Points of View 19th June 2019

UK Open Government National Action Plan: A Gendered Analysis

by Guest

by Women’s Budget Group

NOTE: This analysis by Women’s Budget Group was requested in early 2019 before the National Action Plan 2019-21 had been published. A number of commitments have had slight changes since this analysis was done, although these do not affect the overall assessment. Two commitments were not finalised when passed onto WBG and therefore have not been analysed.

The Government has published its National Action Plan with commitments for 2019-2021 to improve transparency, participation and accountability in governmental practice across departments. This is an initiative, linked to the Open Government Partnership, to make domestic governments more responsive, transparency and accountable.

The UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG) was asked to analyse the commitments from a gender perspective – making sure that women as well as men are included in Open Government initiatives, analysing how government commitments are likely to impact women’s circumstances, and to highlight any blind spots regarding gender equality that these commitments may have.

This document sets out key gender equality issues for each of the commitments and identifies areas to cover in future action plans.

Who we are

The WBG are an independent network of leading academic researchers, policy experts and campaigners. Our vision is of a caring economy that promotes gender equality and for over 30 years we have examined economic policy and asked ‘who benefits?’. We produce robust analysis and aim to influence the people making policy. You can find out more about us at: www.wbg.org.uk.

Open Government commitments and gender equality – an overview

We welcome the commitments being made in this action plan, especially around involving citizens and other stakeholders in open policy-making and the design of the Digital Charter, the commitment to widen the use of Citizens’ Assemblies in the production of policy, and the publication of grants and contracts data. Responsive policy that can improve women’s lives relies on transparency and diverse participation. This briefing first gives an overview of the overarching themes of the document before analysing each recommendation in turn.

      1. Participation: equality of outcome

In their effort to widen and improve participation channels into the policy-making process, the Government needs to make sure that there is equality of opportunity for participation but also equality of outcome; in other words, it is not enough for those channels to be there and to be promoted – the government needs to make sure there is sufficient diversity of groups being heard and to reach out proactively if that is not the case. This is especially the case when thinking about the make-up of Citizens’ Assemblies and regarding consultations around the Digital Charter, an area where women are underrepresented. Digital technology needs to be free from gender and racial bias, and humans need to be able to access – and ultimately control – the decision-making process behind decisions made by algorithms.

      2. Data publication – sufficient detail for proper transparency and accountability

The publication of data is crucial for transparency and is a prerequisite for accountability of decisionmakers. However, this data needs to be sufficiently granular for meaningful accountability. For example, it is important not only to give details about organisations and companies that received government grants and contracts but also to compare with the ones that did not receive any awards. What type of services are the organisations providing? Are the companies that won the contracts the ones providing the services or are they subcontracting? Have considerations about social, environmental and economic well-being been taken into account when making an awarding decision (as required by the Social Value Act 2012)?

Transparency makes corruption and the misuse of public money harder. This is particularly important for women – in the UK and in other countries – as women tend to rely to a larger extent on public spending in the form of social security benefits and public services. Diversion of money from the public exchequer is thus a problem likely to have a greater impact on women.

The section below gives a detailed analysis of each commitment from a gendered perspective.


1. Grants Data

Detailing which organisations are benefitting from public grants is a marker of transparency of a government’s grant-awarding system. This in turn ought to lead to improved accountability from both the Government and grantee organisations to the public.

We welcome the publication of government grants data in 360Giving, an existing platform for grants data, in a standardised way that can be easily searched, read and compared with grants awarded by other bodies such as trusts and foundations. This not only makes the data more readily accessible to public servants, citizens and organisations, but it also improves cross-checks for overlaps and gaps in the grants being awarded by the different awarding institutions.

But grants data in their current form show only the decision that was made – a grant of a certain amount to an organisation for a period of time – it does not give any indication of how that decision was made nor the criteria behind it. Who were the other applicants and how well did they fare in the application process? How much money is being awarded to women, BAME and disability specialist organisations? This kind of information is important if whole transparency and true accountability are the goals and if the Government wants to honour its commitments towards equality.

Moreover, the Government’s commitment to publish and harmonise grants data should be extended to local governments and other local statutory bodies, including Police and Crime Commissioners and NHS trusts. Many of the most vulnerable people in our society depend on the support provided by third-sector organisations whose main source of income are local authorities’ grants. This includes women with multiple disadvantages – which can take the form of no recourse to public funds, low-income backgrounds, experience of sexual and domestic abuse, drug addiction, homelessness, etc.

Against a backdrop of many of these specialist and local organisations, with a long-standing community presence and expertise, losing out on funding that is diverted to generic and larger organisations, sometimes with questionable capacity to deliver good quality support services[1], it is crucial that local government grant-making is also made public.

As with all other governmental policy-making decisions, equality should be factored in early on in the decision-making process of grant awarding. The Public Sector Equality Duty requires public bodies to have due regard to equality and ending discrimination when carrying out their activities. Government grant-making, as a redistribution of resources, should clearly evidence that it had due regard to equality and that grant decisions were guided by this duty.

2. Public participation

The tech sector itself is highly gendered. Only 17 per cent[2] of employees in the UK tech sector are women, and the figures[3] aren’t much better globally. This means that, for the most part, ‘technological developments and data-enabled innovations’ are designed by men, with men as the imagined archetypal end consumer. It is perhaps unsurprising then that men and women’s experience of using, owning or interacting with technology can differ greatly. It is important that such differences are taken into account when shaping public policy in this area, and particularly when thinking about how best to protect people from harm or discrimination.

The under-representation of women in the digital sector has already brought biases into artificial intelligence, including voice recognition software that struggled to understand women[4] and the online ad platform which was more likely to show men highly paid executive jobs[5]. In order to avoid biased algorithms, women – and ethnic minorities – need to be included in every step of the formulation of digital technology, from policy formation to design and knowledge input.

Ultimately, humans need to be able to access – and control – the decision-making process behind decisions made by algorithms, particularly ones that crucially impact people’s lives.

Another area in which men and women’s experience of technology diverges is around online abuse. Adolescent girls, for example, are twice as likely to experience some form of cyberbullying than their male peers.[6] Female MPs receive a far greater number of abusive messages online than male MPs, and BAME women MPs receive far more abuse than their white colleagues, [7] despite being fewer in number.

Online abuse is a human rights issue. While everyone online is at risk of abuse, it is clear that some groups are far more likely to experience this first hand. Some forms of online abuse are part of the larger phenomena of violence against women, and online violence can be just as severe as experiences of violence offline. It may affect women’s human rights to safety, freedom of expression, participation in public life, and may also cause severe psychological harm.

Governments and social media companies like Twitter have a responsibility to prevent, investigate and punish all acts of violence against women online, and to ensure that women using these social media platforms are able to express themselves freely and without fear. The Digital Charter has the capacity to be an important tool in this respect, helping to establish ‘norms and rules for the online world’. We welcome the Government’s commitment to ‘consulting with a broad and representative public’ when developing both the digital charter and the National Data Strategy.

Having the opportunity to take part in a consultation is not the same thing as having the capacity to do so, however. We urge the Government to think about where and when such consultations are held; if the venue (digital or otherwise) is easy to access; and who will have the time and resources (i.e. the confidence, access to a digital device, or childcare, if necessary) to be able to take part. We stress that the Government needs to be proactive in recruiting women to these consultations to ensure that their voices are heard.

3. Open Policy Making

Social expectations about gender roles mean that policy impacts differently on women and men. For instance, women are more likely to access public services and more likely to rely on the state for some or all of their income, so are disproportionally impacted by cuts to public spending.[8] It is imperative that such differences are taken into account when designing policy. As a tool for co-creating policy that works for both the Government and the people who use or are impacted by public services, Open Policy Making (OPM) has huge potential to help deliver policies that will lead to greater gender equality.

We are encouraged by the statement that ‘a core element of OPM is ensuring that evidence is used in a transparent and open manner’, enabling policymakers to ‘have a common understanding of people’s needs and for civil society to understand the evidence base that has informed decision making’. This focus on evidence and transparency only bolsters the obligation that the Government already has under the Public Sector Equality Duty, to pay due regard to the impact of its policies on different groups, and to have adequate evidence for its decision-making. However, to further strengthen this obligation – so often overlooked by Government[9]we would like to see OPM include an explicit commitment to carrying out Equality Impact Assessments[10] (EIAs) of policies where relevant.

EIAs focus on process – enabling 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. Comprehensive EIAs (including cumulative assessments[11] of reforms) can improve policy outcomes and meet gender equality goals.

Although there is a commitment for Policy Lab to ‘work with departments to increase the transparency and accessibility of evidence’, it is unclear in what instances evidence will be publicly available. Whilst sharing evidence between departments or individuals working on OPM is essential for integrating best practices into policy-making, it is vital that the evidence underpinning policies is also available publicly so that it can be scrutinised, and the Government held to account for its decisions.

We agree with the assertion that OPM be embedded across government organisations – at all levels and at all points in the policy-making process – and not be seen as an ‘add on’ to policymakers’ day-to-day work. This way, policies could be properly assessed for their impact from the beginning. Engagement with stakeholders specifically can help decision-makers develop their evidence and avoid basing policies on assumptions. The design and roll-out of Universal Credit, for instance, is a prime example of policy that would have benefitted from going through the co-design OPM process.

The story of Universal Credit assessments illustrates the fallacy of ‘gender-neutral policies’,[12] and highlights the need to improve how equality is considered in policy decisions. Had Universal Credit been ‘co-designed around the human experience’, with the DWP drawing on stakeholder expertise at an early stage of decision-making, equality impacts and any mitigating actions could have been identified before the policy was implemented – potentially avoiding some of the adverse impacts that have thus far accompanied UC roll-out.

Finally, if the Government is serious about tackling inequality, we would push for one the four ‘demonstrator’ projects in 2019 to be a project focused on improving gender equality.

4. Open Contracting Data

To achieve a high level of transparency and accountability of who the Government does business with and what it spends, it is fundamental that contracting data is published in an easily searchable, readable and comparable format.

We welcome the commitment to increasing numbers of contracts with service providers to be published in Contract Finder, so that the money can be tracked from planning to final spending, including subcontracting.

From the point of view of improving gender equality, two main issues should be addressed in this commitment.

Firstly, tendering processes, like all other government decisions, should abide by the Public Sector Equality Duty whereby public bodies should have due regard to the need to end discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. At the very least, there should be an effort from public bodies not to contribute to inequality. To this end, firms and other organisations with a poor record in terms of discrimination who won public contracts should be clearly labelled and the criteria behind the decision to award despite discriminatory evidence should be provided. Meta fields in Contract Finder could be added that provide information on the gender pay gap of the companies and their history of employment discrimination cases in tribunals. This should put pressure on commissioners to justify their choices and in turn lead to decisions that favour more socially-responsible organisations.

Secondly, it should be very clear who is actually delivering the services. Subcontracting information is crucial in this regard. For example, in the equalities voluntary sector, there are cases of local specialist non-profit service providers losing bids to larger generic firms that will then subcontract to these organisations anyway, but for a fraction of the original value of the contract.[13] Small voluntary organisations are facing the impossible task of delivering high-quality services for a fraction of the amount these services actually cost – and so having to co-fund the delivery of commissioned services from other sources like grants or own reserves, while subcontractors reap the savings and the profits.

Publishing public contracts data improves transparency and accountability by allowing citizens and Government to follow the money and scrutinise the effectiveness of the organisations providing services on behalf of the Government and the quality of services provided. This in turn should put pressure on commissioning decisions to be taken following considerations beyond the lowest bid.

5. Natural Resource Transparency

We welcome the DFID’s commitment to increase transparency of UK-listed companies’ payments for public-owned oil, gas and minerals across the globe. As mentioned in the commitment text, this is a large portion of income for the exchequer of many countries and an area where risk of corruption is very high.

With payments for extraction of natural resources forming such a large amount of many countries’ public finances, measures to improve the transparency and fairness of these payment streams is of huge importance to women’s daily lives, as it impinges on governments’ available funds.  Transparency also has a knock-on effect on corruption, by way of being a means towards improved accountability. This is particularly pertinent in countries with very large extractive industries, such as Russia, Iraq and Venezuela, reminding us that our concern for gender equality should not be limited to the UK.

Women are less likely to sit on executive boards, and extractive companies are no exception. Women are therefore less likely to be involved in decision-making around extraction of natural resources and corresponding payments to governments. Women are also less likely to be shareholders of companies so they are also less likely to enjoy their profits. However, women are more likely to depend on public services provided by the state and social security benefits, due to their larger share of caring responsibilities for children and the frail and due to lower incomes and levels of wealth. Women thus have a stake on the health of public finances and on governments’ capacity to pay for those things.

6. Innovation in Democracy Programme

Women remain underrepresented in politics, and so any mechanism for increasing civic engagement and amplifying women’s voices in policy debates is welcomed. Citizens’ Assemblies are well documented as a potentially effective method to ensure a gender balance and fair representation by age group and the geographical distribution of the population, and so would be one way of improving the representation and participation of women in the democratic process.

It is important that beyond adopting the name of a Citizens’ Assembly, the Assembly process be structured in such a way so as to address the issues which frequently surround women’s capacity to take part in public consultations. Travel, accommodation and meals should be provided, and an additional honorarium considered, to encourage and support participation. Most importantly, the cost of carers, respite care and childcare should be covered where required, as women are more likely to have responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work of this nature. Ensuring the material needs of women are met in this way greatly enhances the likelihood of them being able to participate in a Citizens’ Assembly and the democratic process more generally.

An additional and often overlooked aspect of Citizens’ Assemblies that make them particularly effective mechanisms for ensuring that a range of voices heard, is the fact that discussions are led by professional facilitators. These facilitators make sure that everyone around the table feels comfortable and has a chance to feed in their views. This type of facilitation is helpful in ensuring that the conversations are not dominated by individuals who feel more confident/able to speak in such situations.

Research has found that in meetings, men often outtalk women even when the group is 60% female, and that men are generally more vocal in public forums.[14] This highlights that true participatory democracy needs to go beyond giving marginalised or minority groups a seat at the table, and actually seek to address deep rooted behavioural norms that might prevent certain individuals from actively participating.

To ensure that the outcome of Citizens’ Assemblies is effectively used and not an exercise of waste, it needs to be made clearer how its results feed into the policy-making process more broadly.

7: Effective knowledge sharing for sustainable OG policies and practices across public services in the UK

This commitment was not finalised at the time of the analysis.

8: Local transparency

This commitment was not finalised at the time of the analysis.


For transparency to be real the Government 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 recent high-profile policies that are having a profound impact in society, such as the case of the Brexit impact assessment, where only after threats of being in contempt of parliament did the Government publish their sectoral analysis of Brexit.[15] 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.

In order to improve accountability on the Government’s duty to promote equality, it is important that data is segregated by gender and by other protected characteristics, whenever pertinent. The UK Government’s publication of gender-segregated statistics is of a good international standard but there are still some gaps. Moreover, despite the welcome introduction of the Ethnicity Facts and Figures website,[16] intersectional data – data on groups with more than one shared protected characteristic – is hard to find.

Our recommendation: conduct and publish Equality Impact Assessments

As an overarching mechanism that will work to fulfil all of the Open Government initiative goals, while at the same time respecting the Public Sector Equality Duty, we recommend that the Government firmly embeds Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) into their policy, decision-making and budgetary processes. When conducted properly, as investigative analysis instead of mere tick-box exercises, EIAs have the potential to ensure that new policies are responsive, transparent and participatory in their content, as well as in their format.

Both the Women and Equalities Select Committee[17] and, more recently, the Treasury Select Committee,[18] have recommended that the Government do more to demonstrate it has fulfilled its obligations to assess the equalities impacts of future Spending Reviews, Budgets and Autumn Statements, by carrying out ‘quantitative analysis of the equalities impact of individual tax and welfare measures in all cases where data are available’. We welcome these recommendations and urge the Treasury to take action in time for the 2019 Spending Review.


[1] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2012) Research Report 86: The impact of changes in commissioning and funding on women-only services (https://bit.ly/2WWVvsR)

[2] Recruitment International (15 August 2017) ‘Only 17% of employees in UK tech sector are women, research reveals’ (https://bit.ly/2nQVwxC)

[3] Statista (8 March 2018) ‘The tech world is still a man’s world’ (https://bit.ly/2pXRt3b)

[4] The Daily Dot (15 July 2017) ‘Research shows gender bias in Google’s voice recognition’ (https://bit.ly/2Py4GuN)

[5] The Independent (7 July 2015) ‘Google’s algorithm shows prestigious job ads to men but not to women’ (https://ind.pn/2QcdkUc)

[6] Cyberbullying Research Centre (1 May 2015) 2015 Cyberbullying data (https://bit.ly/2SxBHh2)

[7] Amnesty International UK (No date) ‘Black and Asian women MPs abused more online’ (https://bit.ly/2AW4yiG)

[8] Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust (2017) Intersecting inequalities: The impact of austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic women in the UK (http://bit.ly/2jLave5)

[9] The Guardian (20 November 2017) ‘This budget will make things even worse for women and the disadvantaged’ (https://bit.ly/2mM51ko)

[10] Women’s Budget Group (16 January 2019) ‘‘Gender-neutral’: Universal Credit Equality Impact Assessments’ (https://bit.ly/2S1Koer)

[11] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms (https://bit.ly/2G2DP9B)

[12] Women’s Budget Group (16 January 2019) ‘Gender-neutral’: Universal Credit Equality Impact Assessments’ (https://bit.ly/2S1Koer) Rather than being gender-neutral, aspects of UC disproportionately affect women. For instance, a UC award can only be split at DWP’s discretion in exceptional circumstances, such as domestic or financial abuse, or financial mismanagement. This has gendered implications as women are more likely to experience domestic and financial abuse. Disclosing, and getting a split payment, could also worsen the abuse.

[13] Women’s Budget Group (2018) Life-Changing & Life-Saving: Funding for the women’s sector (https://bit.ly/2UYuS4R)

[14] Christopher F. Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg (2014) The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions. Princeton University Press

[15] The Independent (21 December 2017) ‘Brexit: Government analysis published after long battle’ (https://ind.pn/2BAlHAh)

[16] UK Government (No date) Ethnicity facts and figures (https://bit.ly/2ybVabA)

[17] UK Parliament (18 November 2016) ‘More transparency needed from HM Treasury on equality analysis’ (https://bit.ly/2GJ0iYY)

[18] Treasury Select Committee (12 February 2019) Budget 2018 (https://bit.ly/2SPyWac)