Open Government Partnership: “Lord, give me open government, but not just yet…”?

There’s been a certain buzz around this Open Government conference (live streaming here), I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to find.

There have been tensions. Largely over the gap between intention (to be open) and the disappointing actuality. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, for instance, has been in some steady criticism from the ‘home team’ here in Dublin Castle.

For instance, Ireland’s Freedom of information Act was amended under the previous government such that the Republic is only now one of three countries in the world which makes a charge (and in some cases a considerable charge) for access to government information.

Nevertheless for a lot of the time yesterday Minister Howlin made himself available to critics amongst the conference ‘delegates’ for conversations around the idea of open government. “The perfect is the enemy of the good”, says the Minister, reconfiguring the data stacking architecture is his priority.

The common theme throughout the conference has been openness and sharing of ideas. Veronica Cretu, President of the Open Government Institute in Moldova, argued that before the government begin to think about open reform, they need to start from a sense of open-mindedness.

All very well, and highly appropriate. But not always an easy sell to the political end of government, which remains as much of a blood sport as it has been since Machiavelli wrote it all down in his wee book.

One political operator I spoke to during the conference pointed out, politics is a dirty game and some of the things that ‘have to be done’ to make good things happen don’t bear up well under a public gaze.

So there is an important question about where openness in government begins and ends.

At this stage and in this conference there is no clear answer to that question. Although in the case of Northern Ireland – where we may have one of the most structurally secure governments in the western world – it is a question that politicians – will almost certainly want clear answers to.

As things stand both Ireland and the United Kingdom has signed up to the Open Government Programme, with Westminster moving under the direction of the Cabinet Office. Wales is also beginning to pick up my open government agenda.

There have also been discrete discussions at civil servant level between Whitehall and Edinburgh, although with the referendum on independence taking much of the political time and attention of the Scottish Government that has yet to begin to bear political fruit.

Yet despite Francis Maude’s enthusiastic restatement of Victor Hugo’s adage that “open government is an idea whose time has come” there is little evidence that the open agenda has begun to catch hold in Northern Ireland.

Brendan Howlin confessed that his position as senior controller of the budget gave him the necessary coercive powers to force through the kinds of structural reform there are basic requirement for new open data standards.

Here again it becomes obvious that the gap between the intention and the actuality remains embarrassingly wide.

In the Republic it can take is as much as two years to receive a reply from a Freedom of information request. In Northern Ireland, you might never get one if it endangers a minister’s chances of getting re-elected.

According to the Norwegian Ombudsman a response is judged to be late if it takes two or three days.

Asked by the audience, the Minister of Justice from the former Soviet republic of Georgia (judged independently to be one of the top ten least corrupt countries in the world) about what forms of resistance she faced from people inside government Thea Tsulukiani merely “we have to keep repeating answers to the same questions and it slows the pace of reform”.

In Georgia, it seems, the downside of excessive secrecy in government is transparent and self evident.

Selima Abbou from Tunisia spoke of a highly educated population with access to their own online tools and their own forms of open (and highly independent) discourse. The struggle there has been how to bring them together.

In both cases there are and where pre-existing conditions which perhaps gives license or impetus from the ‘demos’ to politicians to follow and open government agenda

There all Cabinet ministers are obliged to hold an open press conference every month (eh, OFMdFM?) Tsulukiani noted that this gives your permission, on occasion, to simply state ‘I don’t know’ an answer some questions.

Perhaps the demos in Georgia is more forgiving than ours over such ministerial admissions of ignorance?

In a more settled democracy like Denmark open data has been less crucial to improving accountability than driving improvements in economic productivity.

For instance, there is little evidence that parents use open data to make decisions about which school the children go to, but the mere act of putting performance data online creates or appears to create an improvement in school performance.

Sadly I will have to leave Dublin before the end of the conference today. One of the final sections is called “Whistling in the Wind?”; which will no doubt feature a very current issue here in Dublin, that of whistle-blowers.

On the panel will be John Devitt of Transparency International Ireland, the Minister and Mick Clifford, special correspondence with the Irish Examiner.

Clifford, in particular, played a key role in reporting some of controversies which led to resignation of the former Minister of Justice Alan Shatter on Wednesday of this week.

Although it’s easy to say and much more difficult to prove my own sense is that whistle-blowers are in part an artefact of a closed system that sees greater value in conformity than in diversity of view.

They may, of course, always be with us. Particularly in governmental or a commercial organisations where service or product delivery is a critically important output.

The openness agenda has become popular in part because technology now allows us to work on scale both inside and outside public and private institutions.

The human genome project for instance was a major win for public collaboration over private commercial interest in the because it used an open standard of collaboration between diverse and often competing institutions to compute the vast amounts of data that went to creating a single map.

It’s that scale, and more particularly the diversity of view, in a sense, that whistle-blowers are often punished for. That, and providing reliable data (like trying to inform the Minister of Justice that the Garda’s traffic penalty system is more fiction than fact) outside a closed loop system.

I don’t believe that, per se, Open Government will, in the short term at least, rewrite the core tenets of Machiavelli’s Prince. But at the very least a great deal more openness can help set the wider context for important social and governmental this is.

The question in the case of Northern Ireland is where does all or any of this begin?

One Tunisian speaker from the floor suggested that civil society should not get involved in haranguing governments and telling governments what governments ought to do. But rather begin to embody the changes and the openness that they urge on government institutions.

That, it seems to me, is not a bad place to begin. It’s where we’ll start with our DigitalLunch next Tuesday. You can join us in a live video conference on Google Plus, or on the #DigitalLunch YouTube Channel.

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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty