opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


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‘Three Harmless Words’: New Labour and Freedom of Information

Digital: GWB: NATO work session

Download my new paper on the development of FOI in the UK here

Abstract

Tony Blair’s views, expressed a decade and a half apart, reflect some of the paradoxes and contradictions that accompany Freedom of Information laws:

‘Freedom of Information Act is not just important in itself. It is part of bringing our politics up to date, of letting politics catch up with the aspirations of people and delivering not just more open government but more effective, more efficient, government for the future’ (Blair 1996).

‘Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders…The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon’ (Blair 2011, 516-517).

New Labour’s experience is typical of how such reforms develop. Openness laws are frequently powerfully championed, often by new governments, and then ruefully regretted. As resistance increases and doubts within government grow, they often emerge from conflict as messy compromises (see Worthy 2017).

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Worthy, Ben, ‘Three Harmless Words’: New Labour and Freedom of Information (July 24, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3219181

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Open Government in Australia and the UK

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Birkbeck hosted a discussion comparing the openness of Australia and the UK, looking at the Australian government’s OGP commitments. The Open Government partnership is an international ‘multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance’. Governments who take part sign up to a set of commitments within a certain time frame and are then publicly assessed on how they implement them.  More than 70 countries have been signed up, as well as 15 sub-national governments.

Daniel is the assessor of the Australian government’s openness commitments, and interviewed NGOs and officials to write a report on how far the commitments have been implemented. Australia has a longer history of openness than the UK, having passed an FOI law long ago in 1982. This is not to say all is well and, as Daniel pointed out, secrecy has surrounded many of Australia’s activities not least its Trump-esque refugee ‘turnback’ policy and horrific stories from its offshore detention centres.

Australia was invited to join the OGP in 2011 but took a long circuitous journey to get there, as Daniel explains. It is currently on its first National Action Plan, with its Second National Action Plan 2018-20  due by the end of August, 2018 (the UK has just finished its Third and will soon be on its Fourth). Daniel’s first report was published for public comment in April.

As Daniel explained, there were many similarities with the UK’s own policies. Australia’s plan covers similar themes to the UK, highlighting integrity and private sector openness. Like Britain, it is pushing a Beneficial Ownership register opening up who has control of businesses, as well as extractives openness (a very big issue in resource-rich Australia) while also opening up data and ‘re-booting’ existing provision around FOI or elections. You can see how it overlaps with what the UK has been doing here.

Not everything has been smooth and there has been some resistance and foot dragging along the way. One key issue, as seen in other countries, is around the extent to which civil society, who must co-create the plan, is involved. A survey of members of Australia’s civil society network in early 2018 found that there were ‘hopes and disappointment’ with members expressing their ‘disappointment with the limited progress made on some commitments and the failure of most lead agencies to engage with civil society in a way that reflects the true spirit of partnership’. As happened with the UK earlier on, commitments have been driven from the centre with less input from either civil society or other levels of government (state or local), where interesting openness experiments often take place.

Some of the patterns in Australia are not new. There are cycles of enthusiasm and interest and governments go on and ‘off’ openness (more often off). There are also different levels of engagement between departments and often a slow down once commitments are made. This is also where CSOs come in as a force for pressure, and to build relationships.

As with openness more generally, leadership is key. Senior politicians need to be involved and enthusiastic to provide momentum. So far, there has silence from large parts of the Australian government.

You can hear the podcast here https://backdoorbroadcasting.net/archive/audio/2018_07_12/2018_07_12_Daniel_Stewart_talk.mp3

You can see Daniel’s report here and a summary here.

Daniel is a senior lecturer at the ANU College of Law. Daniel is the independent Research Monitor for Australia as part of the international Open Government Partnership, reporting on developments relating to access to information in Australian Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments.

 

 

 


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The UK’s Third NAP Mid-Term Report: Events, Evolution and (Un)evenness

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Last week my mid-term IRM report on the UK’s Third National Action Plan was published, covering the UK’s progress up until the end of last year. So what does it tell us about where we are? I’d sum it up as events, evolution and unevenness.

Events

Looking back across the plan, which began long ago in May 2016, it’s hard to imagine how different things look in the UK now and quite how much else has happened. Just to give you a flavour, since the NAP began the UK has had two prime ministers, two governments, four ministers in charge of openness, a referendum on membership of the EU in June 2016, a General Election in June 2017 and, most recently, a move of openness policy from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Throughout this time, the UK has also been negotiating the terms by which it leaves the European Union in March 2019. So to say officials and civil society have had other things to think about is an understatement. It’s important to praise everyone involved for managing to keep some focus and energy on the process.

Evolution

As I put it in the report ‘commitments in the United Kingdom’s (UK) third action plan have lowered ambition in relation to previous OGP cycles’. In terms of what was in the plan, some parts of it were very much an evolution from the second NAP. Some policies stemmed directly from the eye-catching ideas of 2013-2015, such as extending Beneficial Ownership to foreign companies, the creation of a government-wide anti-corruption strategy and the extension and pushing forward of extractives openness (that is moving forward to cover traded commodities). Others were also about improving facilities (like Gov.uk), building support and training and boosting existing access to information (by updating the UK’s FOI law). Not everything, of course, was a follow on. One particularly interesting commitment was to create a common data standard for local election results, so we could get a better picture more quickly of election results.

Another very important evolution was the involvement of the devolved bodies in contributing their own sets of policies (see the table below). The Welsh government contributed 9 commitments, covering open data, ethical supply chain openness to its own future well-being law. The Northern Irish Executive pushed 4 commitments around topics such as open contracting and open policy-making. The Scottish government, which has its own pioneer commitments, also pushed for joint UK wide action with a meeting of all four governments that took place in April 2018.

(Un)evenness

Given the variety of commitments and the pressure of events, progress has been rather uneven. Most of the commitments are somewhere between ‘limited’ and ‘substantial’, though some have already been completed (and some run outside of the two-year timetable).

What Next?

It wasn’t only Brexit causing the delay. While officials, and the Cabinet Office in particular, were seen as committed, politicians were not. There was a general sense that the OGP process was derailed with ‘no strong commitment to values’ and support for the ‘letter not spirit’ of openness from senior politicians. In the last year there’s also been controversy about government openness across the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland. My final report will show how far the commitments have come by the end of the process.

The Open Government Network has just published its manifesto for what it would like to see in the 4thNAP. Here’s a few recommendations from my report that might feed in:

  • A Parliamentary committee (and devolved equivalents) to oversee transparency policies.
  • A high profile intervention or an event in support of the OGP process by a senior politician (a speech, a policy or conference) – with the Scottish meeting in April becoming, perhaps, a regular occurrence.
  • focus on more information and data on the impact of Brexit on everyday life
  • Continue to experiment with new ways of engaging CSOs
  • Choice of a selection of high profile cross-cutting ‘signature’ reforms for the next NAP that are cross-cutting and high-profile (of a kind seen in the third action plan such as Beneficial Ownership) perhaps focusing at local government level.

Ben Worthy is the UK IRM and an academic at Birkbeck College, University of London. You can read the full IRM report here. You can also come along to hear Ben in conversation with his Australian equivalent in London on the 12th July.