Points of View 2nd November 2017

OGP Civil Society Global Leaders Workshop: Reflections on my time in The Hague

by Paul Bradley

Last week I attended the Civil Society Global Leaders Workshop in The Hague, a meeting of 21 civil society representatives from across the world. Led by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and hosted by Hivos, we spent three days interacting with civil society members of the OGP Steering Committee and the Civil Society Engagement team; this post shares the experience and how Scotland is placed in the world to win back citizens’ trust.

Image of Global Civil Society Leaders

Partnership is the key word in OGP and we should remind ourselves regularly of that. Sometimes though, it’s good to hang out with those who share your experience. The session in The Hague was a very different set-up to the subnational meeting in Washington D.C, with the focus solely on challenges, successes and opportunities seen and felt by civil society.

The workshop came at a time when all over the world civil society is being shut down, the UK itself criticised for creating barriers that make it harder for civil society organisations to operate. There’s no surprise that the OGP’s latest publication is named ‘the fight to win back trust’, and we are all a part of this fight.

But we’re not in this fight alone – we share this with our colleagues in government too. And at a time when the gaps are narrowing for civil society’s voice to be heard, let’s recognise the role the Scottish Government has played in its support for creating this space. We differ in opinion at times, but the introduction of the OGP Action Plan in Scotland has set the foundations for a unique dialogue to take shape.

Scotland’s first foray into the international scene of OGP has led to questions being asked of the actual difference that has been made. Recent developments in Scotland have understandably led to questions being asked of Scotland’s pioneer status and of how civil society can engage in the process when well publicised issues around institutional transparency exist.

The sense I picked up in The Hague was that these questions are not unique to Scotland, but we should look deeper at the benefits this new partnership brings. The partnership was set up to address the very concerns we have, and the challenge for both the Scottish Government and Scottish civil society now is to focus on how we make sure these early steps into the OGP can lead us to real transformational change.

The use of the word ‘pioneer’ doesn’t help matters. I see Scotland’s position in the Pioneer Tier as a reflection of our government aspiring to be a global player pioneering solutions to global problems. The big question we should be asking now is how government can move on from the aspirations that come with joining the OGP to being the pioneer we’d all like it to be?

OGP Action Plans aren’t the only tool in our toolbox for delivering a more open society. They’re about building a dialogue and moving away from the us vs. them culture, but different approaches will be needed at times. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – we’d be wise to remember this and accept that Scotland’s place in the OGP isn’t the only avenue we have. That was another clear message I took away.

But what a great avenue it is, not only for us but for government too. The Independent Reporting Mechanism that we are now engaging with should answer some of the valid questions people have around the current plan and of the process that’s in place. I think I can speak for both partners in saying that we are learning each day, and the preliminary review and final report by the independent evaluator will only add to this.

Looking forward, how can we move beyond the label of the pioneer tier to being actual pioneers within the OGP? If Scotland is to have a second action plan, how can the Scottish Government’s efforts become part of the storytelling used by the OGP to progress open government across the world? A thematic approach taken in the development of any future Scottish plan might just pave the way.

From listening to the OGP Support Unit and Sanjay Pradhan, OGP Chief Executive, it became clear that the OGP would like to see governments align their plans with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure that more commitments are transformational. Even if we take SDGs away from the discussion, this approach means open government commitments focusing on the issues that matter most to people such as health, education, housing and so much more.

Anyone tasked with working on both the OGP and SDGs must embrace the scepticism and frustrations with such large international agendas being thrown their way. Let’s continue to challenge and question the two of them, but accept the added value they give us in the move towards the society we want Scotland to be. Let’s prepare ourselves to develop a truly pioneering action plan with government, but continue to build our coalition for open government in Scotland in a way that doesn’t rely solely on government maintaining its ambition to be part of the OGP. Of course, let’s hope that it does!

*The next meeting of Scotland’s Open Government Network will take place at Hayweight House in Edinburgh on Wednesday 8th November, between 13:30 – 16:30. Register to attend here.*