News 12th February 2013

Towards an overarching narrative on open government | Graham Gordon, Tearfund

by Tim Hughes

Open government – based on transparency, participation and responsiveness – is needed to enable greater accountability and better use of resources for development. This has already been recognised in the UK Government’s Co-chair vision for the OGP, which has as its first objective to ‘Show that transparency and participation drive economic growth, well-being and prosperity through efficient use of resources, citizen engagement and inclusive development’.

This Thursday 14th February when members of different civil society organisations and cabinet office colleagues meet together to flesh out the UK’s overarching narrative for its own National Action Plan – to be ready in draft form in March/April. As I can’t be there, I wanted to (ab)use this medium to say that I hope that the same approach will be taken: with the three components of transparency, participation and responsiveness taken together and not in isolation; and where openness is seen as good in itself, but as needing to lead to results – concrete changes in people’s lives.

For transparency, the public must be provided with easy access to accurate, credible, high value information in a format that can be easily read and understood and compared across sectors, so as to ensure that key actors across the public, private and voluntary sectors can be held to account. This is especially important as much more information is available – and much more is to come – such as through the EU Accounting and Transparency Directives on payments by oil, gas and mining companies.

There must be ways of linking the information across sectors and at different levels. This will involve, for example information on natural resource revenues which can be ‘followed’ right down to community level and provision of high quality healthcare, roads and education. It will also include information on key contacts, concessions and procurement processes, so that citizens can participate in decisions before they happen (and not just know what has happened to them!).

Transparency needs to remain linked with enhanced citizen participation as a way of building trust and seeking new ways of policy making and accountability. There must be clear mechanisms of public participation that are open to a wide range of actors, which include civil society but other groups, such as media and business. There is much that can be learned from the successes and struggles of existing multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the EITI and CoST, as well as open policy-making initiatives, such participatory budgeting and development as popularised in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

With increased access to government information and open data, civil society organisations, media, informal networks, business and individual citizens all have new and expanded roles to play in holding government to account and developing more effective and responsive policy with government. This requires resources and capacity building to strengthen oversight institutions and ‘info-mediaries’ who can interpret complex information for different audiences.

Finally, open government is only possible when there is government commitment and capacity to respond to the suggestions and demands of the process. Capacity will involve strong and effective oversight institutions such as parliaments and audit institutions, and commitment will be shown through government responses to suggestions and complaints and will involve new and more open ways of operating for national and local government departments. The Cabinet Office has recently embarked on new ways of participative policy-making through the way that the OGP Co-chair Vision and the UK National Action Plan have been developed jointly between civil society and government. This has been exciting to be part of.

Over the next few weeks there are plans to broaden this to other areas of government as different civil society groups meet with civil servants from the Treasury, Home Office, DFID, BIS etc to develop practical policy recommendations together. The draft UK Action Plan to be ready in March/April will be evidence of how well this has worked!

Graham Gordon, Senior Policy Adviser, Tearfund