Ministers should put transparency back on the agenda – or risk losing out on the potential benefits, write Finn Baker and Sachin Savur
The UK used to lead the way on transparency. As prime minister, David Cameron promised that his government would be ‘one of the most open and transparent in the world’ 15 Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, ‘PM’s podcast on transparency’, GOV.UK, 29 May 2010, www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-podcast-on-transparency , with the UK a founding member of the Open Government Partnership and placed third in the 2014 OECD open data index. 16 OECD, Government at a Glance 2015, OECD Publishing, 2015, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/government-at-a-glance-2015/ourdata-index-open-useful-reusable-government-data-2014_gov_glance-2015-graph103… But in recent years the UK has slipped. The most recent OECD rankings saw the UK fall to 24th place, 17 OECD, 2023 OECD Open, Useful and Re-usable data (OURdata) Index: Results and key findings, OECD Public Governance Policy Papers, No. 43, OECD Publishing, https://www.oecd.org/publications/2023-oecd-open-useful-and-re-usable-data-ourdata-index-a37f51c3-en.htm and negative headlines around partygate, PPE procurement and ministers’ use of WhatsApp have led to a sense that transparency has slipped down the government’s agenda.
This is a missed opportunity. As our new report shows, transparency is much more than a vital principle in any democracy – it can be a means to more effective government. Ministers should recognise its benefits – and then takes steps to make greater transparency in government a reality.
Government should count the benefits of transparency, not just the costs
Too often politicians count only the costs of transparency, with Tony Blair suggesting that the Freedom of Information Act was like handing journalists a ‘mallet’ with which to hit government. 18 Rosenbaum M, ‘Why Tony Blair thinks he was an idiot’, Open Secrets blog, BBC News, 1 September 2010, www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/opensecrets/2010/09/why_tony_blair_thinks_he_was_a.html Civil servants can be sceptical too, seeing the strain that transparency efforts can place on scarce departmental resources without always feeling the benefits themselves.
However, our report shows how the burden of being more transparent is outweighed by the benefit it brings. It can save money, spark innovation, increase accountability, and fuel creativity elsewhere in the economy. Both main parties are committed to greater public sector efficiency, while cabinet office minister John Glen told the IfG’s Government 2024 conference that he wanted government to become a “lean, keen and productive machine”. Greater transparency would help, not hinder, these aims.
The benefits of transparency
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer should commit to a more transparent approach to government if they win the next general election. But why is being more open good for government?Download
Transparency can boost efficiency, performance and innovation
Organisations across the public sector benefit from being more open about where their money is going. Publishing more public contract information, for instance, would drive competition among suppliers and keep down the cost of the UK’s £288bn public sector procurement bill. The government recognised these benefits when developing the Procurement Act 2023 – but to continue making progress in this area then it must ensure that the act lives up to its promise, building on the experience of countries like Ukraine and South Korea which have transformed their public sector procurement through greater transparency.
Government also holds a huge amount of information about its policy areas – sharing more of this could improve the performance of public services. Michael Gove said he was “pleased” when his department released data on the removal of unsafe building cladding – publishing such information helps ministers be clear about their priorities and allows those outside government to “hold [them] to account more easily.” 20 Gove M, tweet, 16 November 2023, https://twitter.com/michaelgove/status/1725206377998512426 Data sharing breaks down barriers across the public sector, making co-operation easier: we found that publishing Environment Agency flood data has put the government in a better position to model future flooding.
Ministers who want to foster innovation may find transparency to be a useful way to encourage the development of new goods and services. Open data feeds from Transport for London support a whole ecosystem of travel apps, which have generated more than £130m worth of time savings for travellers, contributed to the success of British companies like Citymapper, and reduced the pressure on TfL’s own information services.
It is time for government to ditch old habits like “take out the trash day”
These benefits aren’t guaranteed – just putting information out into the ether won’t be enough. Government needs to ditch old habits like ‘take out the trash day’ and make sure its transparency releases are user-friendly and part of the everyday business of government. This shouldn’t be seen as a chore: transparency can be a useful tool for government to build partnerships, as the recent National Action Plan for open government showed.
Resetting attitudes to transparency will require clear political leadership. Ministers in post after the election should be bold enough to open up the workings of their government and make the most of the pay-offs. Whatever the priorities of the next government, greater transparency will help ministers to achieve their goals.