News 14th May 2019

UK IRM Researcher Reflects on the UK End-of-Term Report for 2016-18 NAP

by Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy is the IRM for the Open Government Partnership and a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

The End of Term report for the UK’s last Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) has been published. The report summarizes the results of the 3rd NAP, covering October 2017 to May 2018, and includes some relevant developments up to October 2018.

So here’s a few things the NAP tells us about where we are in the UK with openness:

-Openness is not just about FOI. There were, as you can see, 27 different commitments in all sorts of areas, some public and some slightly more ‘backstage’. They ranged across everything from FOI to contract data and from data-driven academic studies to ethical supply chains.

-Openness is a mixture of old and also new. Some of the commitments carried on work that was already ongoing from previous plans. The issue of Beneficial Ownership and foreign companies was actually part of the last NAP, very much David Cameron’s ‘thing’, as were many of the anti-corruption reforms and open contracting. Others, such as commitment seven on a common standard for voting data, are newer and also tie in to ongoing debates about electronic voting in Scotland and Wales.

-Openness is UK wide. The NAP was actually made up of separate parts this time, reflecting the make-up of Britain and its devolved governments. It included UK-wide commitments, as well as separate commitments for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. So Wales had nine commitments, Northern Ireland had four and Scotland had one (though it has a separate process for its pioneer programme).  It also led to the first UK wide meeting on openness with representatives from every nation of the UK.

So how did it go?

This action plan was launched, seemingly long ago, by David Cameron in June 2016. The Brexit referendum on the UK leaving the EU, subsequent change of government and General Election all led to delays. In the first 16 months of the 2016-18 NAP the UK had two Prime Ministers, two governments and four different lead Ministers. In the space of less than a year, Britain also had a referendum on EU membership and a General Election-both of which yielded, let’s say, unexpected results. Northern Ireland meanwhile, as the OGN pointed out, hasn’t had a government for some time, since January 2017. So the fact that so many commitments progressed so far, is impressive.

There have been a few flashing warning signs for openness since 2016. The Institute for Government has shown FOI responses and Open Data publication are slowing at central government level year on year. In Scotland the Scottish Information Commissioner found a twin system for processing FOIs while concerns have been raised in Northern Ireland over record keeping.

It’s been shown time and time again that a combination of distraction and disinterest can seriously hinder openness-benign neglect can be as fatal as outright resistance. For openness to happen need energy and support, and if policies run out of these then momentum can slow and enthusiasm wane.  The danger is that the ‘Brexit effect’ becomes a brake on anything else happening. So far, progress has been made but the price of openness seems to be eternal watchfulness and pressure.

Meanwhile, other transparency pushes are still happening, as the Treasury consults on anti-corruption and the Scottish parliament examines its FOISA (my evidence to it is here).

To read more on openness in the UK, see my free overview here Worthy, B. (2018). ‘How transparent and free from corruption is UK government?’ in Dunleavy, P et al. (2018). The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit. LSE Press. Download the chapter here.

 

Table 1: At a Glance

Mid-term

End of term

Number of Commitments

27 27

Level of Completion

Completed 2 12
Substantial 12 10
Limited 13 5
Not Started 0 0

Number of Commitments with…

Clear Relevance to OGP Values 26 26
Transformative Potential Impact 3 3
Substantial or Complete Implementation 14 22
All Three (✪) 2 2

Did It Open government?

Major 4
Outstanding 0

Moving Forward

Number of Commitments Carried Over to Next Action Plan N/A

 

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