Open Government: In what practical ways can citizens increase their engagement?

How to make Open Government practical or realistic possibility? As Matilda has pointed out there’s no pro forma method for going forward. In some countries it’s felt that it’s better if citizen start things, because few trust the government, and in other places, vice versa.

In research into priorities amongst #OpenGovNI network members participation comes out as the top priority followed closely by knowledge, and vision and openness and data.

In practical terms though, the question ahead of the network will be: where do you start first to get the ball rolling in part of Northern Ireland that’s suffers from, in Heaney’s memorable phrase, ‘minds as open as a trap’?

We are not the only ones with that problem. I recently visited a council plenary in England, of a local authority that for the pure purposes of this blog post shall remain nameless.

There were just three of us the public chamber myself, another blogger and a woman whom I took to be a journalist from the local paper. The meeting itself lasted no longer than 45 minutes from opening prayers to closing remarks from the chair.

In that time, although some specific questions were asked, there was very little in the way of disclosure of the detail asked for even questions from members of the large ruling party. Very little about the way the public plenary was conducted seemed to grasp the obvious and basic opportunity to make themselves accountable for council business, for good or ill.

I suspect this is a typical occurrence up and down the country. Open data and transparency is one matter. But if transparency can be legislated into the system it is of limited use if everyone has stopped actually taking notice.

If participation is a key ingredient, what can citizens do to increase the opportunities for greater (possibly more robust) engagement with our democratic institutions (without getting captured by them?)


  • mickfealty

    I hear all that John. I

    t’s probably too much invoke a parallel with Schrodinger’s cat but I guess we could ask whether the democratic is dead or alive if it is in a box where we cannot observe it?

    A nice cartoon to explain that whole Physics thing:

    The key line “it is our observation that forces reality to collapse to one option or the other…” If no one observes our democracy, how do we force it to one reality or another?

    Openness or otherwise has only recently become a pressing question. In that regard it is distinguishable from those other forms of protest and civic activism since it’s aim in part is to try make representative democracy smarter, rather destroy it.

    One of our counterpanelists, Eleanor Brown flagged something like your own concerns around this (starts about here

  • barnshee

    Referendums for big items -e.g. Want to raise the “rates” by more than (say) inflation ?must consult ratepayers via referendum. That would tighten the dung in them

  • mickfealty

    Would that create greater openness?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Citizens should gazump the agenda-driven media who delude themselves that they know the real issues effecting people here from their ivory towers. I’m really sorry that a large population of people are not as “open minded” as you lot are, clearly they have not experienced with gracious dignity the media’s heroic sacrifice of being able to belittle the vast majority of the personal problems from citizens of lower economic class to you. We bow towards your elitism and your disdain for how we vote.
    Who’s responsible for these parties ruling over NI anyway?

    Who invented Sinn Féin, … a journalist.
    Who invented the DUP … a preacher.

    And preachy journalists who moan on and on about Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Executive, the Assembly, Stormont, our Politicians blah, blah, blah, are pretty much of the same ilk, but an even more useless and self-righteous form of demagogue than a politician, at least a politician can be humbled.

  • It is not the lack of data, it is the lack of enquiry, our willingness to question. An entitlement ‘rights’ culture leads everyone to want everything, at others’ expense (usually the bottomless pit that is believed to exist in government coffers). Then, as John Mooney says, it is about breaking through the labyrinth of government, arms-length and funded ‘partners’ or consultative groups to find useful information before even starting to form an opinion, while meanwhile ducking from the wealth of criticism aimed at you for questioning the ‘consensus’. The time and effort involved is enormous.

  • had a saying when student activist: ” don’t say worker when you mean trade union official”

  • Kevin Breslin

    How would it not Mick. Yes it is majoritarian but you would understand where the majority lie.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I believe in bottom to top no matter how crazy it is, often the bottom is paralyzed by low-will power, low inquisition and low connections. Maybe we should bring back a People’s Democracy movement again if that’s what people want, but unless they can build a common ground at grassroots level they are never going to have the power to change the higher parts of the grass.

  • barnshee

    “Would that create greater openness?”

    The major problem with Democracy is that it appears to be the “|east worse” system

    It has the huge disadvantage of “democracy deficit” Politicians -at least nominally- run the show. They are comfortably remunerated (to say the least) They may contribute to/cause policies which produce gross failure. Such failure may damage the lives of tens of thousand -and the worst that can happen is that the politician gets booted out at the next election -but more like gets kicked upstairs or exits to a “consultancy” he/she has carefully nurtured.

    The sanctions for political failure are insufficient- failed politicians should be barred from public office and excluded from commercial contact with the pubic service for 10 years

    Referenda would help force politicians to face reality and spell out to their electorate the bases of promises and the consequences of their actions

  • barnshee

    “An entitlement ‘rights’ culture leads everyone to want everything, at others’ expense (usually the bottomless pit that is believed to exist in government coffers).

    This has produced the situation where the
    “government” has suffocated society via taxation

    A viscous circle of government trying to solve problems by taking more and more money from its citizens.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Ordinarily politics is all about the middle class … the votes of the lower and upper class are often set in stone, it’s usually only the middle class that fluctuates.

  • mickfealty

    I used to have big arguments with friends and colleagues over the desire and willingness of people (in general, third person plural) to ‘participate’ at social events. Nothing big or important as government you understand, just the general principle.

    My argument then, as now, was that if you (as the agent responsible for building these things) cannot see the value in building participative social structures – whether it be something as ‘trivial’ as theatre or government – then people will not participate.

    There has to be a value on both sides. People need the motive to participate and institutions need a valid reason to ask for any such innovation. My iron rule would be that if if you don’t have any such reason then you should not waste the citizen’s time asking them to ‘participate’.

    We are talking time (and therefore money) on both sides here. That alone demands we give it a lot more thought than ticking boxes.

    Unions (and I was once a member of one) remain socially important. But they are in large part non participatory too. You pay your fee either from some ideological commitment to the idea of the Union, or you pay them to keep an eye out for you against the force majeure of ‘the system’.

    They won’t keep an eye on the council for you though.