Gavin Freeguard: How open data can address Whitehall's challenges in the next five years

If Theresa May wants to inspire confidence after a bruising election campaign, she should embrace openness and accountability

Picture credit: Flickr - justgrimes

By Gavin Freeguard

29 Jun 2017

The government faces great challenges over the next five years – not only with Brexit, but in reforming public services and delivering its other manifesto promises. This is a huge workload for the civil service, parliament and the politicians who lead those institutions.

Greater openness will help the government with this workload. Open data inspires greater innovation, open policymaking invites new ideas (and tests existing ones), and transparency in public service performance induces scrutiny and improvement.


Preparations for the Brexit negotiations, too, highlight that transparency is a tool, not a toil. The EU has set the agenda by being open, and Institute for Government research on trade shows that transparency can strengthen your negotiating position (counterintuitively, by reducing your room for manoeuvre), help avoid bad choices, and increase the chances of bringing the public with you on big decisions. “No running commentary” – even as the EU published its negotiating mandate, negotiating team and committed to publishing detailed deal-making documents – is no longer an option.

A lack of transparency will have a fundamental bearing on how the new government faces Brexit and the other big challenges now that the general election is over.

Before the election, it would be fair to say Theresa May wasn’t seen as a natural ally of government transparency. Under her leadership, the Home Office was the worst department at replying to Freedom of Information requests on time, withholding information in response to 25% of requests in 2010, and to 40% in 2016.

But this example isn’t just about Freedom of Information – it goes to the heart of her governing style. Much has been said about May’s leadership of the Home Office and No. 10: her reliance on a small circle of trusted advisers and managing with a high degree of control. A closed approach to decision-making contributed to last month’s unprecedented U-turn over social care and the “dementia tax” in the Conservative manifesto: an idea born in darkness with no analysis and consultation was reduced to ashes in the full glare of public scrutiny, singeing May’s reputation.

Even May, though, apparently sees the benefits of transparency in some circumstances: the Birmingham speech launching her leadership campaign in July last year called for greater corporate transparency, including publishing the ratio between the pay of chief executive officers and their average workers.

In the election campaign, both the Conservative and Labour manifestos contained some ideas about the virtues of transparency that any government would be wise to consider.

The Conservatives proposed a new geospatial data body, combining parts of the Land Registry and other government bodies, to become “the largest repository of open land data in the world” and expected to lead to more building and innovation. The party also said open data on the performance of public services would give the public choice over services and to hold them to account, while the UK would “continue the drive for open data, maintaining our position as the world leader”. Positive stuff, if opaque on detail.

Given the election creates a hung parliament, it also worth looking at what Labour promised. It, too, pledged more transparency on land ownership. It also proposed extending Freedom of Information to private providers of public services. There are practical implementation questions – would the burden fall on service provider or contracting department? – and only proactive transparency is really likely to improve how government runs public service markets, whether through contractual transparency clauses or the Open Contracting Data Standard. Nonetheless, this is an idea with widespread support – the Information Commissioner called for it in 2016, the IfG in 2010 – and worth taking seriously.

All these manifesto commitments lacked some detail, which the prime minister will need to provide. They will also need the right mechanisms to make sure they happen: some of the commitments made by David Cameron in a letter to departments in May 2010 (like publishing departmental organograms and contract spending over £25,000) faded towards the end of his premiership, and the legislative load of Brexit means the incumbent may not be able to rely on legislation to get things done.

Given the number of big political questions the government must answer over the next few years, seeing transparency as practical and not just principled, as an opportunity and not just an obligation, may turn out to furnish some of the better answers.

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