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Leading by example: Renewing UK democracy at home

Article by Joe Powell

October 19, 2021

Leading by example: Renewing UK democracy at home

The rationale for elevating open societies and human rights as a major British foreign and development policy priority is clear. There have been 15 consecutive years of declining civic space globally, and a sustained rise of authoritarian leaders projecting their power more assertively internationally.[1] Many of those leaders are kleptocrats who use open markets like the UK to launder their money, damaging those democracies including through opaque and possibly illegal donations to political parties. The pandemic led to a further rollback of civil liberties, with many emergency powers lacking time-bound end dates or proper democratic oversight.[2] The UK and other democracies urgently need to work together to address these trends, but that can only happen if leadership is credible and based on a foundation of leading by example. In recent years British democracy has faced major challenges of its own making. To lead globally, Britain now requires a cross-Whitehall and society-wide effort to ensure our own democracy is fit for purpose.


Our experience of ten years of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) has reinforced that on democracy and open government issues, credibility is everything. Some of the strongest performers in OGP are countries who do not regularly sit at the top table of other international fora like North Macedonia and Uruguay. And yet, they are looked up to within the Partnership for their domestic leadership and willingness to share their learning with others. OGP’s local and subnational members like Austin, Texas are also showcasing a different model of how to bring government closer to citizens.


Conversely, some of the traditional champions of democracy internationally have experienced significant backsliding in recent years. This includes the United States, where the January 6th 2021 insurrection was inspired by the refusal of some political leaders to accept the will of the people, and Britain where civil society has been raising the alarm about the conventions of democracy being eroded.


Internationally, both the US and UK are now elevating democracy as a major priority, but the approach of each government to these domestic challenges differs markedly. In President Biden’s inaugural address he stated clearly “we will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example”, and his administration is designing their flagship Summit for Democracy in December 2021 to include domestically focused US democracy commitments on issues like corruption.[3] In contrast, while the UK G7 did call on members to “address our own vulnerabilities” as part of the Open Societies Statement agreed in June 2021 there has been no similar recognition from Prime Minister Johnson that the UK has to strengthen its own democracy in order to lead globally on the issue.[4]


The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) newly identified priorities under its open societies and human rights directorate provide a useful framework to analyse the extent of whether the UK can claim to be leading by example. These include: anti-corruption and illicit finance; civil society and civic space; democratic governance and media freedom; and the rule of law. While the FCDO’s role does not extend to the UK’s own domestic performance in each of these areas, international leadership will be significantly more credible if the UK is seen to be making progress on its own democratic journey.


Anti-corruption and illicit finance

Anti-corruption has risen up the political agenda in recent years, both in terms of domestic challenges in the UK and the role of the City of London, crown dependencies and overseas territories in enabling kleptocracy overseas.[5] The National Crime Agency judge that it is “a realistic possibility that [money laundering through the UK] is in the hundreds of billions of pounds annually” because of “the ease with which UK companies can be established, the broad range of professional services on offer and the access UK systems provide to higher-risk jurisdictions.”[6]


Within this overall context, the British Government has taken some important anti-corruption steps in recent years, including on “beneficial ownership transparency”. In 2013, Britain became the first country to commit to a public central registry of company ownership, designed to ensure the ultimate beneficiaries could not hide behind anonymous companies that are often misused for tax evasion, money laundering, and vehicles for financing organised crime and terrorism. Over 9.4 billion searches were made of the UK register in 2019, and there is evidence that these registers are being used to expose corruption and crime.[7] This has led to an impressive cascade effect, with over 40 countries now implementing similar reforms, including a European Union wide directive and recent progress in the right direction from the US and Canada.[8] The British Government also deserves credit for keeping this topic on the agenda for its 2021 G7 presidency, and for recently joining the Beneficial Ownership Leadership Group, which is designed for learning on effective implementation and to encourage other countries to adopt this emerging standard.[9]


Despite this progress, there remain major challenges with the implementation and scope of these anti-money laundering efforts. The Pandora Papers, the latest massive leak of financial data, confirm that Britain remains a destination of choice for corrupt money. Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family own 17 luxury London properties alone, with offshore companies used to obscure ownership.[10] A draft law on extending ownership transparency requirements to real estate was promised in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, but has not been tabled despite urging from Transparency International and other civil society groups.[11] There are also further steps that should be taken to curtail the role of enablers of corruption, including the financial services industry, public relations companies and purveyors of luxury goods.[12]


The current policies also need strengthening with a greater focus on verification of information related to ownership and applying it across asset classes like trusts, which are a weak point for abuse. Companies House needs an overhaul to address this problem, with more staff and resources.[13] Leadership is also needed to ensure that the crown dependencies and British overseas territories, which have long been havens for tax evasion and money laundering, meet their commitment to create public company registers by 2023. Finally, Britain’s voice is needed in the negotiations at the Financial Action Task Force to ensure a more progressive global standard is agreed.


In addition to taking stronger action on money laundering, there is a need for the UK Government to tackle the inefficiencies and waste in public procurement that have been so clearly brought into the public eye by the pandemic.[14] In relation to personal protective equipment (PPE), the former Health Minister Lord Bethell recently announced that “1.9 billion items of stock were in the ‘do not supply’ category…equivalent to 6.2% of purchased volume with an estimated value of £2.8 billion.”[15] This number is expected to rise further, amounting to a staggering loss of taxpayer money. The use of ‘VIP lanes’ for well-connected individuals to win contracts, and the fact that many COVID related contracts are still unpublished, stands in direct contradiction to the types of practices UK embassies and development programmes have supported overseas in recent years.


The impetus for radical procurement reform must now be taken, building on the Green Paper on Transforming Public Procurement.[16] The UK Anti-Corruption Coalition’s recommendations point the way to a system based on open data and civic engagement that could be an engine for government innovation, improve infrastructure, drive social and economic inclusion including through small business growth, and transition to net zero.[17] Internationally, the G7 committed to open contracting for the first time in September, 2021, an important win for the UK presidency that now needs rapid implementation with support of civil society groups like the Open Contracting Partnership.[18]


The Greensill lobbying scandal involving former Prime Minister David Cameron also exposed weaknesses in the UK political system that should be addressed. The subsequent Boardman review makes recommendations that if implemented in full would make a significant improvement to the status quo.[19] This would include unpaid advisers being subject to a clear code of conduct, a requirement for any former minister or civil servant to formally declare themselves as a lobbyist if trying to influence a government decision, and broadening the definition of an official meeting for reporting purposes to include more informal communications such as text messages. This is part of a wider effort needed to uphold the Nolan principles, and properly follow the latest recommendations of the committee on standards in public life, which include reform to “the Ministerial Code and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests; the business appointment rules and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments; transparency around lobbying; and the regulation of public appointments.”[20] This is a crucial set of issues to strengthen British democracy, and protect its customs and conventions from abuse.


Civil society and civic space

An active civil society is essential to any well-functioning democracy. The pandemic showed the essential value of civil society, as community groups and national charities came together to care for the most vulnerable and provide mutual aid to those in need. Britain based charities have also long been at the forefront of tackling global poverty, climate change, and strengthening democracy and open societies. Much of that work requires vocal advocacy, policy influencing, monitoring government action and mobilising citizens. The FCDO have been increasingly vocal in support of civil society and human rights in some parts of the world, including Hong Kong and Belarus in recent months. There have also been important UK efforts to promote open civic space in multilateral settings, like the United Nations.


Unfortunately, British civil society has been experiencing its own shrinking of civic space. On September 23rd 2021 Civicus, the global civil society alliance, placed the UK on its watchlist for the first time.[21] The watchlist is made up of countries where civic freedoms are in rapid decline, and currently includes Afghanistan, Belarus and Nicaragua, alongside the UK. This is a warning sign that needs urgent addressing if the UK is to credibly engage internationally on civic space. Central to these concerns are the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, which contains provisions that restrict the right to protest and has been opposed by over 350 UK civil society organisations and leaders.[22] These organisations point to “draconian new police powers to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest and have their voices heard by those in power”, with particular concerns about how those powers will be used on those critical of government policy and underrepresented communities. If the bill were to pass unchanged, it would clearly undermine the ability for the UK to advocate against similar laws proposing restrictions on civic space around the world, such as those in Hong Kong.


The British Government has also been urged to reverse recent cuts to the aid budget, which has been a major funder of civil society in low income countries. The UK was the first G7 country to reach the 0.7 per cent of gross national income target for overseas aid spending, and this also helped support UK based charities to become world leaders in their fields. The recent cuts to the aid budget put much of this work at risk and the sooner they can be reversed, the less long-term damage will be caused.


Democratic governance and media freedom

The global paradox of incredible bright spots of democratic innovation existing alongside worrying signs of backsliding is a trend that exists in the UK too.[23] The number of democracies globally has continued to decline, and illiberal democratic models such as Hungary, Turkey and Poland have increasingly worked together to share lessons. This includes restrictions on freedom of the press and attacks on journalists. In 2021 only 12 countries globally were ranked as having a favourable environment for journalists.[24] The vital role journalists play in a well-functioning democracy, both in holding the powerful to account and informing the public, has also been undermined by the digital monopolies and underfunding of journalism.


In Britain during the pandemic there have been incredible examples of participatory democracy where citizens had direct involvement in decisions affecting their lives, and deliberative democracy where people were able to join inclusive processes to share their ideas and learn from each other.[25] Citizens assemblies in the UK on climate change and the future of Scotland have all managed to adapt and thrive despite the shift to online meetings. There have also been pioneering local authorities such as Preston, which have sought to build a more democratic economy that keeps value and skills in the community.[26] A new Democracy Network has been launched to capture and share these learnings across the UK, coordinated by Involve, one of the leading charities focused on public participation.[27] Grassroots energy to forge a more inclusive version of UK democracy has the potential to help rebuild trust between government and citizens.


This progress does risk being undermined by the proposed new UK elections bill, which would make voter ID mandatory despite miniscule evidence of fraud and over two million people lacking the correct photo identification.[28] This mirrors similar efforts at the state level in the United States to make voting harder for political reasons, especially for racial minorities and recent immigrants. The bill also waters down the independence of the Electoral Commission, while doing little to tackle the problem of dark money in UK politics and political donations being exchanged for honours and titles.


On media freedom within the UK, some vital tools for journalists need protecting or improving. Freedom of Information implementation should be better resourced to prevent long delays, more information should be proactively disclosed, and the Government should cease the use of lawyers to challenge claims except in the most sensitive national security cases.[29] Proposed reforms to the Official Secrets Act could also undermine independent journalism, by increasing penalties on whistleblowers and making it easier to prosecute journalists for any story judged capable of causing damage to the state.[30] This would have a potential chilling effect on journalists’ sources and reporting, and would be inconsistent with the goals of the global media freedom campaign which has been a highly welcome FCDO run effort to draw attention to attacks on journalists and the undermining of independent media happening in many countries.


Digital democracy is another FCDO priority area where there are opportunities for showcasing British successes, but also improvement domestically. The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) set a strong precedent for prioritising responsiveness and access to citizens when it was launched, and is still seen globally as a pioneering model to emulate in terms of open government. The pandemic has also shown the immense potential of using digital tools to deepen democratic engagement and opportunities for civic participation. The organisers of the Climate Assembly UK demonstrated how this could be done in an inclusive manner, with citizens able to participate without meeting in person.[31]


At the same time, the last few years have shown how the lack of adequate policy safeguards and regulation make digital technologies prone to misuse, and make democratic processes vulnerable to attacks by illiberal influences. Insufficient regulation contributes to the lack of public trust in government and exposes citizens to data privacy and security risks. The new National Artificial Intelligence Strategy presents useful information on how the Government hopes to bolster AI research and technology.[32] While it unpacks the immense regulatory challenges, more work is needed to identify a suitable regulatory framework, including by working with strong civil society partners such as the Ada Lovelace Institute. As the British Government begins to lay out its own path on data and digital governance, it must show its commitment to principles of data protection and management that protects its citizens and businesses.


A positive space to deepen dialogue between the UK Government and civil society on domestic democracy is the OGP forum, coordinated by the Cabinet Office with cross-Whitehall representation, including from the FCDO. A highly committed group of reformers in government have been working to reboot this forum, after the UK was placed under review by OGP for failing to meet its commitments to running a truly inclusive co-creation process with civil society and submitting the OGP action plan on time.[33] The former lead Minister in the Cabinet Office issued a strong public pledge to “meet and exceed expectations of transparency and inclusivity in the development of our next generation of [open government] commitments.”[34] Publishing an ambitious new open government action plan would be a strong signal to civil society that the Government is prepared to co-create reforms that address domestic democratic challenges, and work with non-government actors in a collaborative effort to improve. There are also opportunities to expand the OGP forum. In many countries parliaments are playing an active role in making their own commitments to be more open, holding the executive to account, and helping pass relevant legislation. The UK Parliament should be encouraged to become more actively involved. OGP in the UK also extends far beyond Westminster, with Glasgow, Northern Ireland and Scotland all members in their own right with their own OGP fora and commitments. This creates an opportunity for truly collaborative learning and cooperation on open government across the country.


Rule of law

On access to justice and the rule of law in Britain, there are pandemic related backlogs that need resources to clear, but there are also opportunities through court modernisation programmes to try and bolster the principle of open justice. This means ensuring there is easily accessible data and information about the justice system, so citizens can understand the law and realise their rights. In recent years, the decline of funding for court reporters, closure of physical infrastructure, weak systems for storing data and documents, and digitisation of some justice processes, have all contributed to the challenge. There are now proposals being considered to improve access to court data, create space for feedback from citizens and civil society on what could improve in the system, and building a better system for sharing when court hearings are taking place.[35] The Justice Committee has also launched a new inquiry into open justice and court reporting in the digital age that will make recommendations on the media’s role.[36] Following through on these proposals would help to build trust and confidence in the courts, and could also inform the UK’s global work on access to justice.



The global trend of democratic backsliding and closing civic space requires urgent political action. It is welcome that the FCDO has chosen to prioritise open societies and human rights as part of its new agenda as an integrated department. Working with allies, Britain can help to build a stronger global coalition for open government and democracy, and take on the rise of authoritarianism. But this can only be successful if Britain has a credible story to tell about its own democracy. In many of the areas prioritised by the FCDO, the UK has not been immune from the global backsliding trends.


There is now a major opportunity for the UK to turn the page on the democratic turmoil of the last several years, and build back a better version of UK democracy that can in turn underpin a strong foreign policy push on open societies and human rights. Increasingly, domestic and foreign policy lines are blurred. Leadership at home and abroad could put standing up for democracy and human rights at the heart of the UK’s future identity.


Joe Powell is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Open Government Partnership. He joined OGP shortly after its founding, and has played a leading role in its growth to 78 member countries and thousands of civil society organizations, representing a strong global coalition for open government and democracy, and against authoritarianism and corruption. Joe leads the organisation’s strategy development, global advocacy, fundraising, and a wide range of partnerships with multilateral organisations, civil society organisations and governments. He leads engagement with OGP’s Steering Committee of ministers and civil society leaders, and is a regular spokesperson for the Partnership. In 2020, Joe was named an inaugural Obama Europe Leader, as part of the Obama Foundation’s mission to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world. Joe also serves on the advisory council for the OECD Observatory of Civic Space, the advisory council of the Local Coalitions Accelerator, and on the Board of the Forum on Information and Democracy, an initiative of Reporters Without Borders. 


[1] Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy under Siege, Freedom House,

[2] The Economist, Daily Chart: Global democracy has a very bad year, February 2021,

[3] Inaugural Address by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., White House, January 2021,

[4] 2021 Open Societies Statement, G7 Cornwall UK 2021, June 2021,

[5] National Crime Agency, National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime, 2020,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Open Ownership, Early impacts of public registers of beneficial ownership: United Kingdom, April 2021,; Transparency International, Out in the own: How public beneficial ownership registers advance anti-corruption, September 2021,

[8] Open Ownership, Worldwide commitments and action,

[9] Beneficial Ownership Leadership Group, Open Ownership,

[10] Pandora Papers reporting team, Pandora Papers: Secret wealth and dealings of world leaders exposed, BBC Panorama, October 2021,

[11] Transparency International UK, Queen’s speech a missed opportunity to strengthen UK’s defences against dirty money, May 2021,

[12] Joseph Rudolph, Regulating The Enablers, Alliance for securing democracy, September 2021,

[13] Transparency International UK, Company law overhaul signals boost to fight against dirty money, September 2020,

[14] Centre for the Study of Corruption, To fix procurement, the UK has to open it up, University of Sussex, November 2020,

[15] UK Parliament, Coronavirus: Protective Clothing – Question for Department of Health and Social Care, August 2021,

[16] Cabinet Office, Green Paper: Transforming public procurement,, December 2020,

[17] UK Anti-Corruption Coalition, Briefing on Transforming Public Procurement, April 2021,

[18] 2021 Open Societies Statement, G7 Cornwall UK 2021, June 2021,; Open Contracting Partnership, G7 commits to open and participatory public procurement reforms essential to ensure trillions of dollars for recovery aren’t wasted, September 2021,

[19], Review into the development and use of supply chain finance (and associated schemes) in government, Part 2: Recommendations and suggestions, August 2021,

[20] Committee on Standards in Public Life, Standards Matter 2: The Committee’s Findings,, June 2021,

[21] Monitor: Tracking civic space, UK added to human rights watchlist over threats to peaceful assembly, September 2021,

[22] Friends of the Earth, Open letter to the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice, March 2021,

[23] Tim Hughes, Democracy in flux: Reflections on a decade at Involve, Involve, September 2021,

[24] RSF, 2021 World Press Freedom Index: Journalism, the vaccine against disinformation, blocked in more than 130 countries, 2021,

[25] Tim Hughes, Available now! Democracy in a pandemic: Participation in response to crisis, Involve, July 2021,

[26] CLES, The Preston Model, August 2013 – Ongoing,

[27] Tim Hughes, The democracy network: What it is, how it’ll work, and answers to other FAQs, Involve, June 2021,

[28] The Cabinet Office, Photographic ID Research – Headline findings, IFF Research, March 2021,

[29] Jenna Corderoy, UK government spent half a million pounds on lawyers to fight FOI disclosures, Open Democracy, September 2021,

[30] Paul Seddon, Official Secrets Act: Do government plans threaten investigative journalism?, BBC News, July 2021,

[31] Sarah Allan, How we moved Climate Assembly UK online, Involve, May 2020,

[32] Office for Artificial Intelligence, DCMS and BEIS, National AI Strategy,, September 2021,

[33] Rowland Manthorpe, UK government censured for a lack of transparency and accountability, Sky News, March 2021,

[34] Letter from Julia Lopez MP to Sanjay Pradhan, March 2021,

[35] Kevin Keith, NAP 5 – Open Justice – Wk4 – Readout, UK Open Government, July 2021,

[36] Committees, New inquiry – Open Justice: Court reporting in the digital age, UK Parliament, September 2021,

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