The UK is an active member of an international anti-corruption body. It may not be for much longer.

The UK has been thrown into chaos by a third failure to follow the rules.

‘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 exaggerated. 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 the criteria for the two previous National Action Plans for Open Government. These plans, which were jointly developed by government and civil society, are mandatory because they outline how the government will move towards transparency and accountability.

But if it was an emergency of the open government in April 2021, then what now?


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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 adopted, which restricted the right to protest, and before the Elections Act, which placed the Electoral Commision in a form government control and potentially disenfranchising many millions of voters through photo identification.

It was also before the OGP announced that the UK’s latest plan had failed OGP criteria again. A third time in succession.

The latest plan included a range of commitments from algorithmic transparency to open contractingBut too many were dropped by the government or changed unilaterally before publication. For example, a deadline for the Economic Crime Bill was canceled only to be brought before parliament weeks after the invasion of Ukraine. It took a war.

In spite of the best efforts of Spotlight on Corruption, Transparency International and the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition, constant requests for a commitment on public standard and accountability stretching back until December 2020 were also ignored.

Sometimes, I wonder if civil societies knew at the beginning of the process what was ahead, especially in regard to the fall of standards. If so, why would they have refused to participate in the National Action Plan? History has shown that democratic erosion is not a sudden collapse or crisis, but a structural process. The worst and final act doesn’t always follow the best and most important. It takes time and is methodical. There are many small steps, many of them imperceptible. They prepare you to not be shocked by the next.

This is why I don’t believe civil society can be recklessly optimistic or in despair. To paraphrase Hanah Arendt, it is to accept the burden placed upon us, not deny its existence nor submit meekly. 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 that the example set does not become the standard, the next PM must implement the recommendations made by the Committee on Public Standards. It is important to keep going.

This can yield results. Three commitments were added to the original National Action Plan in the last week: Diversity and Inclusion and Aid Transparency. 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 Bond Transparency Working Group, in collaboration with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, created the commitment on Aid Transparency. It is hoped that this will lead to a strengthening of accountability for 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 result in the UK sharing status with El Salvador, Malta, and Malawi. This would be a shocking fall from grace for any founding member. And it most definitely would require further re-evaluation of the phrase ‘open government emergency.’

Kevin Keith is Chair, UK Open Government Network. He coordinates civil society input into UK National Action Plan for Open Government.