Democratic Audit’s new book is an in-depth assessment of the quality of the UK’s democracy in 2018. My chapter asks: ‘How transparent and free from corruption is UK government?’
‘For citizens to get involved in governing themselves and participating in politics, they must be able to find out easily what government agencies and other public bodies are doing. Citizens, NGOs and firms also need to be sure that laws and regulations are being applied impartially and without corruption. Ben Worthy and the Democratic Audit team consider how well the UK government performs on transparency and openness, and how effectively anti-corruption policies operate in government and business.’
Read and download the chapter here
From opacity to transparency? Evaluating access to information in Brazil five years later
[¹ Fundação Getulio Vargas / Escola Brasileira de Administração Pública e de Empresas, Rio de Janeiro / RJ — Brazil]
How well is Brazil’s access to information (ATI) law working five years after passage? And what can be done to improve it? Drawing on official data as well as nine evaluations of compliance with ATI obligations, interviews with policymakers, and archival research, this paper provides descriptive and inferential statistics on compliance with ATI
requests and indicators of implementation. Results show that less than one in every two requests in Brazil obtains a response from agencies, and more than 50% of requests exceed the time limits established in the law. Evidence of weak commitments to ATI are also illustrated by the paucity of several key indicators of compliance, including
statistics on requests, declared commitments to ATI, ATI-specific platforms for making requests, and designated oversight institutions. Brazil urgently needs to invest in greater information management, empowering oversight institutions to implement and adjudicate ATI obligations.
Download my new paper on the development of FOI in the UK here
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).
Worthy, Ben, ‘Three Harmless Words’: New Labour and Freedom of Information (July 24, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3219181
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
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.
Most prime ministers have an awkward relationship with the truth. The murky worlds of intelligence, spin, and politics often meet for them in uncomfortable ways. Some became renowned or infamous for their ability to manipulate reality and facts: think of Tony Blair having to reassure us that he was a ‘pretty straight kind of guy’. Machiavelli captured the difficulty for leaders when he cautioned that those with power must ‘live by integrity and not by deceit’, should surround themselves with advisors who would tell them the truth but should be a ‘dissembler’ when necessary.
Theresa May was supposed to be different. She was the plain speaking Vicar’s daughter who would tell the uncomfortable, unspun truth. She would bring the values of the vicarage to Downing Street. For some, the lingering image of May as the honest clergyman’s daughter lasted even up to the 2017 manifesto when, with a ‘clear ethical – even Christian – tone, this vicar’s daughter took the riskier option: to be unremittingly honest with the public about the great challenges this country faces, to spell out how she intends to confront them and to promise only what she can deliver.’
Almost two years on it seems May, like Trump, is both secretive, but also strangely transparent. Her blend of secrecy, closed decision-making and blame avoidance was honed in the Home Office, and came with her to Downing Street. Her ‘submarine’ strategy of set-piece interventions served her through crisis after crisis in the Home Office. Yet it has proved her undoing as Prime Minister. Her secrecy led her to try (and fail) to carry out Brexit ‘without a running commentary’ and without Parliament. It also meant she consulted too few on her snap election and her manifesto.
May’s secrecy is of an oddly transparent kind, easily caught out and exposed. One commentator observed that May had behaved with Brexit as if no-one else in Europe had the internet. Similarly, in domestic politics she recklessly gives poor answers or excuses as if no-one has access to Hansard or YouTube. Despite her liking for information control, she also presides over one of the leakiest administrations in history. A stream of unauthorised disclosures flow, continually, from her divided and disloyal Cabinet and unhappy officials. Leaks go from the sublime – such as DExEU’s own analysis that every Brexit scenario would leave Britain worse off – to the ridiculous – such as Hammond’s view of female train drivers. The rabbit hole of leaks and failed attempts is summed up by the headline ‘Leak inquiry into leaking of letter warning about leaks’. Time and time again, May’s ‘secretively open’ approach leads to a self-reinforcing pattern of attempted secrecy, exposure, poor justification and worsening crisis.
The Windrush scandal is a case in point. As it unfolded, May’s initial claim was that it was a Data Protection issue (it wasn’t) or that it was Labour that did it (they didn’t). Each claim from Amber Rudd was artfully undermined by a leak saying the exact opposite: there were no targets (yes there were, said a leak) and she was not aware of them (yes she was, according to this letter from Rudd to May). At this point, May’s former (ish) advisor Nick Timothy, with his familiar brand of Powell-esque politics and Kamikaze-esque strategy, decided to defend May’s record. He claimed she was against the famous ‘Go Home’ illegal immigrant vans but that they were implemented ‘while she was on holiday’. Even Blair, through five Iraq war inquiries, didn’t dare try that as an excuse. In fact, another judicious leak showed that May was only against the vans because the language wasn’t tough enough. All these smokescreens of failed excuses hid the truth that the Windrush deportations came directly from May’s own dog whistle rhetoric and bid to create a hostile environment.
May and her government seem unable to comprehend what’s known as the Streisand effect, namely that trying to hide something often draws attention to it. David Davis is a past master. He began his time as minister in 2016 promising not to be ‘Rasputin-like’ in holding back, and admitted that Brexit would be ‘as complex as the Schleswig Holstein affair’ (exactly) and as difficult ‘as the moon landing’. But in 2017, Streisand struck when he bragged of ‘50, nearly 60 sector analyses already done [with] planning work going on 22 other issues which are critical, 127 all told’. This led to a long battle to get hold of them, involving freedom of information requests and obscure parliamentary procedures, which led to Davis, explaining six months later, that ‘already done’ actually meant ‘don’t exist’.
What makes the secrets fall apart so rapidly is that the reasoning or excuses are so poor, easily disprovable or outright odd. In case you had forgotten, May called the General Election in 2017 because, in her own words, the EU, Liberal-Democrats in the Commons (all eight of them) and the House of Lords were trying to swing the election for Corbyn:
Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election… there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper.
She added, in another version of the statement, that ‘Britain simply will not get the right Brexit deal if we have the drift and division of a hung parliament’. May now has said hung parliament and the House of Lords, according to various irate Brexiters, doing its level best to stop her Brexit.
Any politician must navigate the tricky grey area between what Chekov called the conventional truth and conventional lies. The problem for May is that her failed attempts take her far into Trumpian territory. Time and time again, her attempts at secrecy reveal the truth and demonstrate a worrying amount of dissonance and denial. Over everything from Windrush to the Irish border, she resembles a leader constantly attempting to persuade the public that 2+2 =5. After a year and a half of May’s attempted secrecy, the revealed truth is that the UK government has no plan and no strategy.
May’s instinctive and poorly-handled secrecy is one part of a movement away from how she claimed her premiership would be. Her premiership has resembled nothing more than an embattled retreat, a rearguard action as she backed away from promises, positions and, seemingly in some senses, from power itself.
How has it gone? In short, much of the Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) programme is being delivered, though with delay.
It’s important to remember than this NAP began long ago in May 2016 when David Cameron was still Prime Minister. Much of the delay was due to what one person I spoke to summed up as ‘Brexit paralyses’. As the UK self-assessment put it, rather mildly, ‘since the launch of the NAP in May 2016, there has been a lot of institutional change that has taken place in the UK’ meaning ‘some commitments have been delivered more slowly than first anticipated.’ . In the first 16 months of the 2016-18 NAP the UK has 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. I think officials and NGOs should be praised for keeping the 2016-18 NAP focused and moving in very uncertain times.
Looking over the plan, one positive is how the commitments have stood up over two years. Although there weren’t as many high profile commitments as in the last plan, events have made many of the policies very relevant. Given events in Salisbury with Russia, the issue of Beneficial Ownership and foreign companies has come centre stage. Commitment seven on a common standard for voting data ties in to ongoing debates about electronic voting in Scotland and Wales, while Wales’ own ethical supply chain commitment is a timely and engaging way of moving openness forward in a way that helps people with everyday choices.
A second positive development is that all of the UK’s devolved bodies were involved this time round. Wales had nine commitments, Northern Ireland had four and Scotland had one (though it has a separate process for its pioneer programme). The devolved bodies had different starting points from the UK as a whole, and for Wales and Northern Ireland it was really their first NAP rather than their third. Northern Ireland, as the OGN pointed out, hasn’t had a government for some time.
Worries and Recommendations
However, amid the positives there are some worrying signs. There’s concern over transparency in the UK, where, as the Institute for Government has shown FOI responses and Open Data publication is slowing. In Scotland there are ongoing claims about the government seeking to avoid FOI that the Scottish Information Commissioner is investigating and, only last week, concerns raised in Northern Ireland over record keeping. I found a sense of distraction mixed with disinterest from senior politicians.
So, my recommendations are as follows:
- Get Parliament involved. The UK Parliament and devolved bodies should take a hand in the scrutiny of openness policies. There are so many openness policies moving in different directions across the UK at different levels – from spending data to gender pay gaps to extractives – and Parliament can add expertise, focus and scrutiny power. This could mean a House of Commons or House of Lords committee looking into particular areas or, like the IRM, doing an audit of the whole of transparency policy in Britain. A good committee to do it could be the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which looked into Open Data in 2014, or perhaps the Justice Committee, that looked into FOI in 2012. I’d also recommend that equivalent committees in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do a similar thing.
- Brexit might mean Brexit but Brexit should also mean openness: This is less about opening up negotiations and more about everyday life. Nearly two years on, it is increasingly obvious that the lack of information during the referendum on what leaving the EU may mean was a severe issue, whatever your view of the outcome. New commitments should help make sure citizens have access to information on how the process will impact their lives – Brexit could potential alter everything from border controls to food prices – so greater ‘everyday’ openness is vital in creating understanding.
- Continue experiments with engagement: the government and CSOs should continue experimenting with new ways of engaging with wider civil society and the public around Brexit and other key issues. There has been great work with regional meetings and virtual experiments at the recent Belfast conference. This could also mean focusing on fewer ‘signature’ commitments, emphasising ‘local’ based openness or looking into particular areas, such as gender and openness in this centenary year.
We’ve seen in the last weeks the dangers of secrecy and value and importance of transparency, from Slovakia to Salisbury and from Facebook to the US Federal government. There’s an anxiety about democratic values and threats to openness from fake news, to polarisation and popularism. George Orwell defined freedom as the ‘right to say things people don’t want to hear’ and I always think openness is, similarly, about ‘accessing and seeing things those in power may not want you to see’. That’s not to say everything should be open but there needs to be a good answer to the question ‘why not’?