Meeting notes 25th November 2015

OGN Meeting, with Paul Maassen | 13 November 2015 | Meeting note

by Tim Hughes

On 13th November 2015 the UK Open Government Network met to discuss progress on the OGP. Below is the meeting note.


Date: Friday 13th November 2015

Time: 12.00 – 14.00

Location: Free Word Centre, London


Open Government Network

Alice Gartland , Open Contracting Partnership
Claire Schouten, International Budget Partnership
Colm Burns, Northern Ireland Open Government Network
Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny
Emeafa Doe, Open Data Institute
Joe Williams, Natural Resource Governance Institute
Jonathan Bell, Northern Ireland Environment Link
Karina Russell , National Council for Voluntary Organisations
Mark Cridge, mySociety
Maurice Frankel, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Michelle Brook, Demsoc
Prateek Buch, Science About Science
Ruba Ishak, ONE campaign
Ruchir Shah, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
Simon Burall, Involve
Tim Hughes, Involve & Open Government Network coordinator

Open Government Partnership

Paul Maassen, Open Government Partnership
Tonu Basu, Open Government Partnership

Cabinet Office (1pm to 2pm)

Lizetta Lyster, Data Group, Cabinet Office
Tom Townsend, Data Group, Cabinet Office

OGP in the UK

Tim welcomed attendees to the meeting and welcomed Paul Maassen and Tonu Basu from the Open Government Partnership Support Unit. Tim then fed back on the recent OGN meeting with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock, on 5th November.

The key piece of news is that the timeline for the publication of the National Action Plan (NAP) has been extended from the original January 2016 date to May or June 2016. There was a discussion about the benefits of an extended deadline, including more opportunity to engage a wider range of people, and the ability to engage with departments after the Spending Review has passed, which has proved a blockage. There was also a discussion about how the new timing for the launch might be impacted by the upcoming Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Summit. Attendees discussed whether the NAP should be launched before, at the same time as, or after the Anti-Corruption Summit. The PM’s Anti-Corruption Summit is likely to divert attention away from the NAP launch if launched at the same time. If the NAP is launched before the Summit, the government is unlikely to allow any announcements on anti-corruption. It was therefore agreed that it would be preferable to launch the NAP after the Summit, although there is no clarity yet on the date for the Summit beyond the Sping/Summer.

At the meeting with the Minister the steering group also raised the issues the OGN has with the FOI Commission, and warned that there are many in the OGN who see restrictions on FOI as a red line, which could present a challenge in signing off the NAP.

Simon added that the Minister saw openness on contracting as a priority, and seemed willing to explore the potential for the FOI Act to be extended to include contractors. Maurice noted that ministers often state a commitment to extending openness to contractors but it’s important to clarify what they mean by this, as they often mean a voluntary code of conduct which is not binding.

Prateek highlighted the question of how far the Minister was comfortable with research which informs decision-making being published and whether he fully appreciates the impact of restrictions to FOI on the requirement to publish such research.

Colm discussed the evidence that the NI OGN will be submitting to the FOI Commission. Whilst the UK OGN approach has been to tackle each question posed by the Commission, the NI OGN approach has been to make a strong case for FOI backed up with case studies of where it has been important in Northern Ireland. Maurice noted that Section 35 of the FOI act has particular relevance for NI because of the Executive’s coalition setup.

Jonathan and Colm also discussed the need for the NI OGN to work out the extent to which they should compromise with or challenge the NI Executive.

Paul responded that the experience of most countries in OGP is that the first action plan is an opportunity to build those relationships with government, and that compromising is not too bad at this point. Civil society can build the foundations and develop the political capital for more ambitious proposals at the next NAP. It’s a more long term perspective.

Ruchir gave the Scottish perspective and said the Scottish government is on board with the third NAP. However, Scottish civil society has been slower to catch up on the value, so the extended deadline is welcome as it allows some time to build momentum and get more of civil society on board.

OGP Internationally

Paul Maassen, Director for Civil Society Engagement at the Open Government Partnership, reflected on the international state of the OGP. We are in Year 4 of the Open Government Partnership, and have recently signed up Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Cape Verde. There are now 69 countries in the OGP and 2,500 commitments. Some members are dragging their feet but overall the outlook is positive.

Over the summer the OGP Support Unit circulated a survey to find out the civil society perspective on the progress of the OGP. There were 650 respondents to survey. 75% said they were more positive than 12 months ago that the OGP makes a difference in their country. They also responded that their National Action Plans cover the majority of their priorities, which Paul reflected is a good sign when civil society has high expectations. respondents felt that the base is broadening with more people getting involved. Countries are ‘ticking more boxes’ in the Independent Reporting Mechanism reports. But there is also a sense that consultation is not actually getting better, and that government is still operating in the mode of informing but not collaborating.

Paul also reflected that the type of commitments we’re seeing are not yet the ‘thorny’ topics that civil society would like to see tackled, for example, health, education and press freedom. There was a United States analysis of their NAP and there was a trend towards the easier commitments being accepted by the government and the more ‘thorny’ commitments being rejected. This issue goes back to questions we’ve had from the beginning about whether the OGP is simply a CSR programme for government. This is a risk for OGP as the project has always been more about carrots than sticks, based on dialogue and developing common ground, not punishing governments. But OGP creates the opportunity to do more. For example, recently we’ve seen work across borders, with Publish What You Fund working to get joint commitments across different countries. And of course the Open Data Standard is a multilateral project.

Paul reported that the Sustainable Development Goals are high on OGP’s agenda, as are incorporating sub national levels of government and extending commitments to include parliaments. They haven’t worked much on those areas yet but they are avenues coming up.

Paul also mentioned that there is space for one person to sit on the steering committee and called for applications, especially from women, to fill space.

Tim then invited attendees to ask questions. Prateek asked to what extent OGP supports cross border learning. Paul replied that much of this needs to happen through global NGOs and coalitions such as Oxfam and Publish What You Fund. There are also five OGP working groups (Access to Information, Legislative Openness, Fiscal Openness, Openness in Natural Resources and Open Data). In addition to global meetings there are regional meetings. Tonu added that OGP is also developing tools such as OGP Explorer and the Open Government Guide to contribute to learning. They are exploring other ways to develop peer learning opportunities.

Jonathan asked Paul whether there will be any proposals on support to the sub national networks. Paul responded that this is a new domain for OGP and they are currently piloting some ideas, such as whether we can bring in states and cities to OGP. We can offer them a platform and expertise. We’re also working out questions such as whether sub national OGPs should have an IRM (Independent Reporting Mechanism).

Jonathan also asked what the process is for piloting involvement. Paul responded that they are not sure yet and Simon suggested speaking to Nathaniel Heller, a civil society steering committee member of the Open Government Partnership.

Paul then asked attendees who also attended the Mexico Summit for their reflections from the summit.

Colm responded first, noting the tension between civil society and government, which he viewed as healthy and leading to interesting discussions. He noted that he couldn’t get to all the discussion and would be good to have them online. There were also lots on privacy and he identified a tension there. Overall he found the summit very interesting, but there was probably too much content.

Mark had some of the same reflections. He found the summit a bit overwhelming because of how much was going on. He also saw a marked difference between government and civil society, for example, the division of venues.

Paul accepted the feedback that there was too much content at the Summit. There was a discussion about the trade off with size, and about having fewer sessions which were longer, but due to the volume of content proposed by the community, they decided it would be a shame to cut down on sessions.

Paul also reflected on the struggle the OGP is having with the private sector. The private sector want to be involved but it’s a challenge for the OGP to figure out how it would work. Open government reformers need to work with the private sector but should they have seats at the table? Paul says he wouldn’t push for it because it often results in government and the private sector aligning against civil society.

Simon interjected that not having the private sector involved in the conversation means there is a risk that the conversations happen elsewhere, where civil society is then not involved.

Paul agreed with this, but noted that often when these multilateral programmes involve the private sector, in practise it means involving the international chambers of commerce, which represent big companies like Google and Microsoft well, but are less good at representing SMEs.

Prateek echoed Simon’s point and noted that in the scientific community they are used to trade offs when involving the private sector, for example, whether to take research funding from Coca Cola to do research into sugar consumption. Prateek also asked whether Paul experienced tensions within civil society, for example between organisations which lobby very heavily and very openly, and those which are less campaigns focused.

Paul responded that you see this where the process is more mature. Mexican civil society many didn’t want to be there. Others do want to be there. So yes tension. Insiders and outsiders

NAP III Process

The previous lead on OGP in the Cabinet Office, Hannah Peaker, is leaving the role. Thom Townsend will be taking over.

The meeting heard from Thom, who is currently at the Cabinet Office working with Number 10, but will be moving across to take on the role at the beginning of December. He reflected that he saw his role, and that of Lizetta, as stewards of the NAP. Their challenge is pushing internally for reform and fitting reform into the broader agenda.

Tim invited the theme leads present to feed back on the themes. There are five themes:     Access to Information, Anti-corruption, Civic Participation, Open Data and Public Accountability. We don’t know what to do yet with the sixth theme and we are still in discussion.

The first theme lead to feedback was Michelle, who is leading the Civic Participation strand. She is currently pulling together the template document which sets out the shared narrative for the strand. She has been working with Doreen Grove from the Scottish government and she has been pulling together a very involved framework from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. This has been a challenge because the language and approach to open government is completely different is those different countries. She is also pulling together events and trying to clear civil service blocks such as the spending review. She attended a great open contracting workshop the previous week which helped her to see angles for citizen involvement in other strands.

Emeafa, who is the theme lead for the Open Data strand, fed back next. She is working with Peter in the government to pull together their narrative. She identified the balance needed between celebrating the past and developing ambitious commitments.

Prateek, theme lead for the Access to Information strand, reflected on some positive meetings with the Cabinet Office. He reflects that they surprised each other with how much they agreed on in putting together the narrative, so they are clearly on the same page. He was also pleasantly surprised at how open to the proposals the government seemed. He admitted that it has been slightly slow moving on both sides but the extended timeline is welcome, because the more the topic is discussed the more voices we can get engaged.

Tim added that each theme has been asked to come up with collective challenge and narrative. This has been a slower process than anticipated due to capacity and the Spending Review, which has meant departments are reticent to commit themselves to anything.

Lizetta Lyster introduced an outline of the new timeline, with the revised deadline of May.

Tim then fed back some of the thoughts of Rachel Davies, who sits on the OGN steering group but was not able to attend the meeting. She warned that the OGN should look to publish the NAP after the Anti-Corruption Summit, otherwise there is a risk the summit will close down conversation on anti-corruption commitments. The agenda will be dominated by the Prime Minister’s office and their messaging on anti-corruption. It’s important to think about the sequencing and at what point things are announced. Tim added that there are risks attached to publishing before and at the same time as the Anti-Corruption Summit, because the NAP may be overshadowed. Joe added that we don’t know when the Anti-Corruption summit will actually take place.

Jonathan asked Lizetta when the government wants the Northern Irish commitments signed off, and Lizetta responded March, before purdah.

Simon suggested setting a deadline for getting new thoughts in. In the last NAP process, many commitments came in shortly before the deadline, which forced civil society into reactive mode. So it’s important to pay attention to timing, but also how the thing must happen, i.e. that they can’t come in from outside the process, having not engaged until this point, and just throw in a commitment. Realistically we’re going to get things in late but it’s important to highlight the principle. The inclusion of beneficial ownership came in very late last NAP process, but everyone in the OGN had an understanding of who was being involved, although it was a very small group, and there was a recognition that there couldn’t be involvement more widely.

Jonathan said that they are keen in Northern Ireland to get their commitments to the executive before Christmas because of how long it takes to sign off, and Lizetta responded that different people will need to be working at different speeds. Thom responded that there will need to be some complex choreography for sign off.

Simon reflected that during the last NAP process, each commitment had to have one government department attached and multiple civil society groups. So groups signed off on their own parts and then signed off the introduction which framed it. It would be great to be able to sign off the whole thing but just signing off the introduction gives a sense of unity. Tim echoed this point saying the way they framed the foreword before was a nod to signing off, but it was not signed off in totality. Prateek said that it is important to have this division because actually some civil society groups can’t work on some areas because it is not in their remit.

Simon went on to note that the OGN needs to keep the minister in the loop about whether there is parity between the devolved administrations and Westminster, to avoid conflict.

Simon also discussed how to tag onto existing events. Tim responded that there are plans to tag engagement on to Gov Camp. He asked whether regional meetings should be held, or whether there should be one big grand event to cover off wider engagement. Prateek suggested sector specific meetings.

Thom asked whether there is anything more the government can be doing in terms of comms? Tim responded just drawing attention to drafts being published and other news in that vein. After this timeline is nailed down there will be a big push to publicise it. Simon added that we can’t publicise anything before the government is happy with it.

Tim then invited Paul and Tonu to wrap up the meeting and give last reflections. Paul thanked attendees and said that the OGN should be proud that the UK is still leading in many respects on open government, however difficult it feels when you’re working on it. Tonu closed the meeting by offering support from the OGP Support Unit if needed.