OGN meeting with Chris Skidmore, Minister for the Constitution | 5th April 2017
Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution
Thom Townsend, Government Digital Service
Will Gerry, Government Digital Service
Tim Davies, Practical Participation
Michelle Brook, The Democratic Society
Rachel Davies Teka, Transparency International UK
Gavin Freeguard, The Institute for Government
Andrew Parsons, Public Concern at Work
Tim Hughes, Involve
Matt Harriott, Involve
The Minister thanked those present for coming and Tim Hughes, the Open Government Network Coordinator, introduced the Open Government Network and the agenda.
Progress on current NAP commitments:
The meeting opened with updates on the current National Action Plan (NAP) commitments:
Rachel Davies Teka thanked the Minister for meeting us today, and for moving this commitment forward. The primary concern of the Open Government Network at this point was that the window for publishing a consultation, that would enable primary legislation to be bought in time to meet the commitment, was closing. The Minister confirmed that the consultation would be published at midday, Wednesday 5th April, and offered his support in ensuring that the process moves forward to meet the commitment milestones.
The call for evidence can be found here.
Freedom of Information:
The current NAP includes a commitment to consult on, and issue, a new Freedom Of Information Code of Practice by December 2016. Gavin Freeguard noted that, as yet, this consultation has not been published and there was some concern that the new Code of Practice was being developed behind closed doors. The Minister noted that Freedom of Information falls under his remit and explained that the consultation is scheduled for publication in the summer, with the Code of Practice due to be published as soon as possible afterward, but at the latest by the end of the calendar year. Tim Hughes highlighted the dangers of the code being developed behind closed doors and offered the support of the OGN to facilitate an open policy process. The Minister asked for some time to consider the options, and would get back to OGN with ways in which we could work together.
Open Contracting, including Local Government:
Tim Davies explained the current state of play, and highlighted that, although a milestone was slightly missed in October, the delay was mutually agreed. The National picture is promising, but local contexts are less so. Tim highlighted that there might be a need for new National Action Plan milestones around this issue to ensure that progress being made is further built upon, as we have now passed the only milestone written into the NAP. The Minister agreed, and suggested that new milestones are outcome driven, to ensure that the benefits of open contracting (i.e. better value for money) are made clear to local procurement officers and officials. The Minister is also interested in the ways in which Open Contracting, and a better access to supply-chain data can help the Government evidence their commitment to one third of Government contracts going to SMEs, either directly, or through supply-chains.
Thom Townsend highlighted that there are international examples that can be drawn on to encourage best practice. Tim Davies agreed and noted that, for the most part, the issue was around implementation, not around a lack of suitable advice. The importance of contract transparency at the local level, to enable proper scrutiny and democratic accountability was also noted. Existing guidance places clear limits on the information that should be kept confidential from the full text of contracts. The Minister agreed to speak to the Crown Commercial Service to establish what they are publishing in the coming months to see if any further guidance could be produced.
Wider Open Government issues:
Michelle Brooke introduced the topic, and discussed the ways in which the principles of Open Government can encourage democratic renewal, and highlighted previous commitments around Election Data as a way in which Civil Society and Government can work together to open up elections. Thom Townsend updated the meeting on this commitment, and explained that the initial set-up costs for the Election Management Software Suppliers will be addressed. The Minister explained his interest in democratic renewal, especially in the way in which data can be used to help this process. He plans to produce a Democratic Engagement Strategy in the Summer, which is likely to include producing greater, locally specific, data around electoral registration. Tim Davies highlighted how this process of linking data sets to user-centred outcomes and design processes could provide fruitful ground for future NAP commitments, and reiterated the OGNs willingness to support this process if it can.
Law Commission Consultation:
Andrew Parsons from Public Concern at Work introduced the concerns that the OGN had over the Law Commission’s consultation on proposed reforms to the Official Secrets Acts. The reforms are felt to be the wrong reforms at the wrong time, and there is particular concern over the explicit removal of a Public Interest Defence. Andrew highlighted that this form of defence can actually help prevent the type of indiscriminate, data dump, leak that can seriously threaten national security. The Minister acknowledge the concerns, but as the consultation is still open, couldn’t comment further. He encouraged anyone with reservations to engage in the consultation process.
The consultation can be found here.
Brexit and Open Government
Tim Davies emphasised the need for continued openness in Government, especially given the upcoming busy legislative agenda, which will include the Great Repeal Bill. Given the complexity of this agenda, the need for openness around ministerial meetings was noted. Currently, meetings are published approximately 6 months after the date of the meetings. The White House has previously published visitor logs in real time, so there is international precedent for this. The OGN were keen to have a conversation about what Open Government will look like in the post-Brexit world. The Minister reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to becoming the most open government in the world, and that that commitment would not slip as a result of Brexit.
Openness going forward:
The Minister was keen to ensure that, although Arms-Length Bodies are an arms-length from the government, they are not an arms-length from the public, and this should be reflected in the ways in which they are transparent. The Minister also said that he is keen to drive diversity in public appointments through publishing data, using the example of the publication of board data in the City. He highlighted the Public Appointments strategy which is due to be published in the summer. The Minister mentioned that this would need to be done through non-legislative means due to the legislative programme.
Michelle Brook agreed to provide the Minister with a package of information and research that would be useful in the development of a proposed democratic engagement strategy.