Northern Ireland 20th September 2016

NI Open Government Network Blog – Sustainable Development Goals and Devolution

by Connor McLean

Written by Kyle Parks, Member of the NI Open Government Network Steering Committee

One year on from the launch of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and it feels like they’ve been brushed under the global carpet. At the Open University’s roundtable event in Belfast last week it was widely accepted that much still needs to be done to raise awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

‘Sustainable development’ often has strong connections with climate change and poverty relief efforts in the mind of the public. However the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are much more than that: with 17 overarching goals and 169 targets they attempt to cover more than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals. The breadth of the goals reflects the scale of the consultation undertaken by the UN – the largest in its history.  This expansive list has been a source of criticism in itself. Some, like former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, argue that there are now too many goal posts and the sustainable development agenda lacks focus to drive it forward. Moreover, given that the Millennium Development Goals weren’t achieved, adding more to the new set seems particularly ambitious and may be placing hopeful aspiration over practical viability.

On the other hand, the wider span of the SDGs also creates potential. The sustainable development agenda operates in a world where the problems we face are increasingly complex; and we need multifaceted solutions to solve them.  The MDGs simplified problems that didn’t allow for this. The MDGs fell into traps like attempting to increase the level of education globally but not giving enough attention to the actual quality of the learning. The narrow geographical focus of the MDGs has also been upended. The 2030 agenda introduced a universal character to its goals where targets are not only for ‘developing countries’. Now there is the platform for all countries to decide their priorities and make more intelligent use of the development agenda locally and globally. Furthermore, one attendee noted that the wider approach brings “more allies” onto the playing field. There is a greater role for the private sector and civil society organisations, rather than placing responsibility for driving the development agenda with government.

This is where the Open Government Network comes in. SDG 16 refers specifically to some of the key tenets of open government:


16.6      Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

16.7     Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

16.8     Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements


It’s vital that the role of institutions is recognised in the development agenda. Good governance is crucial to the success of the other goals and then sustaining any progress made. Open Government is making institutions more transparent, empowering its citizens, enabling the fight against corruption and helping to harness new technologies to aid this process. SDG 16 is both an end goal and a means to achieving others.

The SDGs have potential to make a positive impact in Northern Ireland too. Sustainable development is a devolved issue and the new outcomes-based approach to the Programme for Government – with its emphasis on well-being – presents us with the opportunity to integrate the global SDGs into local policy making. The NI Open Government Network’s response to the draft PfG calls for a specific ‘Deeper Democratic Engagement’ outcome. In the same vein of thinking as SDG 16 it is a means to achieving the other outcomes and an end goal in itself. Citizen engagement in deciding the outcomes they want, rather than what the government thinks they want gives them, ownership of the process and adds legitimacy to the outcomes. Jenny Williams of Habitat for Humanity was right in arguing that a localised response is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty. The ‘top-down’ and heavily centralised development agenda hasn’t worked: rather than seeing people in developing nations as a problem to be fixed we should see them as vital partners in effecting change.

UK action towards the SDGs has been slow. The 2016 House of Commons Report notes Parliament’s  deep concern over the “lack  of  a  strategic  and  comprehensive  approach  to  the implementation  of  the  Goals.” At the event a number of representatives from aid and development agencies expressed concern that devolved administrations were being left out of the mechanisms through which institutions are held accountable for the SDGs. This is compounded by the fact that the SDGs are ‘soft’ agreements and so are governed by ‘accountability-lite’. These official mechanisms for holding governments to account are annual indicators collected on a UK wide basis by the Office of National Statistics. UN accountability frameworks often involve civil society organisations producing a ‘Shadow Report’ to that of the government’s feedback on progress: for example the recent NI report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Taking the initiative, civil society organisations should do what they can to hold devolved and national governments to account.

Capacity is a major obstacle here but there is still room for integrating the work and mission of civil society ‘allies’ that complement, but are not exclusively targeted towards achieving the SDGs in the UK. For example, despite its lacklustre response to the SDGs the UK government is already on its 3rd National Action Plan for Open Government, so is actually making progress on SDG 16.

The Open University is continuing its events across the UK this week and hopefully civil society organisations will be thinking about how to best promote the SDGs in the UK; for both domestic and international policy making.