Points of View 20th February 2019

Open Government National Action Plan – What’s missing? A commitment to Equality Impact Assessments

by Guest

This commitment idea has been produced by Women’s Budget Group. This action was part of the Open Government Pioneers Project. Check out more commitment ideas here.

The OGP National Action Plan sees the Government sign up to a new series of commitments that seek to improve the transparency of its decision-making, the participation of citizens in the policy-making process, and the accountability of the government at large. These commitments are welcome. However, they could be improved with specific action to address gender inequality.

When it comes to tackling inequality and improving women’s lives through Open Government reforms, one powerful commitment that the Government could make would be to follow through on its Public Sector Equality Duty – included in the Equality Act 2010 – which requires all public bodies to pay due regard to the impact of their policies on equality.

The main way public bodies do this is through carrying out Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs). The Women’s Budget Group has long called for the Treasury to carry out meaningful gender and other equality impact assessments of all spending and taxation decisions, but it repeatedly fails to do so. Other government department and public bodies do not carry out EIAs systematically or robustly enough to appropriately inform policy decisions. Very often, EIAs are just tick-box exercises conducted after decisions on changes have already been made.

When properly carried out EIAs enable decision-makers to take policy, practice or financial decisions based on evidence about equality, and to consider any disproportionate impacts on a particular protected group. Guidance and case law highlight that the duty is continual, applying both before and during policy considerations, not simply an add-on at the end.

Engagement with stakeholders can help decision-makers develop their evidence and avoid basing policies on assumptions. Building on this, certain departments (the Treasury and the DWP, for instance) could use EIAs more effectively in their everyday decisions through drawing on stakeholder expertise at an early stage of decision-making. This could help identify equality impacts and any mitigating actions before policies are implemented – potentially avoiding some of the adverse impacts that certain policies may go on to have.

Our recommendation for the 2018-2020 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan: commit to conduct and publish Equality Impact Assessments

For transparency to be real the government and other public bodies must publish data on their decisions, processes and goals as a matter of course. At the moment, the evidence base on which government supports its decisions is not always clear or public. This was the case in the recent Brexit impact assessment, where the Government only published their sectoral analysis of Brexit after threats of being in contempt of Parliament. The evidence on which government bases its decision-making should be publicly and readily available and should not need to be wrenched out through political fighting. EIAs, when adequately conducted and when published, seriously improve the transparency of the government’s decision-making.

In order to improve accountability on the government’s duty to promote equality, and to aid public bodies in conducting EIAs, the availability of data segregated by gender and by other protected characteristics is crucial. The UK Government’s publication of gender-segregated statistics is of a good international standard and its new Ethnicity Facts and Figures website is the first of its kind in the world. We welcome the Government’s commitment to improve the availability and – perhaps even more importantly – the accessibility of gender- and race-related data. But there are still some gaps – for example, poverty rates are measured at the household level, but it’s also important to know income data at the individual level, so that we know the exact percentage of men and women effectively living in poverty, as household resources are not always equally shared. And despite the welcome introduction of the ethnicity stats website, intersectional data – data on groups with more than one shared protected characteristic – is still hard to find.

As an overarching mechanism that will help to fulfil all of the Open Government initiative goals, while at the same respecting the Public Sector Equality Duty and helping to meet gender equality goals, we recommend that the Government firmly embeds Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) into their policy, decision-making and budgetary processes and continues to improve the availability and accessibility of segregated data by gender and other protected characteristics.