Northern Ireland 6th August 2015

The OGP must be deep as well as wide if it is to have meaningful impact for citizens

by Colm Burns

The recently formed Northern Ireland Open Government Network is pushing for devolved regions to be included in the UK’s next national action plan.

The Open Government Partnership has spread rapidly since its inception in 2011 and now boasts 65 member countries with more likely to come on-stream soon. However whilst this undoubtedly registers as a major success, if the OGP is to provide real benefit to the maximum number of citizens, it must focus equally as much attention on deepening the spread of open government reforms within countries.

This is particularly the case for countries with federal or highly devolved systems of government, where the national government’s authority may be limited both in terms of policy areas and geographic remit.

The UK has a highly complex and continually evolving system of devolved government. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own Executives and elected Assemblies or parliaments. These have authority over a diverse range of policy areas including health, social care, education, enterprise, sport, culture and others varying from region to region.

To date the UK’s OGP dialogue has taken place mostly at national level with the consequence that, with the exception of one commitment by the Scottish Government, almost no explicit commitments from any of the devolved governments are included in the national action plan. Consequently, no matter how well the UK performs against its commitments in the 2013 – 2015 action plan, the impact will be limited largely to England – the only one of the UK’s ‘nations’ for which the UK Government has direct responsibility for most policy areas.

It was partly with this imbalance in mind that the Building Change Trust, an independent charitable body with an exclusive focus on Northern Ireland, began a process of dialogue and exploration around the Open Government Partnership’s potential at devolved level in 2014. This has resulted in the establishment of a new civil society network – the Open Government Network for Northern Ireland – which has currently over 100 members and is seeking commitments from the Northern Ireland Executive within the UK’s next national action plan, due at the end of 2015.

However, it was not only the regional imbalance of OGP commitments that sparked the Trust’s interest. Of even more importance is the potential for a more open form of government to play a key role in supporting Northern Ireland’s transition out of conflict into a stable, mature and prosperous democracy where citizens and government can work together to solve some of the region’s most intractable problems.

Northern Ireland has very unusual governance arrangements by international comparison – a legacy of the peace negotiations that concluded with the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

This includes a mandatory coalition system whereby all the main political parties must enter into government together. This has certainly served a clear purpose given the initial fragility of the peace agreement, the highly adversarial nature of politics in Northern Ireland and continued community division. However, the flipside has been that there is no official political opposition in the NI Assembly and consequently, some of the usual checks and balances on the power of the executive branch of government found in other democratic systems are not present.

Other features of governance also have their origins in Northern Ireland’s conflict past, notably a lack of transparency around political party donations, a civil service that guards information very carefully and a mutual veto system – the ‘petition of concern’ – in the Assembly which effectively allows each of the two main communal blocs to overrule legislative proposals that do not meet with their approval.

One key provision within the Belfast Agreement was the establishment of a ‘Civic Forum’ as consultative body to advise the NI Executive on policy, but this unfortunately never had the support or political will to make it succeed and has been suspended since 2002.

These factors, and others, have contributed to a disconnect between citizens and their Executive and Assembly – just 11% of respondents to the 2014 NI Life and Times Survey indicated they were satisfied with the performance of their elected representatives.

Nevertheless there are growing signs of some appetite within the political system for reform – for example the NI Executive recently published its first open data strategy and a public sector innovation lab has been established.

Speaking at the launch of the Open Government Network in November 2014, the then Minister for Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton indicated a willingness to engage with civil society to explore possible reforms around open policy-making and open budgeting, as well as open data.

These positive signs come against a backdrop of political crisis however – the main political parties have been almost continually in deadlock for the past two years, grappling with a crisis in public finances and a whole host of unresolved issues relating to the ‘Troubles’.

In such circumstances the NI Open Government Network views it as even more crucial that a new culture of dialogue and partnership with citizens and civil society be established; otherwise the region risks losing some of the hard won gains of recent years and missing the opportunity to shape a better future.

The UK government are planning their next action plan in full consultation with the UK Civil Society network, this dialogue is crucial to its success, but we must ask how far reaching the action plan can be without the support of the devolved governments.  With power increasingly being transferred away from Westminster, it is essential that administrations across the UK work with civil society to define how they will step up and commit to the UK Action plan.

In Northern Ireland we also have the added opportunity to build momentum across the Irish border by collaborating with the Irish Open Government Partnership process.

If the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive have individual commitments in the UK action plan this would send a strong message that they are willing to work with citizens to build more transparent, engaging and accountable government throughout the UK and across these islands

At international level perhaps the next evolution of the OGP process should be to require state signatories to report on the geographic coverage of each of their commitments within their borders. This would both enable more accurate assessment of the impact of open government reforms on citizens, and provide an open door for sub-national tiers of government and civil society to become more involved in the dialogue.

Colm Burns is Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network. In his day job he is currently the Policy Advisor for the Pharmacy Forum NI which is part of the Pharmaceutical Society NI. Colm worked in the Community and Voluntary sector for a number of years before working for the trade union movement. His background is in training and campaign and has been involved in a number of campaigns at local and national level. Colm would describe himself as a political nerd and got involved with the NI Open Government Network because he believes that open government can play a key role in opening up decision making and ensure the voice of the citizen is heard.

Paul Braithwaite works for the Building Change Trust, an endowment-based Trust set up in 2008 by the UK National Lottery to promote and support change and innovation in the third sector in Northern Ireland. Paul leads on the two of the Trust’s five themes: Social Innovation and Creative Space for Civic Thinking. Prior to joining the Trust Paul worked in a number of roles including community relations work in North Belfast and around 8 years in the international development field, including 4 years living abroad in Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.