New paper: Connecting people, sharing knowledge, increasing transparency

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 19.16.53

[Summary: Linking to a short conference paper exploring the impact of the web on land governance]

After a few contributions I made to their online dialogue, the lovely folk at The Land Portal invited me to help them writing up the dialogue and putting together a paper for the upcoming World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. They’ve just published the result over here (also accessible via this direct PDF link).

The paper itself was a rather rapid creation between the end of the online dialogue and the end of February deadline, but aims to weave together a number of strands important to thinking about how digital technology is changing the landscape for advocacy and work on land governance. It has a particular focus on women’s land rights, which, in the Land Portal’s online dialogue, stimulated lots of interesting discussions about the potentially gendered nature of digital technologies. In it we survey how the Web has evolved from Web 1 (documents), to Web 2 (communities) and onwards towards a possible Web 3 of open and linked open data.

The Land Portal team, since getting involved in last years Open Knowledge Festival, have been really exploring what open data and open development might mean for them – and the Portal is definitely a space to watch to see how ideas of open development might be put into practice in the very grounded and wide-reaching field of land governance.

Joining the Web Foundation, and projects old and new

[Summary: an update on some of the hats I might be wearing]

ODDC_hi-res

After working for the last eight or so months putting the project together, I’ve now formally joined the World Wide Web Foundation as research coordinator on the ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC)’ programme.

It’s a two-year multi-country research project, exploring how open data is working in different settings across the world, funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre. You can read more about the project over on the Web Foundation website and follow the project as it develops over at www.opendataresearch.org.

With this, I’ve switched my PhD work to part-time, but will continue to work with AidInfo on work related to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and working through Practical Participation on assorted innovation and advocacy projects.

 

Generation Y? Bridging the participation gap in an online world

20130204_104332

Back in July 2011 I spoke at a conference on ‘Generation-Y’ and public services hosted by Institut de la Gestion Publique (Institute for Public Management) in Paris. I was asked to write up the talk as an article for a print publication. So, I wrote up an extended version of this blog post, and fired it off, with a creative commons license on. A few months later I found myself having to print and sign paper contracts to convince the publishers that yes, they really could print the article. To make them happier I agreed I wouldn’t publish a copy of the article till it was out in their book. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

So I was surprised to get back from the OKF Winter Summit yesterday to find a parcel from France containing a copy of the book, French translation of the article included. 18 months after the conference, a print document void of links or graphics, with no mention of the creative commons license on the article. It looks like Institut de la Gestion Publique still have a very long way to go before they are really taking seriously the expectations gaps that my article talked about.

Ah well. Here’s a copy of the full article in English anyway (PDF). Unfortunately I’ve not been given a digital copy of the version in French, but happy to scan it in if anyone would like it.

20130204_104324

 

Open Data for Poverty Alleviation: Striking Poverty Discussion

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 08.43.29

[Summary: join an open discussion on the potential impacts of open data on poverty reduction]

Over the next two weeks, along with Tariq Kochar, Nitya V. Raman and Nathan Eagle, I’m taking part in an online panel hosted by the World Bank’s Striking Poverty platform to discuss the potential impacts of open data on poverty alleviation.

So far we’ve been asked to provide some starting statements on how we see open data and poverty might relate, and now there’s an open discussion where visitors to the site are invited to share their questions and reflections on the topic.

Here’s what I have down as my opening remarks:

Development is complex. No individual or group can process all the information needed to make sense of aid flows, trade patterns, government budgets, community resources and environmental factors (amongst other things) that affect development in a locality. That’s where data comes in: open datasets can be connected, combined and analysed to support debate, decision making and governance.

Projects like the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) have sought to create the technical standards and political commitments for effective data sharing. IATI is putting together one corner of the poverty reduction jigsaw, with detailed and timely forward-looking information on aid. IATI open data can be used by governments to forecast spending, and by citizens to hold donors to account. This is the promise of open data: publish once, use many times and for many purposes.

But data does not use itself. Nor does it transcend political and practical realities. As the papers in a recent Journal of Community Informatics special issue highlight show, open data brings both promise and perils. Mobilising open data for social change requires focus and effort.

We’re only at the start of understanding open data impacts. In the upcoming Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC), the Web Foundation and partners will be looking at how open data affects governance in different countries and contexts across the world. Rather than look at open data in the abstract, the project will explore cases such as open data for budget monitoring in Brazil, or open data for poverty reduction in Uganda. This way it will build up a picture of the strategies that can be used to make a difference with data; it will analyse the role that technologies and intermediaries play in mobilising data; and it will also explore unintended consequences of open data.

I hope in this discussion we can similarly focus on particular places where open data has potential, and on the considerations needed to ensure the supply and use of open data has the best chance possible of improving lives worldwide.

What do you think? You can join the discussion for the next two weeks over on the Striking Poverty site…

Linked-Development: notes from Research to Impact at the iHub

[Summary: notes from a hackathon in Nairobi built around linked open data]

Research to Impact HackI’ve just got back from an energising week exploring open data and impact in Kenya, working with R4D and IDS at Nairobi’s iHub to run a three-day hackathon titled ‘Research to Impact’. You can read Pete Cranston’s blog posts on the event here (update: and iHub’s here). In this post, after a quick pre-amble, I reflect particularly on working with linked data as part of the event.

The idea behind the event was fairly simple: lots of researchers are producing reports and publications related to international development, and these are logged in catalogues like R4D and ELDIS, but often it stops there, and research doesn’t make it into the hands of those who can use it to bring about economic and social change. By opening up the data held on these resources, and then working with subject experts and developers, we were interested to see whether new ideas would emerge for taking research to where it is needed.

The Research to Impact hack focused in on ‘agriculture and nutrition’ research so that we could spend the first day working with a set of subject experts to identify the challenges research could help meet, and to map out the different actors who might be served by new digital tools. We were hosted for the whole event at the inspiring iHub and mLab venue by iHub Research. iHub provides a space for the growing Kenya tech community, acting as a meeting space, incubator and workspace for developers and designers. With over 10,000 members of it’s network, iHub also helped us to recruit around 20 developers who worked over the second two days of the hackathon to build prototype applications responding to the challenges identified on day one, and to the data available from R4D and IDS.

A big focus of the hackathon development turned out to be on mobile applications: as in Kenya mobile phones are the primary digital tool for accessing information. On day four, our developers met again with the subject experts, and pitched their creations to a judging panel, who awarded first, second and third prizes. Many of the apps created had zeroed in on a number of key issues: working through intermediaries (in this case, the agricultural extension worker), rather than trying to use tech to entirely disinter-mediate information flows; embedding research information into useful tools, rather than providing it through standalone portals (for example, a number of teams build apps which allowed extension workers to keep track of the farmers they were interacting with, and that could then use this information to suggest relevant research); and, most challengingly, the need for research abstracts and descriptions to be translated into easy-to-understand language that can fit into SMS-size packages. Over the coming weeks IDS and R4D are going to be exploring ways to work with some of the hackathon teams to take their ideas further.

Linked-development: exploring the potential of linked data

Linked Data StructureThe event also provided us with an opportunity to take forward explorations of how linked data might be a useful technology in supporting research knowledge sharing. I recently wrote a paper with Duncan Edwards of IDS exploring the potential of linked data for development communication, and I’ve been exploring linked data in development for a while. However, this time we were running a hackathon directly from a linked data source, which was a new experience.

Ahead of the event I set up linked-development.org as a way to integrate R4D data (already available in RDF), and ELDIS data (which I wrote a quick scraper for), both modelled using the FAO’s AGRIS model. In order to avoid having to teach SPARQL for access to the data, I also (after quite a steep learning curve) put together a very basic Puelia Linked Data API implementation over the top of the data. To allow for a common set of subject terms between the R4D and ELDIS data, I made use of the Maui NLP indexer to tag ELDIS agriculture and nutrition documents against the FAO’s Agrovoc (R4D already had editor assigned terms against this vocabulary), giving us a means of accessing the documents from the two datasets alongside each other.

The potential value of this approach become clear on the first day of the event, when one of the subject experts showed us their own repository of Kenyan-focussed agricultural research publications and resources, which was already modelled and theoretically accessible as RDF using the Agris model. Although our attempts to integrate this into our available dataset failed due to the Drupal site serving the data hitting memory limits (linked data still remains something that tends to need a lot of server power thrown at it, and that can have significant impacts where the relative cost of hosting and tech capacity is high), the potential to bring more local content into linked-development.org alongside data from R4D and ELDIS was noted by many of the developers taking part as something which would be likely to make their applications a lot more successful and useful: ensuring that the available information is built around users needs, not around organisational or project boundaries.

At the start of the developer days, we offered a range of ways for developers to access the research meta-data on offer. We highlighted the linked data API, the ELDIS API (although it only provided access to one of the datasets, I found it would be possible for us to create an compatible API speaking to the linked data in future), and SPARQL as means to work with the data. Feedback forms from the event suggest that formats like JSON were new to many of our participants, and linked data was a new concept to all. However, in the end, most teams chose to use some of the prepared SPARQL queries to access the data, returning results as JSON into PHP or Python. In practice, over the two days this did not end up realising the full value of linked data, as teams generally appeared to use code samples to pull SPARQL ‘SELECT’ result sets into relational databases, and then to build their applications from there (a common issue I’ve noted at hack days, where the first step of developers is to take data into the platform they use most). However, a number of teams were starting to think about both how they could use more advanced queries or direct access to the linked data through code libraries in future, and most strikingly, were talking about how they might be able to write data back to the linked-development.org data store.

This struck me as particularly interesting. A lot of the problems teams faced in creating their application was that the research meta-data available was not customised to agricultural extension workers or farmers. Abstracts would need to be re-written and translated. Good quality information needed to be tagged. New classifications of the resources were needed, such as tagging research that is useful in the planting season. Social features on mobile apps could help discover who likes what and could be used to rate research. However, without a means to write back to the shared data store, all this added value will only ever exist in the local and fragmented ecosystems around particular applications. Getting feedback to researchers about whether their research was useful was also high on the priority list of our developers: yet without somewhere to put this feedback, and a commitment from upstream intermediaries like R4D and ELDIS to play a role feeding back to authors, this would be very difficult to do effectively.

This links to one of the points that came out in our early IKM Emergent work on linked data, noting that the relatively high costs and complexity of the technology, and the way in which servers and services are constructed, may lead to an information environment dominated by those with the capacity to publish; but that it has the potential, with the right platforms, configurations and outreach, to bring about a more pluralistic space, where the annotations from local users of information can be linked with, and equally accessible as, the research meta-data coming from government funded projects. I wish we had thought about this more in advance of the hackathon, and provided each team with a way to write data back to the linked-development.org triple store (e.g. giving them named graphs to write to; and providing some simple code samples or APIs), as I suspect this would have opened up a whole new range of spaces for innovation.

Overall though, the linked-development.org prototype appears to have done some useful work, not least providing a layer to connect two DFID funded projects working on mobilising research. I hope it is something we can build upon in future.

Final papers in JCI Special Issue on Open Data

Earlier this year I blogged about the first release of papers on Open Data in a Special Issue of the Journal of Community Informatics that I had been co-editing with Zainab Bawa. A few days ago we added the last few papers to the issue, finalising it as a collection of critical thinking about the development of Open Government Data.

You can find the full table of contents below (new papers noted with (New)).

Table of Contents

Editorial

The Promises and Perils of Open Government Data (OGD), Tim G. Davies, Zainab Ashraf Bawa

Two Worlds of Open Government Data: Getting the Lowdown on Public Toilets in Chennai and Other Matters, Michael Gurstein

Articles

The Rhetoric of Transparency and its Reality: Transparent Territories, Opaque Power and Empowerment, Bhuvaneswari Raman

“This is what modern deregulation looks like” : co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative, Jo Bates

Data Template For District Economic Planning, Sharadini Rath

Guidelines for Designing Deliberative Digital Habitats: Learning from e-Participation for Open Data Initiatives, Fiorella De Cindio

(New) Unintended Behavioural Consequences of Publishing Performance Data: Is More Always Better?, Simon McGinnes, Kasturi Muthu Elandy

(New) Open Government Data and the Right to Information: Opportunities and Obstacles, Katleen Janssen

Notes from the field

Mapping the Tso Kar basin in Ladakh, Shashank Srinivasan

Collecting data in Chennai City and the limits of openness, Nithya V Raman

Apps For Amsterdam, Tom Demeyer

Open Data – what the citizens really want, Wolfgang Both

(New) Trustworthy Records and Open Data, Anne Catherine Thurston

(New) Exploring the politics of Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) in the context of contemporary South Africa; how are open policies implemented in practice?, Asne Kvale Handlykken

Points of View

Some Observations on the Practice of “Open Data” As Opposed to Its Promise, Roland J. Cole

How might open data contribute to good governance?

[Summary: sharing an introductory article on open data and governance]

Thanks to an invite via the the great folk at CYEC, earlier this year I was asked to write a contribution for the Commonwealth Governance Handbook around emerging technology trends, so I put down a few thoughts on how open data might contribute to good governance in a Commonwealth context. The book isn’t quite out yet, but as I’m preparing for the next few days I’ll be spending at an IDRC Information and Networks workshop with lots of open access advocates, talking about open data and governance, I thought I should at least get a pre-print uploaded. So here is the PDF for download.

The article starts:

Access to information is increasingly recognised as a fundamental component of good governance. Citizens need access to information on the decision-making processes of government, and on the performance of the state to be able to hold governments to account.

And ends by saying:

Whether open data initiatives will fully live up to high expectations many have for them remains to be seen. However, it is likely that open data will come to play a part in the governance landscape across many Commonwealth countries in coming years, and indeed, could provide a much needed tool to increase the transparency of Commonwealth institutions. Good governance, pro-social and civic outcomes of open data are not inevitable, but with critical attention they can be realised?.

The bit in-between tries to provide a short introduction to open data for beginners, and to consider some of the ways open data and governance meet, drawing particular on examples from the Commonwealth.

Comments and feedback welcome.

Download paper: PDF (128Kb)

Brief notes on the the OGP, open government and participation

[Summary: Notes from the UK Open Government Partnership (OGP) Open Policymaking process]

In today’s UK OGP working lunch the focus was on “Participation, policy making and service delivery”. Staff working on Open Policy Making and Community Organising at Cabinet Office joined the OGP team, and participants from civil society to explore possible areas of focus for the revised UK National Action Plan. This blog post contains my personal reflections on core areas that could form that focus.

When civil society met to discuss a shared vision for Open Government back in October, we said that “Open government is a two-way dialogue. It builds on transparency and responsiveness. With increased access to government information and open data, civil society organisations, media, informal networks and individual citizens all have new and expanded roles to play in holding government to account and being part of policy dialogues. This requires resources and capacity building, both in the UK and internationally”. Today’s meeting broke that down into four areas with potential for shared action:

(1) Participation and data: supporting use and feedback loops
Open data only supports transparency, accountability, innovation and growth when it is used. A national action plan needs to include commitments that take account of this. For example, building on:

  • Open data capacity building with civil society. Groups like LVSCare already exploring ways to build skills and capacity in the voluntary and community centre to both use government data, and to generate and share their own data. Government and civil society should work together to learn about building the skills for data-use, and to share good practices and effective models for capacity building.
  • The five stars of open data engagement. There are many small steps government can take when publishing data to increase the change that it can be used, and to help close the feedback loops – increasing the chance that data will enable effective participation. The five stars of open data engagement were developed through a civil society and government collaboration earlier this year, and provide a template for taking those steps.

(2) Participation beyond open data
Many of the things we talk about when we discuss open government and participation have absolutely nothing to do with open data. We must not loose site of these aspects of open government, and should not neglect both learning from past experience in the UK, and the interesting experiments and innovative projects currently going on. A revised action plan could make more of:

  • Open Policy Making: sharing the experiments and learning current going on with opening up the policy making process, and using OGP as a forum for civil society and government to act as a critical friends to one another in drawing out good practice for future open policy making.
  • Digital engagement: building on social media guidance to civil servants, and work going on in government in digital engagement to make concrete commitments to ways citizens will be able to engage with government in future. Small wins, like making every government consultation easy to respond to online, and bigger challenges, like improving the flow of information from local areas up to central government through digital tools, could all be on the agenda.
  • Culture and skills: participation is not just about process – it also involves government officials gaining new skills, and involves culture change in government. We should explore Action Plan commitments to build civil service participation skills.
  • Taking it local: recognising that many issues are dealt with at the local level, and participation needs local government to be open too. Discussions today highlighted the need not to forget councillors and community organisers when thinking about open government and participation.

(3) Civil society and citizen participation in the UK’s OGP process
The open policy making process that is taking place for the UK’s National Action Plan is a really positive step in meeting the OGP participation requirement that state parties “commit to developing their country action plans through a multi-stakeholder process, with the active engagement of citizens and civil society”. However, there are opportunities for government and civil society to commit to going further in outreach to community groups, citizens and other key stakeholders. This also presents great opportunities to experiment with new approaches to engagement and outreach, and to feed learning back into wider government commitments on digital engagement and open policy making.

(4) Celebrating participation practice at the 2013 plenary
When it comes to international knowledge sharing, it appears the central government focus is firmly on sharing the UK’s experience pioneering open data. However, at the 2013 summit that is due to take place in London participation should also be firmly on the agenda, to allow the UK and other countries equal space to discuss, share learning and explore both participation + open data, and participation beyond open data.

 

You can find out more about ways to get involved in the UK Civil Society Network on the Open Government Partnership on the OpenGovernment.org.uk website.

Opening the National Pupil Database?

[Summary: some preparatory notes for a response to the National Pupil Database consultation]

The Department for Education are currently consulting on changing the regulations that govern who can gain access to the National Pupil Database (NPD). The NPD holds detailed data on every student in England, going back over ten years, and covering topics from test and exam results, to information on gender, ethnicity, first language, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs, and detailed information on absences or school exclusion. At present, only a specified list of government bodies are able to access the data, with the exception that it can be shared with suitably approved “persons conducting research into the educational achievements of pupils”. The DFE consultation proposed opening up access to a far wider range of users, in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset.

The idea that government should maximise the value of the data it holds has been well articulated in the open data policies and white paper that suggests open data can be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”. However, the open data movement has always been pretty unequivocal on the claim that ‘personal data’ is not ‘open data’ – yet the DFE proposals seek to apply an open data logic to what is fundamentally a personal, private and sensitive dataset.

The DFE is not, in practice, proposing that the NPD is turned into an open dataset, but it is consulting on the idea that it should be available not only for a wider range of research purposes, but also to “stimulate the market for a broader range of services underpinned by the data, not necessarily related to educational achievement”. Users of the data would still go through an application process, with requests for the most sensitive data subject to additional review, and users agreeing to hold the data securely: but, the data, including easily de-anonymised individual level records, would still be given out to a far wider range of actors, with increased potential for data leakage and abuse.

Consultation and consent

I left school in 2001 and further education in 2003, so as far as I can tell, little of my data is captured by the NPD – but, if it was, it would have been captured based not on my consent to it being handled, but simple on the basis that it was collected as an essential part of running the school system. The consultation documents state that  “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices”, yet, it would be hard to argue this would constitute informed consent for the data to now be shared with commercial parties for uses far beyond the delivery of education services.

In the case of the NPD, it would appear particularly important to consult with children and young people on their views of the changes – as it is, after all, their personal data held in the NPD. However the DFE website shows no evidence of particular efforts being taken to make the consultation accessible to under 18s. I suspect a carefully conducted consultation with diverse groups of children and young people would be very instructive to guide decision making in the DFE.

The strongest argument for reforming the current regulations in the consultation document is that, in the past, the DFE has had to turn down requests to use the data for research which appears to be in the interests of children and young people’s wellbeing. For example, “research looking at the lifestyle/health of children; sexual exploitation of children; the impact of school travel on the environment; and mortality rates for children with SEN”. It might well be that, consulted on whether the would be happy for their data to be used in such research, many children, young people and parents would be happy to permit a wider wording of the research permissions for the NPD, but I would be surprised if most would happily consent to just about anyone being able to request access to their sensitive data. We should also note that, whilst some of the research DFE has turned down sound compelling, this does not necessarily mean this research could not happen in any other way: nor that it could not be conducted by securing explicit opt-in consent. Data protection principles that require data to only be used for the purpose it was collected cannot just be thrown away because they are inconvenient, and even if consultation does highlight people may be willing for some wider sharing of their personal data for good, it is not clear this can be applied retroactively to data already collected.

Personal data, state data, open data

The NPD consultation raises an important issue about the data that the state has a right to share, and the data it holds in trust. Aggregate, non-disclosive information about the performance of public services is data the state has a clear right to share and is within the scope of open data. Detailed data on individuals that it may need to collect for the purpose of administration, and generating that aggregate data, is data held in trust – not data to be openly shared.

However, there are many ways to aggregate or process a dataset – and many different non-personally identifying products that could be built from a dataset, Many of these government will never have the need to create – yet they could bring social and economic value. So perhaps there are spaces to balance the potential value in personally sensitive datasets with the the necessary primacy of data protection principles.

Practice accommodations: creating open data products

In his article for the Open Data Special Issue of the Journal of Community Informatics I edited earlier this year, Rollie Cole talks about ‘practice accommodations’ between open and closed data. Getting these accommodations right for datasets like the NPD will require careful thought and could benefit from innovation in data governance structures. In early announcements of the Public Data Corporation (now the Public Data Group and Open Data User Group), there was a description of how the PDC could “facilitate or create a vehicle that can attract private investment as needed to support its operations and to create value for the taxpayer”. At the time I read this as exploring the possibility that a PDC could help private actors with an interest in public data products that were beyond the public task of the state, but were best gathered or created through state structures, to pool resources to create or release this data. I’m not sure that’s how the authors of the point intended it, but the idea potentially has some value around the NPD. For example, if there is a demand for better “demographic models [that can be] used by the public and commercial sectors to inform planning and investment decisions” derived from the NPD, are there ways in which new structures, perhaps state-linked co-operatives, or trusted bodies like the Open Data Institute, can pool investment to create these products, and to release them as open data? This would ensure access to sensitive personal data remained tightly controlled, but would enable more of the potential value in a dataset like NPD to be made available through more diverse open aggregated non-personal data products.

Such structures would still need good governance, including open peer-review of any anonymisation taking place, to ensure it was robust.

The counter argument to such an accommodation might be that it would still stifle innovation, by leaving some barriers to data access in place. However, the alternative, of DFE staff assessing each application for access to the NPD, and having to make a decision on whether a commercial re-use of the data is justified, and the requestor has adequate safeguards in place to manage the data effectively, also involves barriers to access – and involves more risk – so the counter argument may not take us that far.

I’m not suggesting this model would necessarily work – but introduce it to highlight that there are ways to increase the value gained from data without just handing it out in ways that inevitably increase the chance it will be leaked or mis-used.

A test case?

The NPD consultation presents a critical test case for advocates of opening government data. It requires us to articulate more clearly the different kinds of data the state holds, to be be much more nuanced about the different regimes of access that are appropriate for different kinds of data, and to consider the relative importance of values like privacy over ideas of exploiting value in datasets.

I can only hope DFE listen to the consultation responses they get, and give their proposals a serious rethink.

 

Further reading and action: Privacy International and Open Rights Group are both preparing group consultation inputs, and welcome input from anyone with views of expert insights to offer.

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.