#OpenGovNI: Why a loose, distributed and eclectic network is vital… [updated with audio and video]

Conference plenary discussing four key questions
Networks generate their own insights

A key irony noted by Tim Hughes of Involve is that conversations about Open Government can very quickly become wonky and technical, and as a consequence begin to close out the ordinary citizen with techno jargon and insider speak.

Wednesday’s launch of the Open Government Network Northern Ireland at Malone House in Belfast was moderately successful in broadening their catch beyond ‘the usual suspects’. [Listen back to the speeches and watch the keynotes.]

Keynote speaker was Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton admitted there has been a lag between de jure membership of  the Open Government Partnership and the lag in Northern Ireland. He also highlighted three key areas in which he’d like to see progress: Open Data; Open Budgets and Open Policy making.

He seemed most sceptical of open budgets (a politically sensitive issue in the south too where it has been kicked into the long grass of a feasibility study), but has set up a Public Sector Innovation Lab to explore the possibilities the possibility of open policy making.

Interestingly Lizetta Lyster of the transparency team in the Cabinet Office contrasted Hamilton’s DFP focus on ensuring quality data first with London’s view which is getting the data out quickly to the public helps improve the data more quickly and more efficiently.

Felicity Huston sounded a useful note of scepticism when she pointed out that her requests for information on why people were no longer allowed to walk their dogs off a lead in the Stormont Estates by the Department of Finance was met with a boilerplate argument of legal professional interest.

The conference went on to ask four broad questions:

Most important issue the open government network should focus on?

A strong theme was the need to overcome a culture of reticence challenging government, particularly in response to the remarks of the Minister. What will be critical in achieving open government is how each sector can relate to and challenge relevant policy-makers. Getting the nuances and mechanics of this relationship right hold the ingredients to success.

Key principles that should govern how the network operates?

Open Govt hopes on Post it notes
Hopes for #OpenGovNI

How do we anchor any future campaign? Themes of honesty, collaboration and determination to success came across as core values for any campaign to have the necessary legitimacy and focus to achieve open government aims and objectives.

If the network could deliver only one thing in its first twelve months?

The consensus fractured on what a possible campaign could deliver within its first year. Two possible approaches emerged: to focus on new local government structures; or campaign to the various party conferences and raising awareness there should be the key focus.

What should happen after this event?

All broad movements are coalitions of competing interests and open government is no different. A divergence in emphasis rather than values became apparent from two different sectors that I spoke to at the conference Kris, who works within the hospitality sector hoped that open government can make “decision making more accountable”, and bring policy-making and government into touch with the lives of ordinary workers.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.17.31As Green Party councillor John Barry put it, “Knowledge is power is a truism, but knowledge is also empowerment..” We’re a long way from that right now. Anne Colgan of the OGP Civil Society Forum in the south noted the task of shifting the culture of “meetings with officials for whom things don’t go out of the room until everything is agreed” towards a more open ethos.

Paul Braithwaite of Building Change Trust noted in an earlier blog for Slugger the real challenge is to get beyond tokenism and make sure that where there are opportunities for participation they are meaningful and likely to affect outcomes.

Hamilton’s pitch for a pre draft budget consultation was understandably rejected by a deadlocked Executive, but the reason citizens are tiring of consultations is because they don’t feel their participation is in any way pivotal to the internal decision making process.

What complicates the matter is its very newness, ie that it is untried and untested, and therefore the outcomes are uncertain. That’s often considered a third rail inside government. The answer probably lies in finding small projects to pilot.

Lykketoft People not rationalThe success of the network is likely to lie in the quality of its engagement and collaborative sense-making with citizens as much with formal civil society stakeholders. And it must identify and seek to address real and felt needs within the community.

Yet even the Cabinet office’s dynamic transparency unit is struggling to get its five open policy making pilots off the ground. It won’t be easy since there’s no sure fire pro forma solution.

Going forward there’s an awareness that the Network needs to grow. It needs both to get out of Belfast and to open itself to people beyond stakeholders and gatekeepers. A period of facilitation is likely to follow which include plan for another meeting outside business hours so that working people can get involved.

But as the old Irish saying goes, Tús maith, leath na hoibre, ‘a good start is half the work’. In the meantime have a look at Mick’s earlier executive’s briefing, and please do watch this space

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs