Dear next government, there is one way to rebuild trust... and it already exists

If people are to trust politicians, then politicians have to trust the people, writes the chair of the UK Open Government Network
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Kevin Keith

17 Jun 2024


In the first episode of Yes, Minister in 1980, newly appointed minister Jim Hacker sought to introduce a policy of open government to "take the nation into our confidence".

He failed, of course, with his artful permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey musing that citizens have a right to be ignorant as "knowledge only means complicity and guilt". 

But open government did come to fruition.

And it may just be the solution to the collapse in trust highlighted by the British Social Attitudes survey from the National Centre for Social Research, which was published last week. 

It showed 79% of respondents felt the system of governing Britain was in need of "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of improvement and that 45% almost never trust governments to prioritise the nation’s needs over their parties. This follows an Ipsos report published late last year that showed trust in politicians has reached a 40-year low. 

So how could open government help? It is a way of governing that promotes the principles of transparency, integrity and accountability, alongside the involvement of citizens in government processes.

In the UK, it is most visible through the government’s membership of the 75-country Open Government Partnership, of which it was a founding member in 2011. 

It produces open government plans on an almost biannual basis, with the latest published earlier this year.

These plans have a dual purpose. 

First, to house policies that improve transparency, accountability and the involvement of people in decision-making. This typically is in areas such as procurement, anti-corruption, freedom of information, data or justice.

Second, to showcase a unique model of government and civil society working together to develop these policies, and provide oversight of implementation. This process of working together is, at times, challenging. As the former US President Barack Obama said, "democracy requires compromise even when you are 100% right". But it can help build trust. 

If you are involved in policy creation, can see the workings out, and have oversight of implementation, you are more likely to perceive it fair.

The problem with open government is that there is just nowhere near enough of it. 

But what if open government principles and practice were applied across the entire UK government?

What if the challenges associated with the NHS and health-policy reform were approached by civil society and government combined, with transparency and accountability at the core and ways explored to involve civil society and the wider public: a citizens assembly on the use of health data, for example, or civil society collaborating with government on ways to reduce waiting lists?

Or if government and civil society worked together on a system for promoting and enforcing standards in parliament? 

Or on national planning policy reform, or energy reform, or environmental policy, or constitutional and electoral reform, or devolution, or budgeting, or the impact of automated decision making, algorithms, and artificial intelligence?

I could go on.

There is a balance, of course, as ultimate accountability rests with the government. But if people are to once more trust politicians, then politicians have to once more trust the people.

Kevin Keith is chair of the UK Open Government Network, which coordinates civil society input into the UK National Action Plan for Open Government, and co-chairs the government and civil society Multi-Stakeholder Forum

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