Is Northern Ireland ready to take on the challenge of collaborative open government?

One modern day illusion is that because we vote for an elected government to be in charge of what the writers of Yes Minister ryely termed ‘the real government’ (the Civil Service), we as citizens also assume they are in control of everything. 

Yet government remains essentially an 19th Century institution trying to operate in a dynamic and fast changing 21st Century environment which has seen the emergence of a networked public square, in which demands for transparency and openness become increasingly hard to refuse.

Open Government is often confused in public discourse by the more popular concept and possibly better understood idea of Open Data. The latter is increasingly considered to be the new technological, standard expected from government.

But the ideas behind Open Government are various and often seem to be asking for or suggesting various contrary actions at the same time. Openness and transparency may be related but they are not the same.

For instance the relatively modest Councillor.Info, in which Slugger had some peripheral involvement, emphasized not simply openness but responsiveness by local elected representatives.

More generally though most large institutions have been slow in their responses to their customers, clients or citizens.

Theorists like Jeremy Rifkin talk about how the qualitative shift can now deliver products at what he calls ‘near zero marginal cost’ turning what were consumers into prosumers, and a simple market place into a collaborative commons.

This capacity for individual citizens not merely to be passive receivers of information is driving dozens of new projects which sees the citizen as a resource, not least in the healthcare sector where government and private sectors operate extremely closely to one another. 

Patients like me is a big ticket health based socialised network that currently track about 2,500 individual medical conditions with 250,000 individuals. It was launched back in 2006.

David Thorpe explains:

Each PLM member can access discussion forums to find and share advice or provide nuanced feedback on a certain drug or treatment issue; they also have a personal dashboard with a quantitative breakdown of symptoms and dosages. Members still share their experiences anecdotally, but underneath the community an analytics platform quantifies symptoms and treatments into hard data.

Forced by an encroaching patent cliff, big Pharma companies like AstraZeneca are beginning to experiment with Open Collaboration techniques to help it fine tune its own Research and Development process.

Recently the Dublin based Storyful company created an open newsroom in which they invited people outside their company to help them source and more often help verify

Elected governments have experienced much greater difficulties in finding ways to engage the direct and indirect interests of their citizens.

Ironically, with what Yochai Benkler calls “the practical elimination of communications costs as a barrier to speaking across associational boundaries”, the opportunities for governments to listen far outstrip their current capacity to do so.

Which leads me to more practical matters. Last year I hosted a series of DigitalLunches on Social Innovation for the Building Change Trust. This year we’ve agree to help ginger some discussion about probing the potential for greater openness

The Open Government Partnership is an international framework of government commitments to transparency, accountability and participation. One of the initiative’s key features is that it functions in each country through a joint and equal government – civil society partnership.

Currently however, the OGP has little impact in Northern Ireland due to the fact that the commitments made are almost entirely at central government level and hence only apply in England and to some extent Wales, with one commitment applying in Scotland.

For this to happen in Northern Ireland, one key step would be the mobilization of local civil society, in particular, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector.

In order to gauge interest amongst local civil society in making this happen, the Building Change Trust is organising a seminar on OGP on Friday 16th May in Belfast, entitled ‘The Open Government Partnership – a Path to Transparency, Accountability and Participation in Northern Ireland?’.

There will be a keynote input by Tim Hughes from Involve, who is Coordinator of the UK Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network, there will be additional contributions from TASC Ireland, Amnesty International‘s Patrick Corrigan and Professor Rick Wilford from Queen’s University Belfast, as well as a range of local VCSE sector representatives.

You can register for the seminar, which is free and open to all, here.

In the run in to the Belfast event, I’ll be blogging from the upcoming OGP Europe Regional conference in Dublin on 8th and 9th May, and hosting a DigitalLunch on the topic on Tuesday 13th all with the aim of turning over some of the key issues involved in local terms. 

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