Open Government in Practice 2 – Open Policy Making

Paul Braithwaite has been leading the Building Change Trust’s work exploring the issue of open government over the past year, focusing on the international Open Government Partnership initiative and its potential in Northern Ireland.

 Last week the topic in focus was open budgets, this week it’s the turn of open policy making.

 

A new era in politics has arrived. People around the world are demanding more openness, democracy, effectiveness and accountability from their governments, and already case studies showing tangible benefits from reforms are coming to the fore.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an international framework of government commitments to transparency, accountability and participation. The UK is one of the founding nations, yet currently the OGP has little to no impact in Northern Ireland, with the majority of commitments made entirely at central government level.

 

Beyond Tokenism

One of the UK’s 21 commitments under the OGP is to undertake five open policy making pilots over the period 2013 – 2015. Again, unfortunately none of these are in Northern Ireland.

Open policy making in its most simple terms is simply about bringing ‘outsiders’ into the policy making process – i.e. you and I.

It is about a lot more than the current model of tokenistic consultation that many people feel drowns them in jargon and pretends to listen when the big decisions have already been taken behind closed doors. See the video below for an amusing comparison between how the private sector advertises and how governments solicit citizens’ views (at start though the rest is worth watching too):

 

Encouragingly, going beyond the initial five pilots commitment, the UK Government seems to view open policy making as becoming the default approach in the longer term. There is an Open Policy team within the Cabinet Office who lead on this – (blog here) and Sir Jeremy Hayward, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service recently stated: “it [open policy making] is the future of policy making in the civil service”.

In Northern Ireland we’ve seen some recent movement on public sector reform led by Simon Hamilton and the Department for Finance and Personnel, but could this lead to a similar level of commitment in Northern Ireland? We’ll hear more from the Minister on the public sector reform theme at our NI Open Government Network launch event on Wednesday.

Some Examples

So does open policy making work in practice? Here’s three examples to feed the debate.

Better Reykjavik is an initiative of the non-profit Citizens Foundation and Reykjavik’s progressively minded mayor Jón Gnarr. Using the Your Priorities online decision-making platform, residents of the city propose and vote on ideas for improving their community. The top 10-15 ideas are then considered by the City Council each month and of 265 ideas submitted since 2011, 165 have been accepted. The initiative has had an astonishing level of uptake from the residents of the city – 70,000 of the 120,000 population have participated so far, possibly a record for e-democracy.

The open-source Your Priorities platform which powers Better Reykjavik is now being used around the world, including in the UK. The NHS Citizen initiative, led by NHS England, helps people identify and discuss the issues that the NHS should be talking about. Ideas that generate the most discussion and support or which have the most national significance will be brought to an Assembly meeting for further discussion with the NHS Board.

 

Another UK initiative is Northern Futures which is led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. It aims to engage the public in proposing and debating policy options for boosting economic growth and competitiveness in the north of England. People submit and rate ideas via either the online platform or at a series of public workshops held in various parts of the region, leading up to a summit on 6th November where the best ideas will be highlighted and taken forward.

 

 

Can This Happen in Northern Ireland?

 

David Cameron has frequently outlined his commitment to make the UK Government “the most open and transparent government in the world”. Disappointingly, however, Northern Ireland lags quite significantly behind its closest neighbours in establishing systems to promote transparency, public participation and accountability in policy making activity.

It’s intriguing to ponder whether the outcomes of recent contentious policy processes (welfare reform, racial equality and flags, parades and the past) would have been any different if a more open approach had been adopted.

Ultimately, as I said in my previous post, the Building Change Trust doesn’t have a view on which aspects of open government should take priority.

We simply think that a more open government is a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone involved. It provides an opportunity to restore public faith in the integrity of institutions and enables citizens to have a greater say about government priorities to ensure there is a more suitable match between public services and public needs. For politicians, the onus is no longer solely on them to resolve seemingly intractable problems. Rather it becomes a shared endeavour across society.

So our intent is simply to provide space and the opportunity for that debate to happen.

The Building Change Trust is hosting the launch of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network on 5th November at Malone House in Belfast. The event is free and open to all, the registration page is here.

The Minister for Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton MLA, will be a keynote speaker, along with a representative of the Cabinet Office and a panel including Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor John Barry, Anne Colgan (Chair of the Irish OGP Civil Society Forum) and a number of representatives from civil society and the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector.

For more information contact Paul Braithwaite on pbraithwaite@communityfoundationni.org or via Twitter on @Paul_BCT or #OpenGovNI

For an overview of the Open Government Partnership initiative see the video below: