01 June 2017

The manifestos show that political parties are starting to understand the value of better data and greater transparency in government – but how the next government uses these tools to deliver all their promises will be the biggest test, argues Gavin Freeguard.

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos contain more than might have been expected on data and transparency and their role in improving how government operates and how citizens can interact and scrutinise it.

While the Conservative manifesto provides firm foundations on which to build, Theresa May’s record on transparency – including unnecessary secrecy over Brexit and a social care policy developed in the dark – shows she has some way to go in embracing openness. And the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos open up interesting possibilities but lack detail.

Here’s how they score on three specific areas: Freedom of Information (FoI), the use of personal data and commitment to openness.

Keeping the FOIA burning

FoI does not appear even once in the Conservative manifesto.

This is unsurprising given the Home Office’s poor FoI record under Theresa May, but it underlines that government actions will speak louder than manifesto pledges.

Labour would extend FoI to private providers of public services. Although there are practical implementation questions and only proactive transparency (whether contractual transparency clause or the Open Contracting Data Standard) is really likely to improve how government runs public service markets, this is an idea with widespread support: the Information Commissioner called for it in 2016, the IfG in 2010.

The Lib Dems would abolish the ministerial veto on releasing information, and take (unspecified) action on government departments withholding information in response to requests, which has worsened since 2010.

Data: this time it’s personal (again)

The Conservatives would roll out digital identity scheme Verify to all government online services by 2020, despite speculation about departments not wanting to use it. They also commit to ‘Once-Only’, the idea that citizens should only have to give the same information once to government (an idea with a long history, as this 1996 Cabinet Office document shows). These promises at least acknowledge the data infrastructure required to make government services digital by default: the Lib Dem manifesto makes only passing reference to putting services online; Labour, none at all. (A forthcoming IfG report will recommend how to address some of these issues.)

All three parties give some welcome recognition of citizen rights in a digital world, including the Lib Dem digital bill of rights (including giving people power over their own information) and the Conservative Commission on Data Use and Ethics, which would set an ethical framework and advise regulators and Parliament.

But missing from all three is the General Data Protection Regulation which strengthens data privacy and comes into effect next year. Public sector bodies will themselves need to implement it, but it could also be an opportunity to strengthen data standards across government.

Open for the best

The Conservatives want to create “the largest repository of open land data in the world” through a new government body (comprising parts of HM Land Registry and other organisations) which would improve mapping, encourage building and inspire further innovation – a positive and forward-looking step that recognises the long-term value of government data. Questions of detail remain: where, for example, does the £5 million given to the Government Digital Service in 2016 to build an “authoritative address register that is open and freely available” fit in? Labour also pledges land ownership transparency and to keep the Land Registry public after privatisation plans were abandoned last year.

The Conservatives would also publish open performance data for public services, allowing the public to hold services to account “or choose other better services if they prefer” – good news, as our Performance Tracker shows.

But the 2010 Conservative manifesto promised much the same, and it cannot allow government to abdicate its own responsibility to monitor and act on data about public service performance. The continuation of “the drive for open data, maintaining our position as the world leader” is also welcome, but we need more detail on what this means in practice.

Labour wants transparency (including a register of beneficial ownership) to tackle an “unjust” and “corrupt” global tax system, as does the SNP. Both parties also want transparency in trade deals, allowing scrutiny and debate: this is a sensible pragmatic, as well as principled move, since it can strengthen your negotiating position, avoid bad decisions, and bring the public with you on big decisions.

The Lib Dems want greater transparency on private sector pay and shareholding, and support Open Trials standards in medical research and the further development of open access academic journals, showing that openness isn’t just a matter for government but for achieving wider goals and innovation, too.

A question overarching all manifesto pledges – not just those on data and transparency – is how the next government will fulfil them. Brexit promises to be a huge challenge and all the parties have added other commitments on top. Despite some briefing about “prioritisation”, all three manifestos are the second-longest for each party since 1945.

How the new government makes use of data and transparency to monitor its progress, improve its operation and enhance its effectiveness will be the biggest test. The proof of the promises, as ever, will be in the implementation.

Further information

We'll be publishing our report on digital government in June. Find out more about our upcoming event on effective, efficient and secure digital government.