Points of View 31st January 2013

Leading the race to the top | Sophia Oliver, Cabinet Office

by Sophia_Oliver

At the end of October I asked civil society to join me in a shared endeavour – to create the next UK National Action Plan for the OGP. We’re now three months in – our weekly sessions on Thursdays at the Open Data Institute are well established, we’ve got a rough narrative for the plan sketched out, working groups are sitting down in different parts of Whitehall and beyond to thrash out detailed policy proposals to put to ministers, and we’ve set up the online portal so that anyone with an interest can contribute their views and expertise.

I’m delighted with where we’ve got to – and also a bit nervous about how much we’ve got to do next.

I’ve absolutely loved working with a group of people from across Whitehall and civil society that bring such expertise and insight to this policy agenda, and I know that the plan we’ve outlined together is much more ambitious and informed as a result. I’ve also seen Whitehall officials and civil society representatives making the culture shift that’s been needed for this pioneering project to work – which means that officials have erred on the side of being too open rather than too secretive, and that CSOs have toned down the advocacy and shifted into policy advice.

It is a little scary to look ahead – although if it wasn’t I’d worry we weren’t being ambitious enough so the balance is probably right. We do need to make sure we get the following few things sorted out though.

Firstly, we need to get policy proposals sent up to the relevant ministers for approval before April. I don’t want to undermine the open methods of working we’ve employed so far by appearing to close down as we get into standard procedures for ministerial advice. We certainly need to make sure that all evidence is shared and that both officials and CSOs are putting up policy advice – but we can’t compromise the safe space for ministers to discuss policy with officials. I hope that officials and ministers will be as open as possible, and also that CSOs can be realistic in their expectations of how transparent this bit of the decision making process can be.

Secondly, and it sounds obvious because it is, open government is massive. It’s massive in its reach, with links to practically every policy area you can name, including FOI, open data, public sector accountability, public services delivery, social and economic growth, anti-corruption. And it’s massive in how we actually live it as we work on this plan – in terms of who we talk to, how we reach people in different parts of the country or without internet access, whether it’s also our role to help reduce barriers to participation. So we have a tough job on our hands over the next month or two in terms of setting boundaries both for the policy remit of the plan, and for how we define the process so that it’s sufficiently open and sufficiently pragmatic.

Having said that, we’ve made such great progress in the last three months – and I have to mention Tim Hughes here who is doing a brilliant job of keeping us organised – that I’m pretty confident that we can deal with these two issues and any others that arise. And of course, development of the UK plan isn’t a one-off, so we can also improve on what we do this time, next time. On that note, I’m always up for hearing from anyone that has ideas on what I or other officials could be doing differently to help this process work better – and it’s quite nice if you also tell us what we’re doing that’s working for you too!

So overall I’d say we’re beyond where I thought we’d be at this point, with a remit that just wants to grow and grow – so we’ll need to keep an eye on that – and that we’re well set up to keep pushing on with the development of a truly inspiring national action plan. I wanted us to be able to show that in our year of OGP chairmanship the UK really would lead the race to the top – and it looks to me as though the national action plan, both in the way we’re creating it, and in the content and commitments we’ll put in it, is going to help us to do that.

Sophia Oliver, Head of Transparency, Cabinet Office