News 14th June 2024

BLOG | Dear next government, there is one way to rebuild trust… and it already exists | Kevin Keith

by Guest

But the real question may be whether politicians trust us.

In the first episode of Yes Minister in 1980, newly appointed Minister Jim Hacker sought to introduce a policy of Open Government to ‘take the nation into our confidence.’ 

He failed, of course, with his artful Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey musing that citizens have a right to be ignorant as ‘knowledge only means complicity and guilt.’ 

But open government did come to fruition.

And it may just be the solution to the collapse in trust highlighted by the British Social Attitudes survey from the National Centre for Social Research published this week. 

It showed 79% of respondents felt the system of governing Britain was in need of ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement and that 45% almost never trust governments to prioritise the nation’s needs over their parties. This follows an Ipsos report published late last year that showed trust in politicians has reached a 40 year low. 

So how could open government help? It is a way of governing that promotes the principles of transparency, integrity and accountability, alongside the involvement of citizens in government processes.

In the UK, it is most visible through the government’s membership of the 75 country Open Government Partnership of which it was a founding member in 2011. 

It produces open government plans on an almost bi-annual basis with the latest published earlier this year.

These plans have a dual purpose. 

First, to house policies that improve transparency, accountability and the involvement of people in decision-making. This typically is in areas such as procurement, anti-corruption, freedom of information, data or justice.

Second, to showcase a unique model of government and civil society (ranging from academia to charities, community groups and NGOs) working together to develop these policies, and provide oversight of implementation. This process of working together is, at times, challenging. As the former US President Barack Obama said, ‘democracy requires compromise even when you are 100% right.’ But it can help build trust. 

If you are involved in policy creation, can see the working’s out, and have oversight of implementation, you are more likely to perceive it fair.

The problem with open government is, there is just nowhere near enough of it. 

But what if open government principles and practice were applied across the entire UK government?

If the challenges associated with the NHS and health policy reform were approached by civil society and government combined, with transparency and accountability at the core and ways explored to involve civil society and the wider public: a citizens assembly on the use of health data, for example, or civil society collaborating with government on ways to reduce waiting lists. 

Or if government and civil society worked together on a system for promoting and enforcing standards in Parliament? 

Or on national planning policy reform, or energy reform, or environmental policy, or constitutional and electoral reform, or devolution, or budgeting, or the impact of automated decision making, algorithms, and artificial intelligence?

I could go on.

There is a balance, of course, as ultimate accountability rests with the government. But if people are to once more trust politicians, then politicians have to once more trust the people.


Kevin Keith is the Chair of the UK Open Government Network