Open Policy Making for the UK Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

[Summary: thoughts on opportunities and challenges for open policy making from today's OGP CSO Brown Bag lunch]

The Civil Service Reform Plan sets out a commitment that ‘Open policy making will become the default’ way policy is made, noting that ‘Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise’. The Reform Plan states that government will ‘establish a clear model of open policy making’. However, whilst a number of principles of open policy making have been articulated (such as shared accountability; transparency; and cross-boundary teams), open policy making appears right now to be in a more experimental phase, with a range of recent initiatives using the label. In their case study looking at the creation of the National Planning Policy Framework, and a number of other instances of open policy making, the Institute for Government argue that in practice “there is no one [open policy making] model – and the choice of model will depend on the objectives to be met through greater openness”.

So, the decision to explore the use of open policy making as a framework for government and civil society collaboration around the UK’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, and co-chairmanship of the global OGP, raises as many questions as it answers. This blog post captures some of my personal reflections on possible elements of a UK OGP open policy-making process.

(For background on the Open Government Partnership, and how UK civil society have been engaging with the OGP so far, see www.opengovernment.org.uk. The quick summary: The OGP is an international initiative for governments to commit to open government actions: the UK is a founding member, and currently co-chair of the initiative. It created an Action Plan in 2011 of open government commitments, and, as part of members of the OGP, must review and revise this in collaboration with civil society in 2012 and 2013.)

Elements: Shared submissions to ministers

UK involvement in the Open Government Partnership is ultimately the responsibility of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. As part of an open policy making process, civil society and civil servants can work together on developing submissions to the Minister, developing a shared evidence base and case for what a revised National Action Plan should cover, and potential actions for the UK to take as OGP co-chair and host of the 2013 OGP plenary meeting.

This approach can be contrasted to classic policy-making consultation, in which civil servants might go out to consult on a policy, but in which the submission to a Minister, and the responses, are composed entirely by, or addressed to, the civil servants.

Elements: shared and independent spaces

To make shared submissions work, it is important for government and civil society to distinguish between issues that can and can’t be handled through this process.

The UK’s current Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (drafted entirely within Whitehall) is resolutely focussed on open data, whilst many CSOs want to see the UK focus on the full range of topics set out in the Open Government Partnership Declaration, including access to information; citizen participation; anti-corruption and integrity of public institutions. When UK civil society met a few weeks back, they outlined a number of different priority areas related to open government, including a number of concrete advocacy asks on extractive industry transparency, whistleblower protection, an extension of the right to information to cover private sector delivering public services, and emphasising participation alongside transparency as key elements of open government.

Some of the issues on the civil society agenda overlap with those government is already working on. Others are off the current government agenda. We might visualise this with a venn diagram, where the overlap of civil society and government agenda’s provides the space for open policy making, but both government and civil society continue to have issues they care about that fall outside this shared space.

In these cases, participating in an open policy making does not preclude civil society from continuing to campaign for new issues to be added to the agenda, or adopting outsider advocacy strategies to call for an issue to be added to the shared space of open policy making.

Effective open policy making needs honesty and reasonable expectations on all sides about those issues where there is enough consensus for joint submissions and evidence gathering, and a range of alternative routes through which issues that don’t make it into the shared open policy making space can still be taken forward through other routes.

Elements: joint outreach

A number of the models of open policy making that the Institute for Government highlight in their report only really open up the policy making process to a small number of individuals – often ‘experts’ from organisations already involved in policy advocacy. However, opening government should be about more than just a few extra voices – and needs to connect with citizens and civil society groups working at the grass roots across the country.

Part of an open policy making process may involved shared identification of evidence gaps, and collaboration between government and civil society organisations to develop an outreach strategy, raising awareness of open government issues, and drawing on much more diverse evidence and inputs into key documents and decision making around the OGP.

Challenges: open meetings and open networks

So far, the network of CSOs on the Open Government Partnership has been organised in the open: through a mailing list that anyone can join, and using Google Docs shared for anyone to read and edit. There is no formal membership process, or terms of reference for the group. This way of organising provides space for the network to develop organically, to draw in new participants, and to avoid putting lots of energy into structure rather than substance – but it also potentially raises some challenges for open policy making processes – as sharing information and working collaborative with an open network in theory means having a process that is open to almost anyone.

Going back to the Institute for Government’s case study of the National Policy Planning Framework, it suggests that having some boundaries, and having the ‘open policy’ group working on the framework operating effectively under-the-radar for much of their duration was important to their ability to be effective, and not to be overwhelmed by competing demands. Yet, setting boundaries and being less than transparent about the existence, membership and work of an open policy making group on open government would seem at odds with open government values.

Finding agile methods to agree minutes from meetings (perhaps live-drafting in an online document with civil society and government co-editing the notes) without getting into long drawn-out sign off processes, and having clear principles on what information should be shared when, is likely to be important to having a credible open policy making process.

Challenges: resources and regions

At the heart of the proposed open policy making processes around the OGP is the idea of a regular co-working space, initially to be hosted at the open data institute, where civil society and government can meet on a weekly basis. This is a powerful demonstration of commitment to an open process, but also risks leaving policy shaped by those with the resources to regularly spend a working day in London.

Creating opportunities for online input can help address this, but attention still needs to be paid to inclusion – finding ways to ensure that resources are available to support participation of diverse groups in the process. This is perhaps part of a more general challenge for civil society as responsibility for core elements of public governance is increasingly shifted outside of government (as in open data supporting the ‘armchair auditor’), and onto civil society. We need to explore new mechanisms to support diverse civil society action on governance, and to prevent this outward shift of governance responsibility simply empowering the well resourced.

Next steps

For the OGP open policy making process, one of the next steps is likely to involve working out which issues can be addressed as part of the shared space between government and civil society. Keep an eye on the www.opengovernment.org.uk blog for news of upcoming workshops and meetings that will hopefully be exploring just that.

3 thoughts on “Open Policy Making for the UK Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

  1. Dinesh Venkateswaran

    Great thoughts. First reaction – need to develop a Minimum Viable Proposition for the open policy making process, including process development, technology applications, infrastructure, information requirements.

  2. Pingback: Friday afternoon reading: November 2, 2012 | The Democratic Society

  3. Pingback: Brief notes on the the OGP, open government and participation : Tim's Blog

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