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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The UK’s third Open Government National Action Plan: How’s it gone so far?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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’?

Image from @puntofisso