Open government initiative seeks public engagement

Openness and accountability are hot topics – but this isn’t a story about Edward Snowden, the NSA, GCHQ or the Anglo tapes. Ireland is currently holding a public consultation on signing up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), asking citizens and stakeholders what we would like to see changed about how our government operates. By Alistair McConnell.

The OGP is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure government commitments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. At present, 58 countries have signed up, after eight founding governments, including those of the UK and the US, formed the OGP in September 2011.

Ireland has been criticised for taking longer than most to sign up. But our lengthy adoption of the Open Governance process has its advantages. As put by Paul Maassen, the independent civil society co-ordinator for OGP, “What we’ve seen from a lot of the first few countries to sign up has been that the first Action Plan was very rushed, with no time for a proper consultation, and lacking in ambition".

“Ireland’s advantage is that it has a solid foundation in place, with Transparency Ireland and people like Denis Parfenov, of Active Citizen, creating the basis for a good dialogue between government and civil society.”

Several public meetings will be held in Dublin, the first two on July 10 and August 8 at Wood Quay Venue, which will also be live-streamed. Nuala Haughey, of Transparency International Ireland (which was appointed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to co-ordinate and administer a consultative process following an open competitive process), will be eager as co-ordinator to encourage as much public participation as possible, and will be relying on a proactive civil society. Though the process is state-funded, the Government will not be involved in running the consultation.

From the consultation, a report will be produced that will state our chosen priorities for bringing transparency to Irish politics, which will be followed by a National Action Plan.

The Action Plan will focus on one (or more) of five "grand challenges": improving public services, increasing public integrity, more effectively managing public resources, creating safer communities, and increasing corporate accountability. The consultation will therefore involve asking which of these issues is most pertinent to Ireland.

Although several recent stories have brought political opacity to the fore of public debate, it is not necessarily all about high-level politics of the State. Rather, the dominant narrative around the OGP has been one of accountability for service delivery, such as health services.

According to Simon Burall, Director at Involve, a UK organisation that works in improving public participation in politics, it has been shown that openness, open data, and engaging with patients more transparently produces better outcomes.

“When we have examples such as this, it is easier to make a case for bringing those principles to other areas. It is a long term thing, designed to change the culture, rather than quick fixes.”

Open Data will form a key part of the process, and is an area in which Ireland has been off the pace internationally. Joining the OGP could lead to a more effective, useful government data website, or collection of websites, as has been created in the US and the UK, with information being made available in more useful and flexible formats than PDF or Word documents. However, Maassen argues that an open data platform alone would not be ambitious enough for the first Action Plan.

Open Governance is about bringing information and data into the public domain, but it is also about generating deeper cultural change in a nation’s politics – switching our political ‘default mode’ from closed to open, from the assumption that information is not public, and must be requested, to providing as much information as possible to the public. In order for this move to have a real impact in Ireland, public participation will be essential.

At just under two years old, and with broad goals that amount to cultural change in governance, the OGP is still a political toddler. However, as Burall argues, it is already having an impact.

“The OGP has been very successful in bringing together a number of disparate strands of work that lots of people have been doing for a number of years around transparency and accountability,” he says. “Although it has only been around since 2011, it seems to have been successful in driving governments to go further than they might otherwise have done, in terms of commitment to opening up. But of course, there are some countries that are doing much better than others.”

With Ireland arriving late to the OGP, Burall also points to the opportunity to learn from the experience of others, not least from the fact that the UK’s first Action Plan was not particularly successful.

“It wasn’t that successful in stretching things,” says Burall. “The government basically included commitments that they had planned to do anyway. The process has, however, prompted government to engage with civil society in producing a second plan, which is much wider in scope.”

Starting off on the right foot will be crucial if Open Governance is to bring genuine change to Ireland. As Parfenov puts it, the potential is there for “effecting substantial cultural reform and mutual trust in and between government and citizenry”, but as he also points out, this potential is entirely dependent on enthusiastic engagement in the early stages.

Maasen places an emphasis on political will: “Is the government really interested in listening and giving feedback to the suggestions from civil society? If not, there is no real partnership, and both sides will be frustrated.”

Signing up to the OGP is a significant step in the right direction. Whether Ireland keeps taking steps forward will depend on how active the public and stakeholders can be over the long process of opening up governance, for which this consultation marks only the beginning. It is essential for democracy that the big decisions are made in conjunction with citizens, on their behalf but not without their say. No more decisions made in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors, or quickly and quietly in the middle of the night.

Individuals and organisations can contribute to the debate in a number of ways: by e-mailing a submission, making an observation or comment on the official consultation website, or by joining working groups to discuss and draft proposals for the Action Plan.

According to the site, “the mantra is: Meet-Discuss-Recommend”. The more voices, the better.