News 8th September 2015

Lessons from the UK Independent Reporting Mechanism report

by Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy is the IRM for the Open Government Partnership and a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

One of the central elements of the Open Government Partnership is the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM), which provides an annual independent assessment of each country’s progress on the OGP. In this post, the UK’s IRM Researcher, Ben Worthy, summarises some of the key findings from the UK’s new IRM report.

How Did it Work?

Across the CSOs I spoke with, there was a feeling that civil society had been consulted and involved, particularly during the drawing up of the commitments and the implementation (see the full story here). There was broad agreement that the process was greatly improved since the first NAP. Positive things were said, particularly about the work of the Cabinet Office, with Francis Maude, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, portrayed as a strong supporter of openness who sought to actively involve civil society. Some parts of government responded to feedback, advice and input on a number of commitments, and changed approaches or policies as a result.

One of the central problems was that other departments varied in their enthusiasm and engagement, with some turning off once a commitment was decided upon and others not fully consulting or involving stakeholders at different stages. Sometimes this was due to differing expectations of the role of the different groups. There are also natural cycles of interest and engagement from government that shaped how involvement works, with interest early on then slackening off as the policy was implemented.

There were more practical problems over the loss of ‘contact’ personnel at key points. Government and CSOs create relationships of trust and familiarity, often based on personal relationships built up over a long time. The loss of these slowed due to normal personnel rotation broke down progress.

What Can Be Done?

There is a set of practical changes that could improve how CSOs and government work and collaborate in the future that I put forward in my report.

First, there is a need for greater co-ordination across government. A number of commitments were not helped by different departments working as silos or by being engaged to varying degrees in policies that required cross-government action. This may also mean designating a certain authorized person as a focal point for open government.

Second, ways also need to be found to help CSOs to engage fully within their own resources, which are naturally more limited than that of the government. CSOs often lack time-something the government recognized in its mid-term self-assessment.

Third, it is important that those working on all sides in the process are able to share their expertise, building on the successes and learning lessons, so each process needn’t start from zero. The experience of consulting and holding workshops, for example, has created an invaluable knowledge base of newly acquired skills, understanding, and this experience should be shared throughout government and CSOs.

How do We Get Greater involvement for civil society?

For CSOs and the government, there is also a need to broaden involvement to new groups and people. Here’s a few possibilities:

Broader Topics: Some parts of the OGP agenda, by their nature, are technical, focused or niche. Some CSOs expressed the concern that there was an inevitable focus on the big international commitments to the exclusion of other less-eye catching, but important ones. One possibility would be to aim for broader areas that could attract interest, be this specific areas of public interest (e.g. health) or certain types of political activity (participation).

Innovations: CSOs are currently innovating with, for example, a very well received crowd-sourcing platform and workshops to generate ideas for open government policies.

Involving Devolved and Local Bodies: there is a need to closely involve devolved and local bodies in deliberation and strategy, some of whom are already currently pursuing their own strategies (see for example Northern Ireland). The CSOs thought an ideal process would be for a third plan to be built by devolved bodies working upwards in partnership with the UK government. The UK government mid-term self-assessment recognized the importance of this. The use of other devolved bodies may also help here to reach out to new networks and groups.

Ben Worthy is the IRM for the Open Government Partnership and a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College. He has a blog on FOI and Open Data.