameron was still Prime Minister. Much of the delay was due to what one person I spoke to summed up as ‘Brexit paralyses’. As the UK self-assessment put it, rather mildly, ‘since the launch of the NAP in May 2016, there has been a lot of institutional change that has taken place in the UK’ meaning ‘some commitments have been delivered more slowly than first anticipated.’ . In the first 16 months of the 2016-18 NAP the UK has had two Prime Ministers, two governments and four different lead Ministers. In the space of less than a year, Britain also had a referendum on EU membership and a General Election-both of which yielded, let’s say, unexpected results. I think officials and NGOs should be praised for keeping the 2016-18 NAP focused and moving in very uncertain times.

Looking over the plan, one positive is how the commitments have stood up over two years. Although there weren’t as many high profile commitments as in the last plan, events have made many of the policies very relevant. Given events in Salisbury with Russia, the issue of Beneficial Ownership and foreign companies has come centre stage. Commitment seven on a common standard for voting data ties in to ongoing debates about electronic voting in Scotland and Wales, while Wales’ own ethical supply chain commitment is a timely and engaging way of moving openness forward in a way that helps people with everyday choices.

A second positive development is that all of the UK’s devolved bodies were involved this time round. Wales had nine commitments, Northern Ireland had four and Scotland had one (though it has a separate process for its pioneer programme). The devolved bodies had different starting points from the UK as a whole, and for Wales and Northern Ireland it was really their first NAP rather than their third. Northern Ireland, as the OGN pointed out, hasn’t had a government for some time.

Worries and Recommendations

However, amid the positives there are some worrying signs. There’s concern over transparency in the UK, where, as the Institute for Government has shown FOI responses and Open Data publication is slowing. In Scotland there are ongoing claims about the government seeking to avoid FOI that the Scottish Information Commissioner is investigating and, only last week, concerns raised in Northern Ireland over record keeping. I found a sense of distraction mixed with disinterest from senior politicians.

So, my recommendations are as follows:

  1. Get Parliament involved. The UK Parliament and devolved bodies should take a hand in the scrutiny of openness policies. There are so many openness policies moving in different directions across the UK at different levels – from spending data to gender pay gaps to extractives – and Parliament can add expertise, focus and scrutiny power. This could mean a House of Commons or House of Lords committee looking into particular areas or, like the IRM, doing an audit of the whole of transparency policy in Britain. A good committee to do it could be the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which looked into Open Data in 2014, or perhaps the Justice Committee, that looked into FOI in 2012. I’d also recommend that equivalent committees in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do a similar thing.
  2. Brexit might mean Brexit but Brexit should also mean openness: This is less about opening up negotiations and more about everyday life. Nearly two years on, it is increasingly obvious that the lack of information during the referendum on what leaving the EU may mean was a severe issue, whatever your view of the outcome. New commitments should help make sure citizens have access to information on how the process will impact their lives – Brexit could potential alter everything from border controls to food prices – so greater ‘everyday’ openness is vital in creating understanding.
  3. Continue experiments with engagement: the government and CSOs should continue experimenting with new ways of engaging with wider civil society and the public around Brexit and other key issues. There has been great work with regional meetings and virtual experiments at the recent Belfast conference. This could also mean focusing on fewer ‘signature’ commitments, emphasising ‘local’ based openness or looking into particular areas, such as gender and openness in this centenary year.

We’ve seen in the last weeks the dangers of secrecy and value and importance of transparency, from Slovakia to Salisbury and from Facebook to the US Federal government. There’s an anxiety about democratic values and threats to openness from fake news, to polarisation and popularism. George Orwell defined freedom as the ‘right to say things people don’t want to hear’ and I always think openness is, similarly, about ‘accessing and seeing things those in power may not want you to see’. That’s not to say everything should be open but there needs to be a good answer to the question ‘why not’?

Ben Worthy is the UK IRM for the OGP. You can find out more about his wider research on his blog. The UK IRM 3rd mid-term report will be open for public comment in a few weeks.