On 5th November 2015, the steering group of the Open Government Civil Society Network met with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock MP, to discuss progress on open government in the UK.
Please see a note from the meeting below.
OGN Meeting with Matthew Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office
Date: Wednesday 5th November 2015
Time: 15.15 – 16.00
Location: 70 Whitehall, London
Matthew Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office
Paul Maltby, Director of Data, Cabinet Office
Ollie Buckley, Data Group, Cabinet Office
Hannah Peaker, Data Group, Cabinet Office
Lizetta Lyster, Data Group, Cabinet Office
OGN Steering Group members
Andy Williamson, Democratise
Rachel Davies, Transparency International UK
Simon Burall, Involve
Claire Schouten, International Budget Partnership
Tim Davies, Practical Participation
Anthony Zacharzewski, The Democratic Society
Martin Tisné, Omidyar Network
Tim Hughes, Involve
Josephine Suherman-Bailey, Involve
The Minister welcomed the members of the Open Government Network (the OGN) Steering Group and thanked them for joining him.
Rachel thanked the Transparency Team for kicking off the process, being proactive and keeping us to timelines. She gave particular thanks to Hannah.
She then updated on the work of the OGN and the Transparency Team in working together to identify theme leads for the thematic areas in both civil society and government. These theme leads have proposed commitments and agreed the way forward. Theme leads have also been engaging with the devolved nations, who have agreed to contribute commitments to the National Action Plan (NAP).
Current timetable and proposal to extend the deadline
Simon spoke of some of the upcoming challenges, noting that the Spending Review is causing a distraction for some departments. When departments don’t yet know what their budgets will be, it is understandably harder for them to make firm commitments. Simon also noted that the OGN is concerned about the timetable and the Steering Group is therefore keen to explore what an extended timetable might look like and how to make it work. The Minister said that he was happy to consider changes to the timeline, and thought that the most important factor was getting the process right, so long as we met the OGP’s requirement for us to publish by June 2016.
Simon also noted that there are lots of potential synergies between the Prime Minister’s upcoming anti-corruption summit and the NAP, though we need to ensure they work in parallel rather than in competition and it will be important to get the best out of both.
Simon then reflected on the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) report on the process for the last NAP. The report said that lack of time for wider engagement on the last plan was an issue to be improved on for the next NAP. The extended timeline will enable us to do more to improve engagement. The Minister said he too was keen that we use this opportunity to improve engagement.
Freedom of Information Commission
Simon also raised the issue of the Freedom of Information Commission, and the importance of the OGN having sight of the government’s response to the Commission’s report ahead of agreeing the NAP.
The Minister was keen to reassure the OGN that he wants the overall package to be pro-transparency. On the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act he noted that it is important to balance the need for a safe space, and to allow civil servants to advise ministers without fearing that their advice will be made public when they were not expecting this. The Minister outlined the need to make the FOI Act work in a practical way whilst retaining transparency. He also stated that at the same time he hopes to use the Act to drive further transparency reform.
Simon noted that it will be important that OGN is consulted and involved. He asked how the OGN can support the Minister to make those other transparency changes as strong as possible.
Tim Davies also noted the many ‘No OGP without FOI’ stickers at the recent Open Government Partnership (OGP) international Summit in Mexico City and that any moves seen as restricting FOI will not send a positive message internationally. He highlighted the difference between proactive transparency and the right to information.
The Minister offered reassurance around the role of FOI. He also acknowledged the point about proactive transparency as opposed to the right to access, but felt that there may be other pro-right to information reforms that can be achieved.
Tim Davies suggested such a reform might be the extension of the right to access to contractors, as citizens lose the right to access information as more services get contracted out. Tim suggested that this would be one of the strongest focuses.
In addition, Andy suggested a second potential area for reform. He identified a risk of limiting freedom of information as being that we risk restricting the information that is being used to inform policy, such as policy support from think tanks or industry groups or lobbyists, ie access to secondary information.
The Minister asked whether the Steering Group would also engage with the FOI Commission’s process and the Steering Group confirmed they would be.
There was then a discussion about when the NAP timetable might be extended to. The Minister agreed an extension of the deadline to May 2016.
Introduction of the Open Government Manifesto
The conversation moved on to the Open Government Manifesto. Claire introduced and gave some background to the manifesto, the culmination of a number of months of gathering ideas. The ideas are all ‘SMART’ – specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound. She also noted that the OGN has started to engage with government on issues such as anti corruption, updating the anti-corruption plan, extractives, open contracting, open data and open budgets.
The Minister was particularly interested in open contracting. Claire explained that the OGN is pushing for greater disclosure and participation in the whole contracting process. The Minister asked how open contracting ties in to calls for FOI to be extended to private contractors.
Tim Davies explained that the manifesto calls for a better baseline and standard for open contracting, suggesting model contracts and clauses, and standards for when a service is subcontracted. The idea being that everything funded by public money is subject to freedom of information.
Paul added that open contracting is related to FOI on this point and a sliding scale of whether the public has access to information in a reactive to proactive way. Does government require an openness clause to be proactively included, or do citizens need to use FOI to get that information?
Tim Davies added that getting better data is important from a market perspective. If we’re using the market to deliver services, better data leads to better competition and a more level playing field, and participation empowers citizens to give feedback on services. If something goes wrong, is there a way to hold the contractor to account.
Andy noted that we need to mature the narrative a bit. We should always have open data. But the argument for FOI is about revealing why and how the data was collected.
The Minister reflected that lots of firms have private as well as public contracts, which it would not be reasonable to extend FOI to, so any extension would need to take account of this.
UK’s role in the Open Government Partnership internationally
The conversation turned to the UK’s role in the OGP internationally. Tim Hughes said that the OGN is keen to ensure the UK continues to play a strong role on the OGP Steering Committee. The Minister agreed that it was important for the UK to continue to play an active role internationally, citing efforts on beneficial ownership as an example of this.
Simon and Tim Hughes noted that there is strong interest from the international community in how the UK develops the NAP and when the UK has a strong process, it helps us to act internationally.
The Minister agreed that it was very important to take the international work forward. He asked how the OGN is taking forward reforms which are not within the remit of government.
Andy responded that he is working with Edward Wood, at the House of Commons, who was previously involved in the Digital Democracy Commission. He also reflected on good work with the Scottish government, in addition to progress with the Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations.
The Minister enquired about the reforms in the Open Government Manifesto which refer to parliament. Andy reflected that quite a few of the reforms in the manifesto are low hanging fruit and parliament can deliver on them quickly.
The Minister commented that most of the commitments he had read in the Open Government Manifesto he supported, although he hadn’t yet been able to read them all.
Tim Davies reflected that it was useful to have this extra time now the deadline has been extended to May 2016. Simon also reflected that some reforms which appeared in the last NAP were entered at quite a late stage and did not necessarily qualify as ‘open government’. The later commitments are raised, the more difficult the process is.
Paul reflected that sometimes it is uncomfortable to put the NAP together in an asymmetrical way in terms of speed, but it’s a sign that people want to be part of it. As Eric Pickles has said, we’re meant to feel uncomfortable. This is a structured deliberative engagement. It was important to note that the NAP is very high up the Cabinet Office’s list of priorities, but this is not necessarily true across the whole of government. Our focus is to have a good process and further the spirit of OGP.
Tim Davies asked the Minister about his priorities. The Minister responded that the Cabinet Office has a broader data plan which covers openness, and also personal data security and cyber security.
Tim Hughes pointed out that the IRM identified a lack of commitments of citizen engagement in the last NAP. We are trying to address this during the current process, but could do with help to find champions. Commitments might include strengthening consultation, furthering the open policy making agenda, looking at what DCLG is doing.
Paul reflected that the OGP requires concrete commitments which can be tested, and this is a challenge when participation is difficult to measure. The Minister added that the number of consultations is not a useful measurement, the overall approach should be much more iterative, which can mean less consultation. Tim Hughes agreed that the OGN is in favour of quality not quantity, or artificial metrics.
The Minister thanked the members of the OGN Steering Group for attending and stated his continued commitment to the OGP.