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Good news on government transparency to end the year

The year ended with some welcome progress on transparency in government, but momentum must be maintained in the year ahead.

Rishi Sunak leaving Number 10
The government has started to implement its commitments to improving transparency, published in its response to several reviews into how standards across public life are upheld.

While the year ended with some welcome steps forward on transparency in government, Tim Durrant says keeping up momentum in 2024 is key

The last few years have not been the best for the government’s record on transparency nor for open, ethical government more generally. Two years ago, we found that many departments were consistently missing the deadline for publishing information on ministers’ meetings and hospitality. Lobbying of ministers (including by now-foreign secretary Lord Cameron) frequently went unrecorded, being revealed only by leaks. And long periods without an independent adviser on ministerial interests meant that the government failed to publish registers of ministers’ interests at the required intervals. 

In July of this year, however, the government finally made some tentative commitments to improve transparency when it published its response to several reviews into how standards across public life are upheld. Now, the government has started to implement those commitments. 

The government’s National Action Plan for open government is a welcome step forward

The latest – and sixth – National Action Plan for open government 13 Cabinet Office, UK National Action Plan for Open Government 2024-2025, 18 December 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-action-plan-for-open-government-2024-2025 is the first since 2018 that the government has published on time and to the required standard. Its failure to do so previously had seen the government placed in special measures by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2021. 

The government has always funded the OGP’s overseas work, but the new plan shows that it values openness in government at home as well as abroad. Collaborating with civil society groups is a key part of the OGP process 14 UK Open Government Network, Anti-corruption, aid transparency, and public procurement headline UK’s 6th open government plan, press release, 18 December 2023, www.opengovernment.org.uk/2023/12/18/anti-corruption-aid-transparency-and-public-procurement-headline-uks-6th-open-government-plan/ , and it is good that the government is consulting outside experts: the plan’s commitments – which are sensible – focus on contracting information, aid transparency and tackling corruption. While civil society had hoped for more ambitious commitments, this is a good start.

The government has also committed to publish better information on ministers and senior officials

Last week the government also committed to improve the information it provides on ministers’ meetings, hospitality and travel, as well as to expand the requirements to a larger proportion of the civil service and set “a target, for the first time, to publish within 90 days of the end of a given quarter -” 15 https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2023-12-14/hcws138 action which the Institute and the Committee on Standards in Public Life 16 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Upholding Standards in Public Life - Published Report, 1 November 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/upholding-standards-in-public-life-published-report have repeatedly called for. It is good news that the government is tackling this, as it will allow better scrutiny of who is lobbying ministers and what they are discussing with those outside government - departments should no longer describe meetings in generic terms such as “general catch up” or “to discuss work of the department”. The onus will now be on departmental leadership teams – the permanent secretary and the secretary of state’s private office – as well as the central Cabinet Office transparency team to ensure that departments stick to the new guidance. 

While the commitments made in July were limited in their ambition and failed to address many of the wider criticisms of the government’s approach to ethics and standards, they can still help if implemented properly. At the time, the government committed to publishing information on ministers’ and senior officials’ meetings monthly, rather than quarterly, and to collating this on a central database. However, last week’s announcement gave no sense of when this would happen.

This is a good end to the year, but there is more to do

It is a shame that it has taken the government so long to make even these basic improvements, but the latest publications represent a strong end to the year. With an election due in the next 12 months, and an opposition party that appears to be focusing on improving ethics and transparency, this topic will not go away. In January we will be publishing more detailed work looking at how government can benefit from being more transparent, because there is much more for the government to do – by building on its recent commitments to take this agenda forwards. Rishi Sunak and his government should remember that transparency is for life, not just for Christmas.

Topic
Ministers
Administration
Sunak government
Public figures
Rishi Sunak
Publisher
Institute for Government

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