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“Open government, powered by tech, flips the presumption from secrecy to openness”

Tim Hughes is Open Government Programme Manager at public participation think tank Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network – a coalition of civil society organisations working to transform government

The digital revolution is “fundamentally changing how power is distributed and the scale and speed of human connection. These changes don’t just make it possible to open-up as never before – they demand it”.

These words are from Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, introducing the UK’s new Open Government National Action Plan at last week’s global Anti-Corruption Summit hosted by the PM.

The plan, which has been developed in collaboration with the UK Open Government Civil Society Network under the auspices of the global Open Government Partnership, sets out 13 commitments to increase transparency, civic participation and accountability across government.

Open government, at its heart, is about flipping the presumption from secrecy to openness.

The consequences of opaque and unaccountable government are clear to see. Secrecy enables corruption, injustice and negligence to go unchecked.

The release of the Panama Papers revealed the scale of global resources hidden in secretive tax havens. Detailed investigations have shown the extent of UK property bought with dirty money by shadow companies.

Lobbying scandals have revealed how vested interests seek to influence public decision-making. Public scandals, from Hillsborough to Mid-Staffordshire, have demonstrated the devastating consequences of unaccountable power.

As Hancock’s words suggest, technology plays an important role in helping to flip the default mode to open.

Open elections, grants, contracts even spending

Many open government initiatives and reforms contain a technological element – and open data and digital technology have critical roles in many of the commitments.

On areas from company ownership to elections, grant-making to addresses, the plan commits the government to taking some important strides forward in opening up its data to the benefit of society.

Open government pledges

The biggest leap forward is in the commitment to become the first G7 government to fully implement the Open Contracting Data Standard – an open data standard for the publication of structured information on all stages of a contracting process. Right from planning to implementation.

Initially, the standard will be applied to the Crown Commercial Service and major infrastructure projects such as HS2, before being rolled out across the rest of government procurement.

Adopting this standard should mean we’re the first G7 country to create a full and public record of how government money is spent on public contracts – and with what results.

Open planning

Even the plan itself has demonstrated the benefits of an open and collaborative approach to policy-making – aided by digital technology. Through working with partners from government, parliaments and civil society across the UK, the plan has benefited from a large range of ideas, challenge, expertise, creativity and energy.

It reflects the fact that, as well as being the beneficiaries of open government, citizens and civil society are key to bringing the transformation about.

These new, open and collaborative ways of working across organisations and networks need to become the norm within government.

To that end, the work towards this action plan does not end with the publication of the current 13 commitments.

The plan commits the government and the Open Government Network to an ongoing collaborative approach to open government reform, with the intention that we report on and extend existing commitments, and add new commitments throughout the two-year period the plan covers.

Technology is critical to supporting this ongoing partnership – enabling us to source and share ideas from far and wide, and collaborate across multiple governments, parliaments and networks of citizens and civil society organisations.

Open government is not a set of lofty principles, but the building block for a more democratic, equal and sustainable society.

Technology will be critical to enabling that transformation.