It's hard pin down the UK's progress and commitment to creating an open and accountable government. On the one hand it is somewhat of a trailblazer, having set the agenda by being one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership - an international initiative that provides a platform for governments around the world to develop reforms that “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”.
It has also got a fairly strong track record when it comes to things like publishing spend data and it has also published over 20,000 datasets on data.gov that are available for anyone to use.
But then on the other hand we've also reported how the Cabinet Office is considering a clampdown on Freedom of Information requests – a useful tool to hold government to account – as it feels that policy makers possibly don't have the best environment to “think freely and offer frank advice”.
I criticised the move heavily at the time, saying it made a mockery of all the politicians, civil servants, the public and businesses that have worked towards creating an effective open government.
I also did a quick search of public announcements on GOV.UK this morning with the phrase 'open government' to see what has been put out in recent months, and there has been very little said on the subject in 2015 from what I can see.
Now,that may be because there has been a general election and the Cabinet Office has a new minister in place (Matthew Hancock replaced Francis Maude not too long ago – Maude was a great advocate for open government, it will be interesting to see if Hancock follows in his footsteps). But it does place doubts in my mind about the level of commitment.
In comparison, if you do a search for 'digital', for example, plenty of results pop up for this year. That's reassuring for the digital agenda, but it may indicate that 'openness' may not be as much of a priority.
But, to my main point, this week the Civil Society Network has released an Open Government Manifesto in the lead up to the UK government renewing its National Action Plan, which will outline its latest commitments to the openness agenda for the next two years. It's previous action plan, which was released in 2013, can be found here.
The manifesto is comprehensive and has some solid suggestions that are broken down into a number of categories that include anti-corruption, citizen partnership, open budgets, open contracting, open data, open evidence, open information, open local government, open parliaments and courts, and privacy.
The manifesto deserves worth reading in full, as it does a good job of breaking down each point and outlining what the current situation in the UK is versus what's need to be done.
However, there are a couple of points of particular interest – especially with regard to the manifesto suggesting that the government increases its lobbying transparency, where it says “there is still very little transparency about the scale and nature of lobbying activities in the UK and little disincentive to prevent corrupting behaviour by lobbyists”. Not sure how that will go down.
Also, the privacy suggestions are likely to garner a lot of support from those that are opposed to the government's surveillance plans, which have come under the spotlight following the NSA/Snowden revelations. The manifesto is particularly blunt about the government's progress here, where it says:
Ensuring the privacy of individuals is critical to ensuring that citizens and civil society feel able to hold government to account. The use of personal information by government must be governed by clear rules that achieve broad public understanding and support, and with mechanisms through which individuals can find out how their information is being used. The following commitments would help give citizens more oversight of how their privacy is or is not being respected.
There is no transparency on how and where Departments share individual level data as part of sharing of bulk personal datasets.
No citizen currently knows how Government has used their data.
At all levels of government, surveillance tools are used without giving the public adequate information about the surveillance in place, the benefits it brings, and the rights of citizens with respect to it.
Most open government in the world, right?
A clear, thoughtful and helpful manifesto from Civil Society. The government should take note and take the suggestions on board. Will it? Over the coming months we will get a clearer idea of the government's commitment to the agenda.
What I will say is that in my experience nothing was ever better being closed off. Openness is key.