opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


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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.


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Donald Trump: Openness, Secrecy and Lies

Read my new article on the Openness, Secrecy and Lies of Donald Trump for PDP, inspired by being stuck in airport with only ‘Fire and Fury’ for company. It explains how Trump manages to be both secretive and open at the same time and also mentions the wonderfully named ‘Barbara Streisand Effect’  Donald Trump – the secretly open President – Ben Worthy (Freedom of Information)-1. 

If you are interested, you can see some of my other pieces on Trump on Medium here  https://medium.com/@benjaminjworthy


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Write Me A Letter: 10 thoughts on the Prime Minister’s letter on Openness and Data

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Theresa May is a keeper of secrets, by inclination, style and force of habit. So the publication of a letter urging her government to open up may come as a bit of a surprise, along with a seeming openness push. This is especially the case this week, when the government is making the DUP’s money secrets more, not less, opaque. But is the letter less than the sum of its parts? What does it all mean? Here’s 10 quick thoughts…

  1. It’s all very David Cameron-a letter not a speech, an article or launch. My suspicion is a letter is designed to make it look like you’ve done something (‘I’ve written them a letter! What more do you want?’) (Cameron wrote one in 2010 then another to tax havens in 2013).

 

  1. What standing does a letter have? Do you have to do it? Should you take notice of an (undated) private minute from the Prime Minister? Can it be safely ignored? I’d guess ‘not much’, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

 

  1. The ‘next stage’ actually sounds very 2010-2011.

 

  1. It’s released on a Friday, one week before Christmas on a heavy EU news week (though aren’t they all now?).

 

  1. There’s a reprimand that ‘a small number’ of departments have fallen behind. It seems more than that as ‘Departments have become less transparent since 2010 and have not consistently fulfilled their requirements’. According the IFG the rot set in, ironically, in 2010 but has got worse recently. I think May should focus on whoever was in charge of the Home Office 2010-2016, as they seem to have been one of the worst performers in terms of FOI.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 1. It has a pretty tepid tone. It reads a bit more like a forced Christmas thank you letter than a ringing call to arms for openness.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 2. It talks of a strange, vague thing called ‘online transparency’ that seems somewhere between open data and openness. And, as many people have pointed out, it’s a pdf. That’s neither transparent or useful, in ‘online’ terms.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 3. No mention of FOI despite an ongoing FOI consultation (launched in late November).

 

  1. It’s not re-launching or pushing any new policy. One would expect a Prime Minister to perhaps use the letter to push, for example, gender pay transparency (not going too well) or even anti-corruption.

 

  1. Highlighting civil service sickness and absence data first seems slightly out of place-is this designed for ‘lazy sickie (Remoaner) civil servants’ headlines?

 


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How Parliament’s campaign of attrition forced the government to open up about Brexit

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The issue of whether the government would allow Parliament a vote (it seems as though it will) and whether any such vote will be meaningful (it won’t be) has dominated Brexit coverage since the referendum. This has been a distraction from the main event – not least because the EU Withdrawal Act makes any vote meaningless. When the Conservatives and Labour whipped their MPs in the same direction, they whipped away Parliament’s power and gave it to the EU and UK government.

The place where Parliament has actually had most success is not  taking back control of what’s happening, but actually finding out what’s going on (or not going on). This was symbolised by the apparent success last month in forcing the government to release the 58 studies about the likely economic impact of Brexit.

MPs and the public first got wind of these ‘studies’ back in the summer when David Davis mentioned them on the Andrew Marr show: (see p.11 of this transcript):

“That  data’s  being  gathered,  we’ve  got  50,  nearly  60  sector  analyses already done, we’ve got planning work going on in the customs,  we’ve  got  planning  work  going  on  22  other  issues  which  are  critical,  127  all  told.  All  of  them  have  got  to  be  grounded  before  we come to a conclusion what it looks like.”

Repeated FOI requests for the studies by the MEP Molly Scott Cato and others failed, as the government appeared to argue it would undermine their ability to negotiate (and there are certain protections under FOI that might support this rather bland statement).

In November, Labour then used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure to force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies, as this blog by Andrew Defty explains. Using a motion for a return, Labour ‘transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House’ (see more on these here in this 1999 report Section 3 (ii)).

However, the government then responded with an admission (or confession) that the ’50’ or ‘60’ – or possibly 127 – pieces of analysis are not what they seem: “As we have made clear, it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist”. The statement went on to explain that the papers are a

“… wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum. It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives after we leave as well as looking at existing precedents. This analysis ranges from the very high level overarching analysis to sometimes much more granular level analysis of certain product lines in specific sectors.”

At some point, a discerning reader could conclude, Davis was being ‘economical with the truth’. Either the impact studies exist (or existed) in some form, or they didn’t. It now seems that ‘Brexit studies’ doesn’t mean, as it were, ‘Brexit studies’. And whatever they are, they won’t be fully released (though the ultimate power may lie with the DExEU committee here).

Back in July of 2016, when Brexit meant Brexit and Theresa May had a majority, her new government asserted that it was for government to declare and trigger article 50 and then conduct the subsequent negotiations in a confidential way. The government were keen to keep things closed and secret. There was to be, famously, no running commentary.

In September 2016 Davis, the new secretary of state for Brexit, made it clear the limitations of any openness, saying he would be “as open as I can. More accurately, the Government will be as open as they can”. He argued that it may be ‘the most complicated negotiation ever’ but there would be ‘debates, reports by Select Committees and hearings’ and he promised:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees. At given times, that will be tactical, I am afraid. I do not want to be boring about it, but this is likely to be the most complicated negotiation of modern times. It may be the most complicated negotiation of all times. By comparison, Schleswig-Holstein is an O-level question. We will not always be entirely free agents, but we will be as open as we can be.”

He also spoke of the impossibility of secrecy:

“… I will seek to be as open as is possible…Even were I to decide that I was going to behave like Rasputin and keep it all entirely secret, I would fail. It would not be possible… other Governments would do it. In the Government’s own interest, it is a better idea to be more open than is perhaps traditional, but always subject to the overriding point that we cannot pre-empt the negotiation.”

 In October the report from the House of Lords EU Select Committee took a rather stronger view of what right Parliament had (2016).

“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 that many elements of the forthcoming negotiations – for instance, negotiations affecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU police forces—should be conducted transparently.” (House of Lords EU 2016a).

Since then, Parliament has been the key to shining more light on Brexit. The sheer volume of investigation and scrutiny can be seen below:

Scrutiny of Brexit by Parliament, 13 July 2016 – 19 June 2017

Written questions 490
Written answers 819
Select committee inquiries begun 55

(House of Commons/UK Parliament: IFG)

Select committees launched more than 55 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, though some were curtailed by the June 2017 General Election. In December 2016, the Liaison Committee was the first body to subject the Prime Minister to detailed scrutiny of the government position on Brexit revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that her approach was one of secrecy and that she appeared unaware of how exactly article 50 functioned. In one day in November 2017, in a ‘bumper day for select committees’, six select committees questioned different officials and Ministers on various aspects of Brexit. In March 2017, the new DExEU Select Committee scrutinised the government’s objectives and positions and questioned Davis, who confessed there had been no preparation for what would happen in the event of Brexit talks breaking down and that any financial settlement will favour the EU. The debate around the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) bill from January to March 2017, triggered by the Supreme Court ruling, also gave a focus to discussion and debate and revealed more about the prospects and government plans.

All this pressure has given us far more information that the government seemed prepared to give before. We have had two major Prime Ministerial speeches and one, heavy, evidence session (with another due December 20 this year). Ministers have appeared and explained (and sometimes contradicted each other) regularly. We’ve also had a Brexit White Paper (that, you’ll be pleased to know, gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year).

Brexit has not, of course, been fully opened up by Parliament. The government refused some of the more transparent options, such as a cross-party approach via Royal Commission, in 2016 and again in 2017. The January White Paper was described as ‘largely devoid of content because the UK government’s concern about negotiating secrecy’ and offered ‘as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine’. The government also resisted Parliamentary motions to mandate regular updates on Brexit to Parliament in the future.

Nevertheless, Parliament was key in forcing appearances. Far more is known than before, and benchmarks have been lain down with the legislature’s action leading to far greater understanding of the government’s views and preparation. And here is what has proved so damaging: the lack of preparation. Westminster’s digging and pressure have revealed not what has been done but what has not been done. There is no hidden grand plan, but a void at the heart of government thinking on the most important event in the last 60 years. And this is what the ‘58’ studies symbolise. As General Montgomery once said: “I have not been told of any master plan and I must therefore assume there was none.”


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How Open is Britain in 2017 and Where Next?

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To celebrate International Right To Know Day, the Centre for British Politics and Public Life held a panel discussion on how Open Britain was. The UK has seen more than a decade of continuous openness reform, from Freedom of Information and Open Data and all sorts of information on gender pay gaps and experiments with election data. But where are we now?

Our panel of experts, Martin Rosenbaum (Journalist, BBC), Rosemary Agnew (Former Scottish Information Commissioner and now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) and Professor Sarah Childs (Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College) debated how open the UK really is in 2017 and where we could go next.

If you want to know about the openness of Britain’s political candidates and restaurant hygiene, why FOI is not always enough and how Brexit could take us backwards, listen to the podcast below.

Listen on Sound Cloud https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/how-open-is-britain-in-2017-and-where-next

For further reading

 


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Does FOI Create A Chilling Effect? Evidence from the UK

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Michael Gove got caught doing it. Now ‘family members / senior advisers’ Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been found using private emails with another four senior White House staff, including Steve Bannon, also alleged to do the same in what CNN calls a colossal blind spot. But is there really a ‘chilling effect’ on records because of FOI? Does an new Act lead to people not writing things down, using the phone and private emails more and ‘emptying out the archives’?

The negative effect of FOI on policy is a long story, going back to the 1980s in Australia when it was feared FOI would lead to ‘hidden filing’ or ‘post-it-note’ cultures In the UK, Tony Blair claimed in 2010 that FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions, concluding the law was

not practical for government…if you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations…if those conversations then are put out in a published form …you are going to be very cautious. (Guardian 1/9/2010)

David Cameron also hinted that it was disrupting decision-making and was, as he put it, ‘furring up the arteries of government’. Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell claimed it had ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer three isolated examples-two hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations. The claim is also regularly made at local government level. The current UK Information Commissioner, herself an archivist, is taking it sufficiently seriously to push a new legal duty to record.

But is it really happening?

There has been plenty of high profile examples. There’s also some good evidence from Sweden, home of the world’s first FOI –ish law in 1766, that there is what they label an ‘empty archives phenomena’.

But whether it’s happening wholesale across government is another matter. The UK Justice Committee looked into it 2012 but ‘was not able to conclude, with any certainty that a chilling effect has resulted from the FOI Act’. The Chairman of the 2015-2016 UK independent review, that looked into chilling as part of its remit, chairman concluded that he ‘struggled to find is actually cases, clear cut cases, where a lot of information has been released and discussions of the kind … have been damaging’. Research at central government found there was concern and isolated instances but no general trend and for local government there appears to be a few exceptional cases but nothing systematic. Just to make it more complex, in Scotland and England there was some evidence of a positive professionalising effect where staff kept better, more professional records because of FOI. Our own studies found that many officials were more concerned with the consequences of not having a record if their superiors or, even worse, a judge came looking for it.

There are two problems with finding out if any chilling really is happening. The first is the difficulty of proving or disproving it. There’s lots of anecdote but not much hard evidence. By its nature it is very difficult as proving it means proving a negative (i.e. something didn’t happen), and means asking people to admit unprofessional conduct. One study found many comments were jokes or light hearted quips.

Second, it’s also very difficult to prove that any changes are a result of FOI. Isolating and disentangling FOI as the cause of the problem is almost impossible. Fear of leaks, the arrival of new technology, new decision-making styles and the key question of resources all influence how and if records are kept.  Concerns over the non-recording of information go back far into the past. As the Justice committee pointed out, the 2004 Butler report raised serious concerns over Tony Blair’s use informal meetings and ‘sofa government’ a year before FOI came into force.

The problem was rather wonderfully summed up during the UK independent review hearings when two ex-Home Secretaries, Michael Howard and Jack Straw, cross-questioned the ‘chilling claiming’ Lord O’Donnell, a former Head of the Civil Service:

LORD HOWARD: Do you have any direct experience of ministers avoiding putting things into writing in order to escape the provisions of the legislation?

LORD O’DONNELL: I mean, in a sense, how could I? Minister A phones Minister B on his mobile phone and I’m not involved in that process at all. That’s what I mean. The whole evidence thing you’re asking for is virtually impossible …

LORD HOWARD: Not at all. You might have suggested to a minister that a meeting’s necessary to discuss a particular decision and you might have been told, ‘No, I don’t think we need one’ and you might be able to form quite a good judgment that that was the reason why the meeting wasn’t taking place. Have you ever come across something like that?

LORD O’DONNELL: Yes, is the short answer, and yes, I’ve had occasions where – I mean, I think the area of contingency planning. You know, I think there are various reasons why ministers are very reluctant to commission planning for outcomes that they do not want to happen.

JACK STRAW: But is that directly related to FoI?

LORD O’DONNELL: That’s a combination of FoI and leaks, let’s be honest.

JACK STRAW: Yes, because I can recall in the early part of the 1997/2000 government, well before FoI was a serious prospect in people’s minds, that there were some ministers who were very reluctant to go in for contingency planning on any basis because they were just reluctant to. It was nothing to do with FoI. (Independent Commission on Freedom of Information 2016a, 84–86)

 

It is impossible to say if there is or is not an effect. It is likely there is some chilling at the margins and obviously much more skullduggery from politicians than we know of but it is not as widespread as some claim.

The difficulty is that the myth could become reality. If people believe it is happening, are they more likely to do it? The previous Information Commissioner warned that ‘if mandarins keep talking about a chilling effect, theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. But the reassuring thing is that, as with many conspiracies, getting caught can carry a high price-just ask Hillary Clinton.

Ben Worthy is a lecturer in politics based at Birkbeck College, University of London and is author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.

Post originally in the IRM Newsletter