Northern Ireland 18th February 2016

Open Government: People can re-engage with politics. And politicians may be able to break the deadlock.

by David McBurney

David McBurney and Jonathan Bell (NI Open Government Network) argue that the growing gap between citizens and government can be bridged by a more open, generative approach to involvement in government monitoring and participation in policy making. 

There is a growing distance between people and their representatives and a general disaffection with politics.

We are faced with a number of serious socio-economic problems – departmental budget cuts, the impact of welfare reform, pressure on the health service, the lack of a poverty strategy, growing inequality, youth unemployment and an aging population.

These seemingly intractable difficulties are intensified by the inability of our politicians to agree a common strategy on how to deal with them.

Many of the discussions and negotiations that take place happen behind closed doors; public conversations conducted through the news media are contrived, shallow and divisive; and people are left feeling angry or apathetic, disenfranchised and disengaged.

Our democracy is closed and opaque. It feels restrictive – pulling us down to a normative state of inaction.

But, to some extent at least, we get the democracy we deserve. We delegate power to our political representatives, and then hardly supervise them. In the up-coming election, we can tick a box for a particular party or candidate, but if politicians once again fail to move things forward, we are completely powerless.

If democracy is everyone’s responsibility, we need an extension of public participation. If trust, confidence and mutuality are to be restored, we need processes that support accessibility, transparency and engagement.

If people are given a real opportunity to help shape society, this will result in: policy options grounded in better knowledge of public values and priorities; greater public understanding of the issues involved; and shared responsibility for policy creation, implementation and outcomes. People will re-engage with politics. And politicians may be able to break the deadlock on some of the most crucial issues.

The aim of the NI Open Government Network is:

To contribute to delivering more open, transparent and accountable government that empowers citizens to shape decisions that impact on their lives.”

The Network was established in 2013 and now has over two hundred individual and organisational members. It has funding from the Building Change Trust and the support of a full time secretariat; and is aligned to the UK Civil Society Network

Most recently the Network has engaged with officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel to co-design Northern Ireland commitments for the UK Open Government Action Plan.  The commitments are being developed under six thematic headings: Civic ParticipationPublic AccountabilityAnti-CorruptionOpen Data; Technology and InnovationAccess To Information.

The final commitments that the Northern Ireland Executive submits to the Cabinet Office for inclusion in the UK Action Plan will now be determined at political level. 

The work with DFP officials over the last 6 months involved a process of co-design.  This joint work now needs to be matched by a political appetite to support the inclusion of strong open government commitments in both the UK Action Plan and the NI Programme for Government. 

The response to the Open Government initiative from officials, politicians and other decision-makers has been positive.  From our discussions with the various party policy officers there seems to be a willingness and desire to re-engage with the public. We note that the Fresh Startdocument has an appendix dedicated to citizen engagement.

At a recent presentation to the OFMDFM Committee, one member described the open government initiative as “timely, relevant and essential”; another agreed with the need for more measurement of progress and accountability with regard to the Programme for Government; and a third supported the idea of greater fiscal transparency and access to key budgetary information.

In response to a question in the Assembly, the First Minister explained that the Department of Finance and Personnel is working with the Open Government Network to develop a contribution to the UK open government action plan.  She commented:

Open government principles have the potential to support the aims of the current reform agenda, in particular by supporting greater Executive accountability for the delivery of outcomes and by fostering greater collaboration across government and across sectors. Those developments are, therefore, timely, as we look forward to the restructuring of the Executive Departments and the transition to a more outcome-focused Programme for Government.”

Working with government is challenging. We want to push for the inclusion of ambitious and meaningful commitments. But we understand the political reality that pressing for the most radical reforms might derail progress.

We want to create a coherent alternative to the status quo by trying to directly influence the levers of power. But we want to avoid being co-opted and settling for minimal incremental change. We want to maintain political traction and retain the possibility of delivering meaningful reform.

Our chosen route as critical partner with government requires a little subtlety – mobilising champions and advocates within power structures while also experimenting outside; working within explicit political priorities to help politicians shape future programmes, but campaigning for democratic innovation and lobbying for more deliberative citizen engagement, transparency and accountability.

If you would like to attend the next OGN event at the Imagine Belfast Festival, ‘open government for the common good’, please register here The event will include a series of short lightning talks, as well as key note speech from Michael Harris who is the founder of Guerilla Policy and runs the website Guerilla Wire The event will engage a broad spectrum of citizens in topical discussion and stimulating debate around making government more open, transparent and participative.

Another OGN event is being held on 18th March, called ‘How would you spend your council’s money; an exercise in participatory budgeting’.  Please register here.