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A Practical Vision for Open Government

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The movement for transparency and openness in government took decisive steps forward last week.

As lead co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, the UK hosted the first ministerial level meeting in Britain of this growing international initiative. But this meeting wasn't just symbolically significant. We put in place key measures that will help move the OGP from fine words to accountable actions.

At the same time, the Open Data Institute, based in London's Tech City, and the first organisation of its kind anywhere in the world, officially opened for business. In practice, the ODI has been active for a couple months, and is already nurturing new data-driven businesses. I expect other countries will follow our example and create their own ODIs. Open data is another field where Britain is leading the world in the global race.

The work of the ODI, demonstrating the commercial and social value of open data and encouraging the public sector to release more of it, supports our vision for the OGP in the next year. It also supports the theme of our chairmanship, which is that transparency drives prosperity.

People's antennae can twitch sceptically when governments speak about their "vision". Rather than a statement of intent, it can suggest worthy aspirations for which there is no credible plan.

But there is nothing airy fairy about this government's commitment to transparency and our passionate belief in its power to change governments and societies for the better.

At home, we are pushing ahead, releasing ever more data. This is already making a real difference, with publication of health, education, transport, crime and other data improving citizen choice and quality of life, fuelling new businesses, exposing inefficiencies and driving improvements in public services. Mastodon C, for example, one of the innovative start-ups based at the ODI, is working with health technology start-up Open Health Care UK, NHS doctors and academics. They have analysed data on prescribing patterns to identify potential savings of millions of pounds.

The watchword of the OGP is "from commitment to action" and our vision as lead co-chair echoes that practical approach. The days when governments could blithely set out plans and commitments and not expect to be held to account when they're not met have gone. We expect to be challenged on our priorities and how we deliver them. This is what will make transparency stick.

We launched our co-chair vision in September at the OGP first anniversary reception in New York. Because openness is not just about consultation but active collaboration with wider society, the vision was developed in partnership with a number of national civil society organisations - it is the first product of the "open policy making" process we intend to use to produce our new National Action Plan for greater transparency.

Our main priority for the year ahead is to show that transparency and participation drive economic growth, well-being and prosperity through efficient use of resources, citizen engagement and inclusive development. Strengthening the OGP networking mechanism will be a key part of this. We want it to effectively connect people who need advice with organisations that can provide it, whether other governments, civil society organisations or private sector consultants and experts. Success here will support another priority - to build on the progress we have made and establish the OGP as a global force for democratic change that other countries aspire to join.

But for the OGP to be truly credible, it must not only demonstrate the benefits of openness, but show that it can live up to its own principles. How can this be done? I believe success rests in large part on weaving transparency and accountability into the very fabric of the OGP. All members must be seen to be delivering the promises they make, and it must be transparently clear when they fall short.

At last week's OGP meeting in London, we officially launched the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) that will help hold countries to their openness commitments. We also announced the appointment of an International Expert Panel to oversee the Reporting Mechanism, and I am delighted that figures of the calibre of Mary Robinson, Mo Ibrahim and Gra├ža Machel have agreed to act as senior advisers. They can now get started on this critical work, producing an annual report on every member country's progress against their national action plan.

The IRM can particularly add value in supporting domestic reformers, within government and outside, providing them with an amplifier of evidence and data to help ensure that their voices are heard at the highest levels.

The next 18 months are critical for the OGP, but I am optimistic. We are building a practical framework for action on the OGP's founding principles, and introducing a system of scrutiny that will give governments nowhere to hide.

Transparency isn't going away, because, once they have seen what it can do, the citizens to whom all governments are eventually accountable won't let it.