An action plan for a more open UK government

Andreas Pavlou is the coordinator of the UK Open Government Civil Society Network. He works as network lead for Involve, a public participation charity, and is also a Freedom of Information and transparency campaigner.

Open government is the simple but powerful idea that governments and institutions work better for citizens when they are transparent, engaging and accountable.

By increasing transparency, enhancing citizen participation or adopting strong accountability mechanisms, reform in favour of open government has led to change across the world:

  • In Madrid and Paris, residents are now able to propose laws, decide how council budgets are spent, and take greater control over the development and services of their cities. Recently, each city has allocated €100m of spending to be determined via participatory budgeting.
  • Ukrainian citizens and watchdogs can now see how much money is spent on government-procured services because contracts are published online and in comparable formats, all on one site. This has exposed corruption and reduced procurement costs to the Ukrainian taxpayer.
  • In Nigeria, an estimated £140m that was otherwise lost through corruption has been recuperated via a whistleblower portal, developed together by government and civil society.

These examples show why you should take the opportunity to provide feedback on the UK open government action plan.

A powerful tool for reform

In the UK, our open government national action plans have led to important reform, including:

  • the proactive publication of hundreds of datasets
  • the development of a cross-government anti-corruption strategy
  • the adoption of open data standards in grantmaking, contracting, extractive industry payments and international aid.

When government collaborates with civil society, it can become more open, participatory and accountable. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) process that enables this is not always easy or straightforward, but when civil society, government reformers and politicians commit, the OGP process can be a powerful tool for change.

The advantages of this approach were most recently made evident by the creation of an open UK beneficial ownership register. It is now possible for anyone to find out quickly and easily who really owns, controls, and benefits from companies registered in the UK. That commitment also has had a ripple effect in contributing to the eventual adoption of registers in other countries like France and Nigeria, as well as getting a bill passed in parliament requiring 14 overseas territories to introduce public ownership registers by the end of 2020.

As Margot James, the minister responsible for open government put it at the launch of the action plan consultation earlier this month:

The UK’s National Action Plans for Open Government have delivered bold, innovative commitments which have helped make us even more transparent and inspired other governments around the world.

I want us to maintain that spirit of leadership, and urge members of the Open Government Network, civil society and the public to share their feedback as we develop our fourth plan.

Your input is needed

For the action plan to be really transformative, it needs further input from a broad range of civil society to send a strong message to the government about the need for ambitious reform. There are currently eight commitments in the plan, but it still lacks the transformational element that could make them significant open government reforms.

With government now asking for feedback and ready to listen, it is imperative that civil society takes the opportunity to create a much stronger plan than current one drafted at the moment. If you are interested in democratic engagement, promoting participation, ideas to fight corruption, expanding the scope of Freedom of Information, ensuring transparency, or just finding ways to make government work better for people, then you should consider engaging in this action plan consultation.

You might even think there is something obvious which the current plan is missing – so please raise it.

The consultation ends on Wednesday 3 October so there is still time to feed back. To read the draft plan and comment, visit the Open Government website.

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