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The government spurns another opportunity to show commitment to transparency

Another opportunity for the government to show leadership on transparency and ethics has gone begging

This week's publication of the UK's fifth National Action Plan on open government was a chance for the government to show leadership on transparency and ethics, but Tim Durrant says yet another opportunity has gone begging

While Sue Gray’s ‘partygate’ update dominated attention on Monday, the government published its fifth National Action Plan for Open Government.[1] This is a requirement of membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international grouping of governments committed to openness and transparency established in 2011 by the UK, US, South Africa and others.[2] The action plan, which covers the period 2021-2023, sets out a series of commitments on how the government will be more open and accountable to citizens.

Despite being an enthusiastic participant of the Open Government Partnership when it was first founded, the UK government’s commitment to the partnership’s principles has weakened in recent years. In 2021 the UK was placed “under review” by the OGP because it had failed to deliver a previous action plan on time, and to sufficiently consult civil society on developing its 2019-21 action plan.[3] This step shows the OGP is worried about the UK’s commitment to the principles of the partnership it helped found.

The fifth action plan was published halfway through the period it is covering and represents a continued decline of the UK’s participation. There is a lack of detail in its commitments, and key issues are not mentioned at all. It was immediately criticised by the civil society groups who had been working on the plan, who complained that the work they had done with government has been ignored.[4] While the prime minister has committed to improving standards in government – not least following Sue Gray’s report – this action plan suggests that the government is yet again failing to match rhetoric with action.

The government failed to set out objectives on key transparency and ethical questions  

Some of the biggest issues around transparency and openness are conspicuous by their absence from the action plan:

  • Public standards – while the government had originally intended to set out new commitments on public standards, an issue of huge controversy throughout the last 18 months, they are not included at all in the new action plan. The government says the issue “will be explored in greater detail in due course” but sets out no timescale for doing so. The government is also due to respond to the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Nigel Boardman’s review into Greensill Finance’s interactions with government, but we are still waiting for those responses too.[5]
  • Freedom of Information (FoI) – the government’s performance on answering FoI requests on time and in full has continued to decline over the last year. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, FoI was another area that will be updated “in due course” rather than being included in the published action plan.
  • Beneficial ownership of properties – the government was due to include a commitment to introduce an economic crime bill to reform Companies House and a register of overseas entities owning property in the UK, but this did not make the final version of the action plan. Given recent criticism of the UK as a haven for Russian “dirty money”[6], this decision will be particularly embarrassing for the UK on the world stage.

Those targets that are included in the action plan relate to important issues like public procurement and access to justice. However, the metrics they include are weak, do not have specific owners in government and are difficult to measure in detail, with commitments to “improve court data” and “work with internal and external stakeholders to gauge the feasibility of conducting a scoping exercise” rather than definite, measurable actions that the government will take.

Ministerial leadership is lacking

While there are undoubtedly dedicated civil servants trying to make government more open and accountable, and a vocal, albeit small, section of civil society that campaigns on this issue, a lack of ministerial leadership means this agenda will continue to struggle. There is currently no clear ministerial owner of the open government question. Julia Lopez was leading this from the Cabinet Office but was reshuffled last September. Her responsibilities passed to Lord Agnew, who resigned last week, criticising the government over its approach to fraud in certain Covid support schemes and the decision to drop the planned economic crime bill (a decision which the government has now U-turned on).[7]

The lack of political leadership, ultimately, comes from the top. While the prime minister promised the Commons on Monday that “we must look at ourselves in the mirror, and we must learn”,[8] to improve standards in No10, his government was publishing an action plan on openness and transparency that failed to tackle some of the biggest ethical and transparency issues of the moment. While the Sue Gray update was making headlines, the government’s action plan could have been making a real statement of intent. Instead, Boris Johnson’s government spurned yet another opportunity to show, to the country and to the world, that it was committed to openness and improving standards.


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