Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Some collected new (ish) work on FOI and Open Data


Some collected new (ish) work on FOI and Open Data. All are free to access on the links…

Worthy, Ben and John, Peter and Vannoni, Matia, Transparency at the Parish Pump: A Field Experiment to Measure the Effectiveness of Freedom of Information Requests (December 4, 2015). Available at SSRN: (see also FOI man’s excellent summary here and this longer assessment 201607-parishcouncils)

Worthy, Ben, Freedom of Information and the Media (September 12, 2016). Available at SSRN:

Worthy, Ben and Hazell, Robert, Disruptive, Dynamic and Democratic? Ten Years of Freedom of Information in the UK (December 28, 2015). Parliamentary Affairs, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Worthy, Ben, The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political (March 5, 2015). Public Administration 93 (3): 788-805, 2015. Available at SSRN:

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New Transparency International Report: ‘Counting The Pennies’


See the new report here

Key statistics in “Counting the pennies: increasing the transparency in the UK’s public finances” include:

  • £2.312 trillion – Total value of published transactions made by local and central government (2011-2015).
  • £14 million – Redacted transaction data reported in a single month by Hackney London Borough Council that did not identify suppliers – largest in this research.
  • 35% – Proportion of contracts awarded where it is unclear who the supplier is.
  • 81,057 – Different descriptions given to transactions making analysis of data near impossible
  • 75% – Proportion of transactions that contain company registration numbers.

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New Paper: Freedom of Information and the Media


The media are a powerful constituency of users, lobbyists and defenders of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. Looking at FOI regimes across the world, it argues that the media are important users but also powerful innovators and defenders. This chapter examines how journalists use the laws in the UK and work to protect and extend it. It also looks at how media use is seen to damage trust in the political system and can generate resistance from government. It ends by arguing that FOI must be viewed in context and now fits within a rapidly changing information eco-system and a shifting and hybrid media environment.


Download here

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You Never Give Me Your Money: Reporting of Multinational Tax Transparency in the UK


On Monday the UK government accepted an amendment to its Finance Bill proposed by Caroline Flint MP (see her article explaining it here). The amendment means the public reporting of ‘country-by-country reporting of taxes paid by multi-national corporations’ in the UK. Amendment 145 had cross party support from 60 MPs (you can see the debate here) and was accepted without a division. Interestingly, the government also promised to champion the issue at ‘multi-national’ level elsewhere, following on from David Cameron’s championing of Beneficial Ownership and Extractives Transparency.

As Caroline Flint pointed out (see Column 134), she had originally proposed the amendment in June but the government were concerned that ‘introducing my amendment at that time might put UK multinationals at a competitive disadvantage for reputational reasons’. The idea had considerable backing

The backing I received spurred me on to try to amend the Finance Bill in June, gaining the support of eight parliamentary parties: Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the United Kingdom Independence party, the Green party, the independent hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), and a number of Conservative MPs, too. Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, ActionAid, the ONE campaign and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development joined our efforts, adding an important and necessary dimension to the argument for public country-by-country reporting.

It was also supported by high profile investigations in 2016 by the Public Accounts Committee that called for country reporting.

The new transparency will help with the closing of loopholes and ‘clever manipulation of [tax] rules’ that she likens to ‘trying to catch jelly’ around the ‘legal and moral difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance’:

Companies often rightly defend themselves on grounds of working within the rules, but politicians and civil servants are often caught out by clever manipulation of those rules. That is not illegal but cannot be said to be in the spirit of what was expected.

This change fits with the push to tax fairness, symbolised by the recent EU decision over Apple:

Around the world, people and their Governments are questioning the loopholes and convoluted legal arrangements that create inaccurate descriptions of multinationals’ trading activities in individual countries. The problem is not confined to tech firms such as Google, but their massive global presence has exposed the fault lines of an old-fashioned tax structure that has not kept up with today’s online business world. Many of today’s high-tech household names were not always so big or so profitable.

She concluded that such reporting was not a magic bullet but would help:

 I have no illusions about having a perfect tax system. Keeping one step ahead is a never-  ending task for modern tax authorities…Tax policy is not easy. Once one tax loophole is closed, another one opens up [but] transparency is an important ingredient in ensuring that the rules we apply have some bite.

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Scrutinising Brexit: the role of Parliament

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From European Union Committee 1st Report of Session 2016–17 HL Paper 33

Scrutinising Brexit: the role of Parliament (full report here):

        ‘Confidentiality and transparency

  1. One of the key objectives of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure transparency— to cast a light on the actions of the executive. It is, we suggest, essential thatmany elements of the forthcoming negotiations—for instance, negotiationsaffecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU policeforces—should be conducted transparently.
  1. At the same time, some of the most important and complex aspects of theforthcoming negotiations on a new relationship will be sensitive, commercially and politically, and will require a high degree of confidentiality. As the European Commission itself has noted, in the context of trade negotiations,“When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy tohis counterpart from the outset”.5
  1. It is clear, therefore, that parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations will haveto strike a balance between, on the one hand, the desire for transparency, and on the other, the need to avoid undermining the UK’s negotiating position.We note that parliamentary scrutiny has shown itself, in practice, to be highly flexible. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, though a statutory body rather than a Select Committee, conducts its hearings wholly in private; other Committees, such as the House of Commons Defence Committee, may receive confidential briefings, while private meetings arecommon across both Houses.
  1. We acknowledge that certain elements of the forthcoming negotiations,particularly those relating to trade, may have to be conducted confidentially. We would expect parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations to strike an appropriate balance between transparency and  confidentiality, while achieving the over while achieving the overarching objective of holding the Government effectively to account.’



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New Paper: The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political

revenue expenditure01Image


This article examines the democratic impact of the UK Coalition Government’s Transparency Agenda, focusing on the publication of local government spending data as the first steps in an evolving ‘ecology’ of Open Data transparency. It looks at whether the Open Data has driven accountability, participation and information transmission. Rather than forging new ‘performance regimes’ or bringing mass use and involvement, the publication of spending data adds a further element of political ‘turbulence’ that can ‘punctuate’ the ‘equilibrium’ of local politics (Hale et al 2013). The evidence finds that the spending data, so far, has driven some accountability but less participation or information transmission. Taken together, assessment of the three objectives reveals that the use and impact Open Data is far more complex, more unpredictable and more political than the rhetoric around Open Data indicates. The danger is that the gap between aims and impact invites disappointment from supporters.

Worthy, Ben, The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political (March 5, 2015). Public Administration 93 (3): 788-805, 2015.

Paper Available here :

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Brexit and Open Government in the UK

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Brexit, as we now know, means Brexit. But what does it mean for open government in the UK? On the surface, nothing changes. Almost all the legislation, from Freedom of Information to Data Protection, is bound up in UK law. The Open Data agenda will also continue to move along. Even the EU initiated laws lie Public Sector Re-use will be kept or, if anything is reversed, will somehow be preserved. There are three areas, however, where the tone or direction of open government may change: through new policies, the influence of the new Prime Minister and the Brexit process itself.

New Policies?

Looking across the UK’s 3rd OGP National Action Plan the top three commitments around Beneficial Ownership, extractives transparency and anti-corruption are all very much David Cameron’s personal agenda. Some of them are also very much in process, as the first Beneficial Ownership release last week shows (see this great analysis here of the first batch of data).

Theresa May’s speech in Birmingham has already indicated that she wants to continue in this general direction, with a commitment to ‘more transparency, including the full disclosure of bonus targets and the publication of “pay multiple” data’ and support for Cameron’s anti-tax avoidance drive.  The wider open data agenda is still ongoing. The FOI Act is also relatively safe (for the time being). Since it came into force in 2005 there has been an attempt to amend the law every 18 months or so. However, the FOI Commission’s clear endorsement of the Act and the sheer scale of the resistance to change has probably called a halt to any attempt to limit it in the near future-indeed the 3rd NAP proposed greater publication of data and some minor improvements.

Some new policies are very likely. New governments often promote openness to set a tone. This may be especially important for Prime Minister without a mandate facing the complications of Brexit. Openness represents an easy win to a new leader and is, perhaps, something that could help offset concerns over May’s rather, shall we say, less open actions as Home Secretary. Self-consciously ‘reforming’ administrations in the UK in 1997 and then in 2010, the US in 2009 and Italy in 2013 all made transparency a priority. It ‘signals’ a whole set of messages: that a government is prepared to be open and ‘democratic’ and is prepared to be monitored or overseen by the public.

New Prime Minister?

Political leaders set the tone and send out signals about the openness of their governments. Here’s my quick summary of how the U’Ks last three Prime Ministers did and to what extent they tried to pushback (i.e. limit) or extend openness.

UK Prime Ministers and Openness 2005-2016

Prime Minister Pushback Extension
Tony Blair Fees mooted (2006), (tacitly) supported attempt to have Parliament excluded (2007) Passed FOI Act in 2000
Gordon Brown Cabinet exclusion mooted, Excluded Monarchy from FOI (2010) Extension of 30 year rule (2009) and slight extension of FOI to new areas
David Cameron FOI commission (2015-2016) OGP especially Open Data agenda (2010 onwards) and Beneficial Ownership transparency (2013)

[N.B. this table doesn’t include a series of extensions of the FOI (Scotland) Act in 2012 and 2015-16]

While Tony Blair passed FOI then regretted it, Gordon Brown and David Cameron made strong speeches in favour of openness and pushed various transparency reforms. Cameron was especially committed to make his government the most open in the world, though in 2015 he set up an FOI Commission to restrict the Act and described the law as a ‘buggeration factor’.

So how about new Prime Minister May?

On the plus side, May as Home Secretary has supported and pushed the transparency within the UK anti-corruption agenda and was a key supporter of the long running Hillsborough campaign that exposed police corruption in the late 1980s. On a personal level she was quick to publish her own tax details. She has also extended FOI to the Police Federation and opened up police disciplinary hearings (though a cynic could argue that it is always easy to be transparent about your opponents).

On the minus side, May has been in the Home Office. Historically, the Home Office sunk many plans for greater openness. Recently it seems to have come a rather high third or so in the worst performing departments for FOI. This may, in part, be due to the often difficult and sensitive nature of some of the Home Office’s work.

May herself also has a less than liberal stance on various issues that runs against the idea of more openness: critics could well discern an authoritarian streak. She hasn’t always been transparent or accountable, seeking to hide Border Force cuts from Parliament in 2016 and, more famously, deflecting blame onto officials in 2011.

By far the biggest concern is over the repeated attempts on her watch to pass Investigatory powers legislation (aka ‘the Snoopers Charter’) that has led to ‘controversy around encryption, bulk data and hacking’and the right of various security services to carry out mass surveillance on the public. Serious privacy concerns have been raised by Parliament  with the UN warning it not compliant with International law. May’s refusal, in response to an FOI request, to release her own internet search history led to a backlash  from MPs.

Brexit and Beyond?

Brexit itself will soon become a huge transparency issue. There is an interesting debate about how much ‘information’ there was flowing in the referendum campaign itself, as this great blog post discusses. However, once negotiations begin there will be unprecedented pressure and scrutiny. Prime Minister May and the other 27 countries will probably argue for some secrecy in the delicate process but there will be a powerful case for more open door negotiations and, on a practical level, more leaks than you can imagine.

Here is the crux of the tricky debate between openness and closure. This fascinating study of the European Council of Ministers found openness can be good at regulating behaviour in negotiations but can encourage posturing or unnecessary ‘signalling’ to domestic audiences. Keeping discussions confidential will need to be balanced by a very difficult environment where the Leavers fear being ‘sold out’, Remainers hope for a messy compromise and the press and public demand to know what’s being done.

Looking further into the future, the impact of Brexit could get more complicated. Devolved bodies have already begun to innovate with their own openness policies, as the last NAP recognised. A set of devolved ‘plus’ institutions could easily make some very interesting regional variation in openness across the UK (if, of course, they all stay in the UK).