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

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…

Paul Braithwaite works for the Building Change Trust, an endowment-based Trust set up in 2008 by the National Lottery to promote and support change in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector in Northern Ireland. Paul leads on two of the Trust’s five themes: Social Innovation and Creative Space for Civic Thinking. Prior to joining the Trust Paul worked in a number of roles include community relations work in North Belfast and around 8 years in the international development field, including 4 years living abroad in Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.