Beyond Voting: Can Civil Society Unite Behind an Open Government Agenda?

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In the wake of last week’s seminar held by the Building Change Trust, project lead Paul Braithwaite discusses the potential implementation of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Northern Ireland.

It wouldn’t be controversial to say that there is the perception that open, participative government isn’t being practiced in Northern Ireland. Any number of issues could be raised when discussing this key problem, from delays in Freedom of Information requests to the transparency of political party financing.

Such is the nature of the political landscape that Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty International, when speaking about transparency, participation and accountability in Northern Ireland, said that the term ‘open government’ is somewhat of an oxymoron to local people.

Rhetoric from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister back in 2009 stated that they would make the government as open and as transparent as possible (see Mick’s Lord Give Me Open Government), however the necessary steps required to make this a reality have been slow to appear.

The Northern Ireland community and voluntary sector has for decades been a key interlocutor between citizens and the state, representing the interests of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community. This was especially the case during the long years of the Troubles when there were no local political institutions.

However since the Good Friday Agreement and the dawning of the era of devolved government, the sector has perhaps struggled to realign its role in light of the new governance arrangements.

We recognise that there are opportunities on the horizon to redress the increasing imbalance between the sector’s service delivery and civic engagement and participation functions, which is why we have made ‘Creative Space for Civic Thinking’ a key strategic theme for the work of Building Change Trust over the coming years.

We believe that the Open Government Partnership (OGP) could potentially be used to embed citizen participation at the heart of governance in Northern Ireland, to advocate for particular measures that will enhance transparency, accountability and participation.

The OGP is an international framework of government commitments to transparency, accountability and citizen participation. It functions in each signatory country via a government-civil society partnership, the role of the latter being to both support and hold governments to account for the commitments it has made.

Almost 1000 commitments have so far been made by governments as part of the OGP towards transparency, accountability and participation around the world. Of these, 29% have so far been delivered on time and 34% have been assessed by the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism as having ‘transformative’ potential. The Trust believes that civil society in Northern Ireland could organise and take action to bring the benefits of the OGP to Northern Ireland.

Both the UK and Republic of Ireland governments have signed up, but Northern Ireland seems to be falling between the cracks. Due to the nature of UK devolution, commitments made by Whitehall departments for the most part only apply in England and, from a civil society point of view, there is also a very London-centric approach.

Speaking at the event, Tim Hughes, Open Government Programme Manager, Involve, explained that they and other members of the UK network would like to broaden their impact in future to include devolved regions.

He also emphasised that the current UK OGP national action plan was one of the most successful co-creation processes anywhere in the world to date, notwithstanding the limited geographic reach.

All speakers at the seminar highlighted the need to convene an OGP civil society working group to support the implementation in Northern Ireland, with the underlying principles of inclusivity and openness.

Over the coming months the Building Change Trust will play a key role in supporting this progress. An initial meeting for organisations and individuals interested in getting involved in an OGP campaign will take place on 12th June 2014.

Those interested in coming along should contact Paul Braithwaite. For further information on the Trust’s work in this area, keep up to date by clicking here or follow us on Twitter @ChangeTrust.

You can pick up on some of Mick’s work on Slugger for us here, along with these deep links into our #DigitalLunch on #OGP, and the Six Memos…

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  • http://www.thedissenter.co.uk thedissenter

    “The Northern Ireland community and voluntary sector has for decades been a key interlocutor between citizens and the state, representing the interests of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community.”

    a) this crew could as easily be the ‘Rent-seekers Alliance” who broadly exist at the tolerance of the powers whoever they be; NIO in the past, OFMDFM et al today.

    “This was especially the case during the long years of the Troubles when there were no local political institutions.”

    So our local councils aren’t ‘political institutions’? Perhaps not at the level of County Council of England, but existing nevertheless.

    Civic society in NI amounts to not much more than middle-class public sector paid busy-bodies telling everyone else how things ought to be according to an unspecified yet presumed consensus.

    Always interesting to see groups like Involve, funded by Government and agencies talk about openness even though finding annual report on its website reveals little (so we don’t know how much is funded by govt by grants or ‘services’). Type ‘annual accounts’ in the search box at http://www.involve.org.uk and perhaps others might fare better. Happy to be directed to the information.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah, thedissenter, “Civic society in NI amounts to not much more than middle-class public sector paid busy-bodies telling everyone else how things ought to be according to an unspecified yet presumed consensus.”

    should be expanded to:

    “Civic society in NI amounts to not much more than middle-class public sector paid busy-bodies doubling up on their already lucerative posts at our Universities and telling everyone else how things ought to be according to what they read in post-modernist theory once in order for them to evolve a convincing ideological model that will deliver an unspecified yet presumed consensus, but only if they continue to be consulted as paid as advisors and are offered think-tank/NGO posts funded from the public purse until Ireland as a whole is finally at peace.”

  • Mick Fealty

    That was one of the issues raised on Friday, ie what exactly do we mean when we say ‘civil society’? I think Tocqueville is useful in this regard:

    No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favours are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands.’ [emphasis added]

    I wouldn’t include Involve necessarily, or anyone with an ‘expert’ hat on (which would include yours truly) even in any looser definition of civil society.

    That said, I’d say you can be an expert, a business and a trade union boss and a member of civil society,just maybe not at the same time, if that makes sense?

    I think greater openness in the relations between government and citizens should mean greater flexibility about where and how the divide falls.

  • http://www.involve.org.uk Tim Hughes

    For anyone interested in viewing Involve’s annual reports and accounts, they’re all available on the Charity Commission’s website. Unfortunately the site doesn’t allow me to link to our specific entry, but a search with our charity number (1130568) will take you there.