Monthly Archives: October 2016

Open Government – Gouvernement Ouvert: Same same but different

[Summary: preliminary notes for a roundtable discussion on open government research]

I’m talking tomorrow at a workshop in Paris to explore the research agenda on Open Government. The first panel, under the title “Open Government – Gouvernement Ouvert: Same same but different?” aims to dig into the question of whether open government takes different forms in different countries and contexts.

To what extent is open government about countries moving towards some set of universal principles and practices for modern accountable and participatory governance? And to what extent is it about diverse culturally specific reforms to existing national systems of governance? We’ll be getting into these questions by looking at the open government situation in a number of different (European) countries, followed by a roundtable discussion.

The organisers have set three questions to get discussions going. I’ve jotted down the thoughts below by way of my preparation (and sharing here in the spirit of blogging things before I try and edit them too much, which means they never make it out).

Question 1: What has been done lately in the UK that could qualify as open government?

(1) Brexit and open government

It’s hard to answer this question without first considering the recent EU Referendum, and subsequent political fall-out of the Brexit vote. How does this fit into the open government landscape?

In general, democratic process, elections and referenda have fallen outside the scope of an open government agenda. These votes might be the means by which we choose the legislative branch of government, and through which mass civic input is solicited, but when it comes to open government discourse, focus has been placed firmly on the executive and administrative branch. Whether this is sustainable in future is an open question (indeed, the OGP is moving towards a greater engagement with legislatures and legislative process).

An analysis of the EU Referendum, even though it engaged more voters than the last general election in directly addressing a substantive policy issue , would find it to be far from a model of open government. The abuse of statistics by all sides during the campaign, and the lack of attention given to substantive debate, represent failures of both political integrity from campaigners, and a failure of effective scrutiny from the media.

The subsequent position of the new administration, interpreting the referendum vote without any process of dialogue with the parliament, let along the wider public, demonstrates a retreat from ideas of open government, rather than an engagement with them. Rather than addressing social divisions through dialogue, government appears to be pursuing policies that deepen them.

At the same time it is worth noting how success and failures of open government may have contributed to the referendum result. The Open Government declaration talks of harnessing new “technologies to make more information public in ways that enable people to both understand what their governments do and to influence decisions.”. When it comes to British citizens understanding the EU, it is clear that much of the information that was available was not making it through, and few felt about to influence decisions at this supranational level. However, it is also clear that where data was available, on budgets, spending, regulation and more – that information alone was not enough to lead to better informed citizens, and that simply adding data does not make for more informed debate, or more open governance.

This raises some big questions for open governance advocacy in the UK: whether future action should engage with bigger political questions of rights, representation, media ethics and political integrity? Or whether these issues are part of a separate set of agendas to revisit, rethink and revitalise our democratic systems: whilst open government should remain focussed on administrative reforms for a more efficient, effective and responsive state?

(To explore answers to these questions I would argue there is much UK open government advocates can gain from approaching the Open Government Partnership as a space to learn from countries where the rights, freedoms and values we have often taken for granted are only recently won, or are still being fought for.)

(2) From open data to data instructures

When we look at the explicit open government commitments of the UK in most recent OGP National Action Plan, it is clear that the focus is firmly on the administrative side of open government. And very much on data and technology.

Of the 13 commitments, 8 are explicitly about data – representing the strong bias towards open data that has been present throughout the UK’s engagement in the Open Government Partnership. Because the most recent National Action Plan was published at the UK Anti-Corruption Summit in May, there is also a strong emphasis on data for anti-corruption. Asides from a process commitment to ongoing dialogue with civil society in developing the action plan itself, and a focussed set of engagement plans around how private sector and civil society actors should be involved in shaping the data that government publishes, there is little in the latest NAP on participation.

What is interesting to note however, is the move away from general commitments on open data, to a much more explicit focus on specific datasets, and the idea of building data infrastructures. The commitments cover publishing data on beneficial ownership for companies bidding on UK government contracts or owning property in the UK, gathering more structured extractives industry reporting, adopting the open contracting data standard for procurement data, publishing government grants data using the 360 Giving standard, and working towards standardised elections data. I’ll return shortly to the global nature of these commitments, and the infrastructure being constructed.

Effectively implemented, disclosure of this data will qualify as open governent on the ‘output side’. However, the challenge remains to articulate in future versions of the National Action Plan the ‘input’ side for these initiatives. For example, we are, as yet, to articulate in the NAP the feedback loops through which, for example, a commitment to Open Contracting can be made not just about publishing data on contracts, but also about creating more opportunities and mechanisms for citizen engagement and oversight of contracting.

(3) Process and product

In a somewhat meta-step, the OGP National Action Plan itself is also often considered to be an interesting act of open government. Since the second NAP, there has been close engagement between officials and a civil society network to shape the plan. The plan itself was published with joint forewords from the Minister for Cabinet Office, and the Civil Society Network. This kind of ‘open policy making’ process has been explored as a template for a number of other policy areas also, although with less concrete joint outputs.

Increasingly I’m reflecting on whether to date this process has found the right balance between government and civil society collaboration on core reforms, and the risk of civil society being co-opted: securing formal practices of transparency, but doing little to translate that into accountability.

When asked ‘What has been done lately in the UK that could qualify as open government?’, I would like to be able to answer with stories of civil society actions that use transparency to call government more to account – yet I’m struggling to identify such stories to share.

Question 2: What are the main open government issues in the UK and what are their political impacts?

There are three main trends I want to focus on in addressing this second question: privatisation and private sector accountability, anti-corruption and devolution.

Privatisation and private sector accountability

Firstly, privatisation. More and more we are seeing public services contracted out to the private sector. Instead of lines of management accountability from elected officials, through administrators, to front-line staff, the relationship between governments and fron-line services has become a contractual one. This changes structures of accountability and governance. If a service is not being delivered adequately, the levers which government can pull to fix it may be constrained by the terms of a contract. That makes opening up contracts a particularly important area of open government right now.

On a related note, it is worth noting that many reforms, such as open contracting, extractives industry transparency, beneficial ownership transparency, and the emerging area of tax transparency, are not solely about holding governments to account for the use of public funds, but also extend to scrutinising the actions of the private sector, and trying to rebalance power between citizens, state and private sector.

Anti-corruption

Secondly, as noted above, under Prime Minister Cameron, the UK Government placed a strong emphasis on the anti-corruption agenda, and on open government as a key mechanism in the fight against corruption. Whether the political will to prioritise this will continue under the new administration remains to be seen. However, a number of components of an anti-corruption data infrastructure are being put in place – albeit with major gaps when it comes to lobbying transparency, or structured data on interest and asset declarations.

Devolution

Thirdly, devolution. Although it might not be evident from the current UK OGP National Action Plan, many areas of the open government agenda are devolved responsibilities. By the end of the year we hope to see separate commitments in the NAP from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is one of the sub-national OGP pilot regions. And as more UK cities and regions get elected mayors, there is scope to build on the sub-national OGP model in future. However, with the regions of the UK controlled by different political parties, this raises interesting challenges for the open government agenda: whether it will lead to a politicisation of the agenda, or a further focus on depoliticised technical reforms is yet to be seen.

Question 3: Is there a specific UK perspective on open government?

Reading both forewords to the latest UK OGP National Action Plan, it appears to me that within the UK there are multiple perspectives on open government. Whilst the then Minister for Cabinet Office placed the empahsis on using “data to make decisions, and where a free society, free markets and the free flow of information all combine to drive our success in the 21st century”, the Civil Society forword talks of open government as a “building block for a more democratic, equal and sustainable society.”

However, when looked at alongside other OGP member nations, we can make a number of observations about UK angles on open government:

  1. The UK appears to be part of a cluster of technical advanced countries, who are making strong links between agendas for open government and agendas for technical reform inside the state.

  2. Civil Society advocacy on open government in the UK has been strongly influenced by international NGOs based in London/the UK, with a dual focus on the domestic reform, and the role of the UK as a key actor in global initiatives, such as IATI and the EITI. The government has also placed strong emphasis on international initiatives, such as beneficial ownership transparency and open contracting.

  3. This emphasis on international initiatives, and the recent link between the OGP National Action Plan and the May anti-corruption summit, has led to a particular focus on data standards and interoperability. This highlights the global component of open government: building data infrastructures that can be used to secure accountability in an era of highly mobile global finance, and in which sovereign states cannot fight corruption within their borders alone.

How this compares to the emphasis of initiatives in France, and the other countries to be considered on tomorrow panel is something I’m looking forward to exploring.