News 28th March 2024

Tim Davies | Exploring future UK open government actions on digital governance (Nairobi workshop)

by Guest

I recently attended a workshop on governing new and emerging digital technologies, organised by the Open Government Partnership, in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Over the first 1.5 days we had the great privilege to hear from civil society and government presenters from across 11 countries about current digital governance actions, agendas and challenges.Then our focus turned to prospective future open government and digital governance actions, working in country clusters.

The current UK Open Government National Action Plan which runs 2024 – 2025 notes that while “there are currently no commitments on climate change or digital governance … we look forward to pursuing these in the next plan”. Below I’ve tried to capture some of the potential themes for UK focus that came up in the discussion. These are shared (in no official capacity – simply as an independent civil society attendee at the workshop) not as fully-formed proposals, but as rough outlines that could be explored more, and discussed to see whether any deserve a little more colouring in. 

An Open Government mission in a renewed Roadmap for Digital and Data

With the current UK Roadmap for Digital and Data (based around six ‘missions’ for government digital) also running until the end of 2025, the UK Open Government process could provide an opportunity to feed public priorities into the roadmap, or call for a mission that better embeds open government values of Transparency, Participation and Accountability into the roadmap.

Renewing the open data agenda

Open data was a big feature of the first four UK National Action Plans, but a lot of momentum has been lost. At the same time, as Renata Avilla and I recently argued in the conclusion to the revised edition of The State of Open Data, the critical creation of open data infrastructures remains as important as ever. 

Building on thinking about a potential ‘Fourth Wave of Open Data’ (GovLab), government progress on developing an internal data marketplace, as well as design work to rethink the potential role of open data portals, there is both a need and opportunity to convene conversations around how to refresh, refine and renew an open data agenda in the UK. 

Embedding Transparency, Participation and Accountability in AI Governance

We face not so much a shortage of evidence on public attitudes on AI in general, or on public perspectives about particular applications of AI in public services, as we face a gulf between the places where public engagement is happening, and the places where the promotion and governance of AI are taking place. 

For example, the introduction to the work of the AI Safety Institute mentions public input just once, and while the incubator promote a recent demonstrator of AI for consultation analysis they make no mention of recent public deliberations (commissioned by DFT) exploring public perspectives on the use of AI in consultations and correspondence.

Some of the recent feedback I’ve heard on the Perspectives on the AI Fringe report has highlighted the value that having a public perspectives chapter (from the People’s Panel on AI) has had. Building on this – could we not be asking that the reports of the AI Safety Institute should include a public perspectives chapter, and that central government experiments with AI should demonstrate how they have either built on existing relevant public engagement, or carried out direct engagement with affected communities during the innovation process?

Other areas for action

Drawing on both our country discussions, and listening to action plan ideas from other countries at the workshop, there are a number of other ideas that could be in the mix (though I’ve not worked up these more than a bullet point right now):

  • Improving public input into AI procurement processes either at the national level, and/or by providing frameworks and support for greater participatory practice around AI procurement in local public services.

Where to go from here?

One of the OGP speakers earlier today reflected on the journey towards strong actions and commitments: noting the need to build civil society and government coalitions around particular actions, and to find the champions. It’s notable that the UK Roadmap for Digital and Data adopts a mission-oriented approach that names responsible government stakeholders. 

One of the key challenges then for the multi-stakeholder groups around open government in the UK is not to wait for the next national action plan cycle to start, but to be thinking now (albeit accepting possible temporary election distractions…) about building conversations and coalitions that might own and advance improved digital governance commitments in future.