A key step in a countries participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) involves establishing ongoing public consultation between government, citizens, civil society organisations and the private sector on the development and implementation of OGP action plans. Given the UK is currently co-chair of OGP, and will be hosting the next OGP plenary meeting in London in March next year, establishing an effective, credible and dynamic forum for ongoing multi-stakeholder participation in OGP should be a top priority.
Members of the informal network of UK-based Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) engaging with the OGP process have been thinking about what such a forum could look like, and in this post I want to offer one possible take, based on my experience of taking part in a range of open space and unConference events over recent years.
Proposal: At the heart of the UK OGP forum should be a series of regular open space events, taking place across the UK, with a focus on getting out of London. Events should be open to anyone to take part – from active citizens and community groups, to social entrepreneurs, private sector firms, national and local government representatives and local and international CSOs.
Simple principles of inclusion should be established to ensure the events provide a welcoming environment for all, including for children and young people, and older people .
What is an open space or unConference?
Open space events are created by their participants. Rather than having a set agenda, the discussion agenda for an open space event is set on the day by participants announcing sessions and discussions they would like to take part in. Participants then self-select to take part in the sessions they have the most interest in. Simple principles encourage participants, wherever they come from, to take shared ownership of the discussions and the outcomes of the day. Open space events and unConferences can have a focussed theme to guide the focus of the specific sessions that take place.
I first encountered open space on a large scale in the UKGovCamp unconferences, which, as it turns out, are in many ways a paradigmatic example of key aspects of digital open government in action. At the annual UKGovCamp events (and their spin off LocalGovCamp events around the UK), civil servants, citizens, CSOs, social innovators, business people, and event a few politicians, spend a day in practical conversation about how to make government work better – sharing knowledge, developing plans and deepening shared commitment to shared problems.
See the Wikipedia article on Open-space technology for more on open space, and links to examples of open space events in action.
Why should open space events be part of the UK OGP forum?
Open Government is about more than a few action plan commitments to better ICT systems or increasing access to data. It involves active rethinking the relationship between citizen and state both as democracy continues to evolve, and as technologies, globalisation and other social forces reconfigure the capabilities of both citizens and governments. Open Government needs mass participation – and open space events are one way to develop action-focussed dialogues that support large-scale participation.
- A UK OGP Forum needs to be not only about feeding demands up to government, but also about disseminating OGP ideas and commitments across the whole of the public sector. For many people, it is open local government which will have most impact on their lives, and taking the OGP conversation on the road to events that can include all tiers of government provides an opportunity to join up open government practice across government.
- Open space events are also very cost-effective. You need a room, some refreshments, some flip-chart paper – and, well, that’s about it.
- Open space events are powerful network building opportunities – helping develop both civil society open government networks, and build new connections between civil society and government (and even across different parts of government)
- With social media and a few social reporters, open space events can also become largely self-documenting, and with good facilitation it is possible to include remote participation, using the Internet to make sure anyone with a contribution to make to a topic under discussion can input into the dialogue.
- Most of all, open space events embody principles of openness, collaboration and innovation – and so are an ideal vehicle for developing a dynamic UK OGP forum.
How could it work in practice?
Well, there’s nothing to stop anyone organising their own Open Government unConference, inviting civil servants and a whole range of other stakeholders, recording the key outcomes of the discussions, and then sending that all to the Cabinet Office team working on the UK’s OGP participation. However, to make open space a core part of the UK OGP process a number of elements may be worth considering. Here’s one sketch of how that could work:
- In partnership with the OGP team in government, planning a series of quarterly OGP open space events, which central civil servants commit to take part in. These would take place in each of the nations of the United Kingdom, and should have as their core theme the commitments of the UK Action Plan. Events should issue and open invite, and should be designed to ensure maximum diversity of participants from across all sectors.
- In addition, government, CSOs and other stakeholders should agree to providing sponsorship for thematic OGP open space meetings. Anyone could organise a thematic meeting, providing they apply key principles of inclusiveness, open participation and transparency in the organisation of the events.
- The OpenGovernment.org.uk site becomes a platform to collate notes from all the discussion sessions, drawing on social media content and notes captured by facilitators and rapporteurs at the events.
- Each individual open space discussion within the events does not have to reach a consensus on its topic, but would have the option of producing a 1/2 page summary of discussions that can be shared online. Government commit to reading all these notes when reviewing the action plan.
- Existing open space events (e.g. UKGovCamp) could choose to add an OGP track of discussions, feeding in as any thematic event would.
What about formal representation and accountability? How do decisions get made?
Some of the other ideas for a UK OGP Forum are far more focussed on formal structures and procedures. I don’t reject the value of formal structures where questions of accountability and representation are in play. However, unless actual authority to decide what does into country action plans is shared with an OGP forum, then as a consultative body, a more open model would seem more appropriate.
Established CSOs have existing channels through which they are talking with government. A forum should help them co-ordinate their asks and offers on open government issues through existing channels, rather than add another narrow channel of communication.
Open processes are not immune from their problems: they can suffer from those who shout loudest being those who are heard most, or from those in power being able to pick and choose which voices they engage with. However, finding ways to deal with these issues in the open is an important challenge and learning journey for us to go on if we truly want to find inclusive models of open governance and open government that work…
A realistic proposal?
I’ve written this outline sketch up as a contribution to the debate on what an OGP forum should look like. Government tendencies to control processes, and manage engagement in neat boxes can be strong. But to an extent open government has to be about challenging that – and as a process that will involve a shared learning journey for both government, civil society and citizens, I hope this does make for a realistic proposal…