The UK needs ambitious open government commitments for challenging times – Tim Hughes
Tim Hughes – is Director of Involve, which coordinates the Open Government Civil Society Network. He was the co-chair of the second meeting of the Open Government Multi Stakeholder Forum.
The Open Government Partnership has helped achieve some transformative reforms in the UK over the past six years. Among them are ensuring beneficial ownership transparency, developing a cross-government anti-corruption strategy, and publishing UK aid funding and natural resource payments. It is these kinds of commitments that have allowed the UK to legitimately stake a claim as being at the forefront of the open government movement globally.
But they weren’t achieved easily. They took high-level political commitment, (in some cases) years of campaigning from civil society, hard work by civil servants to plan and execute, and collaboration between reformers inside and outside government. It is this concoction that lies at the heart of the Open Government Partnership and distinguishes it from other international initiatives.
While many of those ingredients are still present, the lack of political commitment to further the domestic reform agenda and the culture of secrecy on key national decisions threatens to undermine the UK’s position as a global leader.
Multi Stakeholder Forum
Formalising collaboration this time around, in the Multi Stakeholder Forum format, is a welcome improvement to earlier open government action plan processes. The format gives civil society and government officials a space to discuss commitment ideas and work out solutions to issues.
Sometimes these are difficult conversations but tackling them head on and constructively helps to strengthen the overall process and action plan.
At the second MSF on Monday 11 June, we had the opportunity to give some initial feedback on the draft action plan before it goes out to public consultation. The action plan reflects some of the priority areas suggested by civil society in the Open Government Civil Society Manifesto 2018, such as on improving mechanisms to follow the flow of money in government, building open data infrastructure for action; more open policy-making; and strengthening anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms. Civil servants have done a good job to get the process as far as it is now in a relatively short period of time and in a particularly challenging environment.
The action plan, however, lacks serious ambition and comes in the context of heightened and extreme secrecy on key national decisions – most notably regarding Brexit . Civil society members of the Multi Stakeholder Forum have been deeply concerned by the lack of government transparency over the preparations and negotiation of withdrawal from, and future relationship with, the EU.
Setting milestones and objectives
Although the public consultation will help to improve the action plan and ensure some broader public input, there are immediate changes that could be made to improve the current draft text. Commitments need to include specific milestones and ambitious objectives. Set a target for grants data to be published using the 360 Giving Standard across all government departments. Commit to develop open policy making processes for specific and challenging policy areas. Outline specific objectives on open contracting proposals. Include some commitment to opening dialogue with business and charities on extending the Freedom of Information Act to contractors.
Most importantly, however, there needs to be renewed high-level political commitment to serious open government reform, demonstrated through commitments of the level of ambition we have seen in the past. Anything less will see the UK lose its global leadership position on open government.
 Institute for Government, Preparing Brexit: How ready is Whitehall? https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/preparing-brexit-how-ready-whitehall