Points of View 21st December 2016

Can Open Government Help Heal Divided Societies? – A Blog from the OGP Summit

by Colm Burns

More than 3,000 people gathered in Paris from 7-9th December for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit 2016 hosted by the Government of France.

Over the 3 days there were dozens of workshops, pitches and panel discussions on themes ranging from transparency, accountability and anti-corruption to climate and sustainable development, the digital commons and the implementation of open government. I took part in a session hosted by our Scottish civil society partners that considered the question: How can an Open Government agenda heal divided societies?

The question had me conflicted. It would usually be a cue to talk about the legacy of the past, the toll the Troubles took on our society and how we might come to terms with our shared history. But I wanted to talk about the future.

Open Government cannot heal all our ills, but can it be used as a vehicle to bring together citizens and Government? The case for a more open government is not difficult to make. It could help to restore public faith in the integrity of the institutions through greater transparency, public participation and accountability. What it will not do is change our history.

The question is: Does any government really want to be open and accountable? I’ll leave that one with you.

There can be no denying that our society is divided, maybe more so than ever. At the Paris Summit the Paris Declaration was launched; and it speaks to the challenges ahead and the rewards:

“Acknowledging that our democracies must evolve over time and continually renew to build a more stable, prosperous, and equal world”

It also states:

“We renew our commitment to the principles and values of the Open Government Partnership, outlined in the Open Government Declaration and encourage their realization through implementation of commitments and actions undertaken by all members.

We will continue to raise the ambition of our open government reforms, to deepen the collaboration between government and civil society,

We recognize that over the next five years the success of OGP will be measured by its ability to foster open government reforms benefitting citizens, and by the implementation of National Action Plan commitments.”

You can read the full declaration here.

At the session ‘How can an Open Government agenda heal divided societies?’ I discussed how Northern Ireland is divided through Age, Sex, Race, Ability and (for the whole of its existence) Religion.

I gave an example of one of the most misquoted statements in Northern Ireland which dates back to the 30’s and is from the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland James Craig, who was attributed with the quote: ‘A protestant parliament for a protestant people’. What he actually said was ‘All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.’

Language is important. And so is understanding the context. So much of what we want to achieve through the Open Government process is about where we are now and what can we do to bring the Government closer to its citizens.

So what is Open Government process going to do to heal us?

That depends on us and how we work with our Government. We need to make the case for why Openness, Accountability and Transparency must become the normal practice. There will always be political scandals and Governmental mistakes, but with a strong relationship between the Government and the Citizen maybe, just maybe, it might not bring us to the brink every time.

Joseph de Maistre said: “Every country has the government it deserves”

We the citizens of Northern Ireland chose our Government. It is now the time for citizens to convince our Government of our case that openness delivers better outcomes for citizens and pushes our democracies to become more citizen-oriented and transparent so that citizens have the means to engage more actively in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

We must also be cognisant of political parties encroaching on our civic space – not so much by legislating against it, which is sadly happening in too many countries – but by creating civic forums and bodies and appointing their own civic representatives.

While at the Summit we had a bitter sweet moment as the Northern Ireland Executive published Northern Ireland specific commitments which have been included in the UK National Action Plan. Although four commitments have been agreed with eighteen milestones, a number of commitments proposed by the NI Open Government Network were not approved by the NI Executive for inclusion.

As I said at the Summit: “This is a major step for us, but it is only a step”. Over the coming months the Network will work constructively with the Executive to move these commitments forward while continuing to make the case for more ambitious commitments.