Roundtable with Scottish Civil Society Organisations on OGP in Scotland | 14 July 2015

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On 14th July, we held a roundtable with Scottish civil society organisations to discuss if and how Scotland should be involved in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and the UK’s third (2016-18) OGP National Action Plan. The following note sets out what was discussed and agreed.

Details

When: 14th July 2015, 10am to 12pm
Where: Edinburgh Training and Conference Venue, 16 St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1SU

Attendees

Alistair Stoddart, Demsoc
Bruce Ryan, Edinburgh Napier University
Colin Campbell, Assist Social Capital
Eliot Stark, STRiVE
Fiona Savage, Collaborative Futures
Jenni Inglis, The EdgeWise Society
Juliet Swann, Electoral Reform Society Scotland
Lucy McTernan, SCVO
Niamh Webster, Demsoc
Paul Ballantyne, Scottish Community Development Centre
Robin McAlpine, Common Weal

UK Open Government Network coordinators

Tim Hughes, Involve
Josephine Surherman-Bailey, Involve

Discussion

Tim’s introduction

Tim introduced the Open Government Partnership and reflected on what Scotland’s role could be within the OGP. He stated that the weakness of the last National Action Plan is that of the 21 commitments, 20 were from Westminster, and 1 was from Scotland. Some but not all of those 20 will apply to Scotland.

He stated that the next step of the OGP in the UK must be to try and work across all nations. The Open Government Network is interested in speaking to Scottish Civil Society about what that might look like and what would be useful in encouraging the Scottish government to commit to open government reforms. The questions Tim put to attendees:

  1. How can OGP support your work?
  2. How can we push the Scottish government and in turn get them to push the other nations forward?

Open floor discussion

Before a wider discussion about whether and how developing an Open Government Network in Scotland and Scotland joining the OGP might be useful, attendees asked Tim a series of questions to better understand how the OGP works.

Who defined open government as reforms to make government more transparent, accountable and engaging?

The open government movement has been around for a while and it was an organic process which developed over time.

What kind of engagement do you have with international institutions?

We work within the UK but have links to what is happening in other parts of the world. The OGP was launched at a UN assembly meeting. We are increasingly looking at issues around the EU and other multilateral orgs, linking up with G20, G8, G7 on transparency. Other organisations in the OGN work with OECD countries and there are a number of large NGOs linked to OGP. The movement has built up a strong head of steam and has been backed by large donors. However there are still gaps and it’s still a young initiative, so there’s lots to do to develop it.

Please expand on the chairing process?

The UK was the lead co-chair back in 2011 and Indonesia in 2013. The idea of joint ownership is supposed to be replicated at all levels. Globally the steering committee is made up of government and civil society representatives.

What are governments committing to, are they achieving it, and what happens if they don’t?

The minimum requirement is that the commitment must fall inside the scope of open government. There were some random commitments in the beginning, such as cleaner beaches, but less so now. Commitments might be around the architecture of open government such as open data standards or FOI law. They might be about embedding guidelines for participation and consultation in government, or applying open government in issues such as health. There is currently a big push around open contracting. There is also a strand of work around open budgeting, as well as natural resource transparency.

On the whole the UK is meeting its commitments, though a few have fallen by the wayside, and some are being delivered late. There’s an ongoing debate about what happens if countries don’t meet commitments. OGP is meant to be a support network, with softer mechanisms, trying to get countries to raise their game. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that sticks might be needed. Countries which don’t meet their commitments are supported to try and meet them, but the ultimate sanction is being kicked out of OGP.

What are the main learnings?

The UK has produced two action plans in 2011 and 2013, and has been on a journey in that time. The first action plan was developed in typical Whitehall style, developing the commitments in a “black box” and only speaking to a few open data advocates. The second action plan was more collaborative but predominantly London based. In terms of government and civil society coming together to develop commitments, the UK has been one of the best examples in the OGP of how that process can work.

The main learning were: lots of preparation and hard work necessary. Civil society needs to organise itself and develop a set of asks. A major learning is to broaden it out and get participation across all nations.

What types of commitments work?

The commitments have to be SMART (i.e. Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-bound). We need to be able to measure whether the government has been successful so civil society can hold them to account. The best commitments have tight milestones, a sense of progress, and ongoing civil society engagement.

Some examples of organisations involved in OGP include Demsoc, The Consultation Institute, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, Public Concern at Work. However there is a need to reach beyond groups which work directly on open government related issues, to those working on health and education.

Some of the organisations in the network are very involved, some are less involved. We have an email list of 400 people in total across all the nations, and there are a number of people from Scotland on the email list.

What interest have you got from the Scottish government?

Interest from the Scottish government has been waxing and waning over time. We got a clear message from Scottish government that ownership of the OGP is an issue, as it is for all the nations. So the Scottish government is interested in the agenda and in the OGP, but have been reluctant to jump into the UK process so far. They need a prod to take the step of being involved in the new UK action plan.

An attendee commented that the Scottish government are interested in this but they don’t use the same lexicon as Westminster, and they are more interested in the collaboration and participatory budgeting commitments than, for example, open data.

Tim responded that those in the government we’ve spoken to have seen the value in the framework and the value of being involved in the process, and the peer to peer learning and sharing of best practise. Also the chance to show off to other governments.

At what level has the interest been?

Not ministerial level yet, we’ve only spoken to senior civil servants so far.

Which bit of government has a sense of ownership?

Sarah Davidson – Director General for Communities.

To what extent are we learning best practices around the world and benchmarking?

There are standards and good case studies, but all the examples are based on context. For example, we can’t necessarily take what the Philippines on participatory monitoring is doing and apply to Scotland, but some lessons can be learned. We also need governments to be innovating. We hope and expect that Scotland would be in that position too.

How would someone make an assessment about whether we’re better or worse at something? You can package up the 5 great things you are doing but what about the rest? I’d really like it if we could have straightforward sense of where we are and where we should be.

There has been work by Transparency International on an Open Governance Scorecard and there are some well developed standards on some aspects of open government, such as open data standards. But on other aspects of open government it’s hard to assess the government according to particular metrics without setting up perverse incentives, such as tick box consultation.

There were two possible models the OGP could have taken. One is very prescriptive: this is what governments must do to be in OGP, committing to certain standards. But it’s hard to get governments to sign up to this. The other is softer: it works better to get governments to develop their own set of reforms with civil society, and compete and learn from one another.

An attendee commented that within the government there are many different types of problems. Some have best practise examples already and are easy to solve. But it’s more difficult when it’s a complex problem, with very different parameters and there are multiple answers. It sounds as if you think everything can be put into the mix and define it.

Another attendee agree and commented that within the Scottish government I can point to very good practise and very bad.

Another attendee commented that they were not convinced that the UK open government process is the strongest way to get them to reform. The new Scottish government is pressurised going into 2016. Their manifesto is likely to promise a new politics and open government. OGP might be better at supporting the development of a set of priorities.

How are you defining the focus? What we want the Scottish government to do, or what we want the UK government to do?

You are not circumscribed in terms of focus. Whether a network even gets set up is up to civil society in Scotland. Civil society is involved in the OGP to apply pressure to government. But there are reformers inside government who also want to do this. They need to get the political-buy in to do it. For each commitment in the last national action plan there was a civil society organisation partnered to it.

How much progress has actually been made? Looking at the action plan, there’s one that says the UK government will cut down on money laundering and tax evasion and they haven’t done it. And do you challenge government where they do things which are flagrantly against open government like the Lobbying Act?

It’s about finding the right balance between collaboration and challenge. We critique and criticise, in the past on lobbying and in the future on FOI we imagine, but it’s a constant judgment call on what we should criticise on. The achievement of the last action plan was the open register of beneficial ownership, and a commitment to a cross Whitehall anti-corruption strategy, which campaigners had been calling for for a decade, and the OGP finally pushed it over the line. There were also commitments to aid transparency and transparency on the extractives industry.

We have good networks in Scotland so why would we need to join formalised network?

The link to the other devolved nations and sharing practices and support. The OGP process aspect as well – it’s there to be used and to work with the Scottish government on. The framework could offer support to you to get the government to do to more. Also the steering group’s link to minister. The rest of the network is informal and voluntary. Membership is an email list which people can respond to as they see fit. As coordinators we manage the day to day of keeping the show on the road. We give opportunities for people to be involved. We organise workshops and meetings when it comes to developing civil society asks and development of the action plan. It’s low-key in terms of the commitment people have to give up front. Northern Ireland have mirrored what we’ve set up – you might choose to go down that route or keep it as a more informal network.

An attendee commented that this needs to have a Scottish face, and the network needs to prod to get me out of the office as I have other things going on.

Tim replied that if it’s going to work it will need a coordinator. That coordinator’s job is to encourage people to do things and ensure the whole process fits together and has impact.

An attendee commented that they wouldn’t necessarily go down a formally constituted network because that is a constraint. And Scottish civil society is not ready to speak with one voice on this. And with an informal network – if it’s good I’ll participate, and if not I won’t.

Discussion about possible next steps

  • There was strong interest in the network part of OGP, but the general consensus on the OGP is interested but agnostic.
  • All attendees agreed that the political context means that the relationship to other countries should be emphasised.
  • Could test with senior civil servants to see if there’s ministerial interest. Maybe informal pressing first and then a letter.
  • Maybe a meeting with civil servants and maybe minister later. Discussion with civil society first.
  • Brief discussion about whether Minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock is interested in Scotland. He has shown interest in the next action plan reflecting the increasingly devolved nature of the UK.
  • Civil society needs to speak about substance or issues before they make decisions about how to engage. Should be wary about jumping into infrastructure first.
  • Could we do it with a local authority and scale up? Discussion about move towards regionalisation but agreement that it needs to start with national government first.

Agreed on next steps

  • Sign everyone up to Scottish open government mailing list to spark an informal network
  • “Sherpa expedition” led by Lucy McTernan to sound out the government’s interest, the ‘activist’ civil servants interested in the agenda, and develop a map to understand where government is open or closed
  • Depending on the outcome of the “Sherpa expedition”, get a meeting between government and civil society

 

Annex: Background briefing

Open Government Partnership

As a member of the Open Government Partnership, every two years, in collaboration with civil society, governments in the UK must develop an open government national action plan, setting out specific, measurable and time bound commitments.

The UK was a founding member of the OGP in 2011. Since, it has produced two National Action Plans (2011-13 & 2013-15), and is due to agree and publish its third (2015-17) by the end of 2015.

NAP III process

The Minister for the Cabinet Office will formally launch the process of developing the UK’s new National Action Plan on 13th July.

The new NAP is due to be published in December. Working back from that point, the key milestones look likely to be:

July NAP process launched
August to October Commitments identified and developed
October One or more high profile commitments announced at OGP Summit
November Commitments finalised and action plan formed
December Sign off process by governments and civil society

The details of how the NAP will be developed are still to be defined, but there will be a significant emphasis on ensuring the process is transparent, collaborative and participatory.

The involvement of the devolved nations in the action plan is a key area of focus for the UK Open Government Civil Society Network.

OGP & the devolved nations

So far the devolved nations have had minor involvement in the UK OGP process, with one commitment from the Scottish Government in the previous action plan.

The OGP was originally established as a partnership of nation states. In the context of the UK, where Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have significant devolved powers, this is clearly a weakness of the OGP model. The vast majority of open government reforms will be devolved matters; a plan formed solely by the UK government, therefore, will likely only apply to England.

Within the confines of the current OGP structure and process, however, there is significant room to innovate and develop an action plan that is truly UK wide. Many OGP members are interested in how to apply the OGP in devolved settings – the devolved nations of the UK have the opportunity to demonstrate how it can work.

Each government in the UK is making progress on different aspects of open government, and in their own way. The OGP provides a framework through which that progress can be nurtured, extended and shared, within the UK and beyond.

Civil society networks in the devolved nations

As coordinators of the UK Open Government Network, we are keen to establish regional networks in each of the devolved nations. It is envisaged that these networks would work with their respective governments to collaboratively develop their own commitments and/or action plans. We hope to secure commitments from each of the devolved governments to work with their respective open government civil society network on the Open Government Partnership.

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