Points of View 30th August 2016

Opening the lid on Open Government in Scotland

by Kaela Scott

Can(Easy_Open_Can)One of the key challenges for the Open Government Network in Scotland is opening up the open government agenda to wider civil society, in ways that encourage open government to be understood as a movement for change, rather than a technocratic process.

All too often the language associated with Open Government (data, open-contracting, anti-corruption, scrutiny and transparency etc.) can be too far removed from the concerns of civil society organisations, let alone citizens themselves, and in itself creates a barrier to involvement. If we want the open government agenda to come alive for citizens and wider civil society then we need to get better at demonstrating how it can have an impact on the issues that people most care about.

Going back to basics, one of the original grand challenges behind the whole Open Government movement was to improve public services in tangible and inclusive ways. Service delivery is how government becomes reality for most citizens: with fair and equitable access to quality health, education, criminal justice, water, electricity, telecommunications, sanitation, transport, employment etc. being easily recognised as among those things that people really care about in the reality of their daily lives. At the heart of just why this is a goal for Open Government however is the belief that creating real service improvements is not simply a managerial exercise, rather that improvements are more achievable and sustainable when citizens, and the civil society groups that represent and advocate for their interests, are involved in the process.

In this context then, access to information (transparency) and the means for citizens to hold governments and public officials to account for their actions (scrutiny) are fundamentally tools that enable this participation;  and not just involvement in monitoring government performance but in actually co-creating the conditions for improvement.

But what does this mean for how we move forward with the open government agenda in Scotland?

In May 2016 Scotland was announced as one of 15 ‘sub-national’ governments and civil society partnerships worldwide to be supported as part of a pioneer programme designed to bring the principles of open government closer to citizen’s everyday interests. The OGP global summit of governments and civil society partners meeting in Paris in December will give Scotland, along with the other pioneer sites, an opportunity to show the progress we have made.

While that meeting is not long away now there are a number of social and political factors that have been shown internationally to create an environment conductive to open government. If we look at these in the context of the situation in Scotland it is clear that, while we still have a lot to do before December, we are already have a headstart:

  • Access to Information: Through the previous OGP National Action plans the UK government, along with authorities in the devolved nations, have already made significant progress towards ensuring that the information the public needs to monitor and question government and public service providers is more available and accessible than ever before (e.g. the UK Government recently committed to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard). That said however there is still much that need to be done to ensure that information is not only available but actionable. Civil society groups therefore have a key role to play as we move forward in identifying what other types of information (either not yet available or maybe not even yet collected) is most useful to them to support their advocacy goals and contribute to shaping evidence based policies in their areas of interest.
  • Strong civil society groups and networks: International research shows that initiatives that aim to increase government accountability and transparency are most effective where there are strong, respected and representative grassroots and institutionalised civil society organisations. More importantly however it seems that the depth and character of the relationships amongst civil society organisations (i.e. a collaborative rather than competitive baseline), and a history of constructive engagement between civil and political society, is crucial. There is already clear evidence across Scotland of the willingness of civil society groups to work together around a wide range of issues. The challenge however remains to broaden the awareness of how the open government movement can contribute to their existing goals and draw in this collective energy and experience.
  • State willingness – In Scotland at present we have a government that is not only willing to engage with the open government agenda but is actively driving the agenda. While this willingness establishes an enabling environment for change there is still however a vital role for citizens and civil society groups to actually claim the opportunities available to them, aggregate their concerns and articulate just how it is they want to be involved and the changes they want to see.

Over the next week there are 2 events taking place in Scotland  to help ‘open the lid’ on Open Government and provide opportunities for more people to get involved in establishing the way forward. Together they offer an exciting opportunity to really focus now on how greater and wider public participation can contribute to realising the goals of open government.

  • Open Government Civil Society Network meeting – Friday 2nd September, 9:30 – 12:30 at Lauriston Hall, Edinburgh EH3 9DJ – an opportunity for community and voluntary sector groups of all shapes and sizes to help define what they want from Open Government in Scotland and how we can best work together to make this happen. This meeting is open to members, non-members and not-yet-members – register here to attend.
  • Imagining Open Government in Scotland – Sunday 4th September 2016 1 – 4pm at Blythswood Hall, Renfield St Stephen’s Training and Conference Centre – 260 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 4JP – a citizen led event hosted by Common Weal to explore what Open Government in Scotland could look like if the general public set the agenda. It is totally free to go along but RSVP’s will help with planning so register here to attend.


Image Credit:  Tomomarusan  CC BY 2.5