A third successive failure to follow the rules has taken the UK to the brink.
‘This is an open government emergency.’ It was April 2021 and I was urging groups to get involved in the UK’s fifth bi-annual anti-corruption plan. My call was not hyperbole. It felt critical. An ethics adviser had resigned following the Prime Minister’s refusal to sack Priti Patel despite evidence that she bullied civil servants; the government had acted unlawfully by failing to publish PPE contracts; the Greensill scandal was beginning to unravel.
Furthermore, the UK had been placed ‘under review’ by the 77-country-strong Open Government Partnership (OGP). It had failed to meet criteria for the two previous National Action Plans for Open Government, to give them their full title. Put together by civil society and government, these plans are mandatory as they set out how the government will progress transparency and accountability initiatives.
Yet if it was an open government emergency in April 2021 then what is it now?
My proclamation was before Owen Patterson’s ‘egregious’ breach of lobbying rules; before a former prime minister showed a ‘significant lack of judgement’ by lobbying for Greensill Capital; before Lord Agnew resigned accusing the Treasury of showing ‘little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society;’ before the sitting Prime Minister became the first to have broken the law; before a second ethics adviser resigned after being placed in an ‘impossible and odious position’; before an anti-corruption Tsar resigned over ‘failures of leadership and judgement’; before the Prime Minister himself was forced to announce his resignation, brought on in part by his handling of sexual misconduct allegations relating to a former Deputy Chief Whip.
I could go on.
It was before the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was passed, restricting the right to protest and before the Elections Act was passed, placing the Electoral Commision under a form of government control and potentially disenfranchising millions of voters through photo ID.
It was also before the OGP announced that the UK’s latest plan had failed OGP criteria again. A third successive time.
The latest plan included a range of commitments from algorithmic transparency to open contracting but too many were dropped or altered unilaterally by the government prior to publication. A deadline for the Economic Crime Bill was removed, for example, only for it to be brought before parliament weeks later following the invasion of Ukraine. It took a war.
Constant requests for a commitment on public standards and accountability stretching back to December 2020 were also ignored too, despite the best efforts of the UK Open Government Network alongside Spotlight on Corruption and Transparency International as part of the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition.
I sometimes wonder if civil society had known at the start of the process what was to follow, particularly with regards to the decline of standards, whether many would have refused to contribute to the National Action Plan at all. But of course, history has taught us that democratic erosion is not a sudden crisis or collapse, it is a structural process. The last and worst act does not immediately follow the first and smallest. It is slow and methodical. Hundreds of little steps, many imperceptible, all preparing you not to be shocked by the next.
This is why in my view the role of civil society cannot be one of reckless despair or reckless optimism. It is, to paraphrase political philosopher Hanah Arendt, to bear consciously the burden that has been placed on us, neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. To rage against all of the ‘little steps’ and prevent precedents becoming the norm: no future PM should be able to break the law and remain in office. To ensure the example set is not the example followed: the next PM should implement recommendations by the Committee on Public Standards, no ifs and buts. It is to just keep going.
This can bear fruit. In the last week, three commitments have been added to the original National Action Plan: Diversity and Inclusion, Aid Transparency, and Freedom of Information. The latter was drafted by the Campaign for Freedom of Information working with the UK Open Government Network (UK OGN) and the Cabinet Office and will bring civil society groups together with the government and the Information Commissioner’s Office on a regular basis for the first time in a long time. The commitment on Aid Transparency was drafted by the Bond Transparency Working Group with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This, it is hoped, will see some strengthening of accountability relating to Official Development Assistance.
The question is whether these additions will be enough to prevent the UK being declared ‘inactive’ at the OGP meeting in Rome in October. This would see the UK share status with El Salvador, Malta and Malawi. It would be an unprecedented fall from grace for a founding member. And it most definitely would require further re-evaluation of the phrase ‘open government emergency.’
Kevin Keith is Chair of the UK Open Government Network, which coordinates civil society input into the UK National Action Plan for Open Government.