Published on October 30, 2013

Dreaming of Open Government

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

I’m writing this post in the middle of the very hectic, energetic and noisy Civil Society Open Government Partnership Day. We’ve been supporting others in the organisation of this day. Its aim is to broaden the conversation about, and civil society organisations (CSOs) involved in, the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

I’ve just finished presenting at a session exploring ambition for the OGP for the next two years. This was organised and facilitated by Indonesia CSOs; Indonesia takes over from the UK in chairing the OGP at the Summit at the end of this week. It was therefore a good time to look ahead and think about CSOs role in driving the open government agenda forwards.

We were invited to talk about our dreams for OGP over the next two years.

In this rushed post I’m going to reflect on what I said and pick-up just one point from the fascinating discussion that ensued. It’s worth noting that Giselle Craveiro (Brasil), Haydee Perez (Mexico) and Dadang Trisasongko (Indonesia) were at least, if not more interesting than me, and operating in very different governance contexts than here in the UK. But I wasn’t taking notes, but rather absorbing the deep experience there was in the room.

I started by reflecting on the positive and demonstrable difference in the way that the UK government has developed the second national action plan compared to the first. The first was the basis of an open data consultation, focused almost exclusively on this important, but narrow element of the open government agenda, and involved no meaningful CSO engagement.

For the second national action plan the OGP CSO network has worked very closely with the Cabinet Office over the past nine months and it has very largely been a very positive process. While the Action Plan will not go as far as some in the network might have hoped, and does not include all the commitments that the government wanted to include, it is far stronger as a result.

I believe this collaborative form of working, while time consuming and at times demanding considerable effort, has developed commitments that has significant CSO commitment, and brings far fewer risks for the government than otherwise would be.

So, how will we know if we have been successful in two years’ time at the launch of the third National Action Plan?

  • We’ll have moved beyond the data, governance, transparency and accountability geeks who make up the bulk of the networks membership. We’ll have drawn in organisations working on health, education and the other issues that really matter for citizens.

However, this will bring with it some tensions that have already become apparent during the development of the second national action plan. Organisations working on health, for example, make the trade-off between releasing data about personal cancer records vs privacy differently to organisations working on privacy. Cancer charities place greater weight on potentially better health outcomes which should result from data release, while those working on privacy raise genuine concerns about individuals rights to keep their data private. These two points of view come from very different frames of reference and expanding the CSO network will help to build a better debate about how we might start to reconcile them.

  • We’ll have a better view of how to involve the private sector in the OGP national action plan process.

My own view is that we need to find a way to do this, but I know many of my CSO colleagues are deeply sceptical, worried that (certainly larger) corporations already have their own spaces and we shouldn’t invite them into one where we are able to operate effectively. And yet…. the private sector has a valid view about transparency, open data etc. Bringing the debate about the tensions between the different perspectives out in to the open would be, I think, a good thing.

  • We’ll have moved beyond the parties in government (in fact largely Conservative politicians) to all parties understanding and being committed to the open government agenda and the OGP.

2015 is when the next action plan is due, but we also expect an election then. One thing we know for certain is that the government won’t look like it does at the moment. We must ensure that the energy doesn’t dissipate if Labour wins and sees the OGP as the previous government’s play thing.

Civil Servants can’t reach out to other political parties. Members of the current government won’t. So it is down to CSOs to do so.

  • The commitments in the next national action plan will involve more government departments (and Wales and Scotland), they will have involved CSOs at an even earlier stage and they will be even more stretching.

One strand of the debate the followed explored the nature of the OGP. In my opening remarks I suggested it is a space for collaboration where both government and CSOs have to step out of their comfort zones and reach agreements that don’t do exactly what either side would most like, but gives stronger commitments as a result. OGP as a space for partnership and working together?

Dadang noted that relationships aren’t equal; government has most of the power and far more resources. If this is true in the UK, it is even more so in many other OGP countries. Others concurred. If it doesn’t hold those with power to account then it isn’t worth engaging with. OGP for Dadang is much more of a ‘bloody struggle’. So, OGP as an arena for fighting?

I believe that it has to be both and more; the challenge for all actors who are properly engaged with the OGP is how to create a space that is both an effective place for collaborative working, while allowing some vicious blows to be exchanged from time to time. Part of this must be openness from all involved about their interests, motivations and aims. This is something I learnt during our NHS Citizen Assembly day and want to bring into the OGP process going forward if it makes sense to others.

Quite how we’d know if we’d created an effective space for collaboration and fighting over the next two years I’m not quite sure.

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