Northern Ireland 26th July 2018

NI Open Government Network Blog – OGP Summit 2018: The opening and closing of civic space

by Connor McLean

Written by Colm Burns

Colm at the OGP Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia – 19th July 2018

I was asked to speak at the Open Government Summit in Georgia on “How to Ensure the Capacity of Citizens to Engage with Government”. My original proposal was for an 1hr 30min session with inputs from citizens, government representatives and Open Government Partnership (OGP) members from across the world. In the end, they asked me to speak for four minutes.

In my introduction I thanked the OGP for asking me to speak on the subject of citizens’ ability to engage with Government, especially considering Northern Ireland has not had a government for 550 days. Acknowledging that it is imperative that governments engage with citizens, I asked: “What can you do if you don’t have a government?” My Answer was: “I can’t speak for other governments, but in our case we see that our government is so risk adverse we have found it easier to do it ourselves.”

Now that is a simplistic answer, but I did have a whole four minutes to elaborate.

Each Government has different approaches to citizen engagement, but the core questions are the same: What are we asking citizens to participate in? What role does the citizen play and what capacity do they have? Do governments want a partner or a sounding board?  And how can they support their citizens to participate?

Are governments engaging with a reflective citizen base or with single-objective groups that may have ulterior motives.

In Northern Ireland we have a willing public sector, but without a Government we have little opportunity to develop a real partnership.

We can’t wait on our Government to sort itself out. So Civil Society are leading on;

  • Interactive elections
  • Participatory Budgeting
  • Open Policy Making
  • Citizens Assembly

We are working with young people through the Democracy Games, helping them to explore policy-making and the impact it can have on their lives. and the impact they have.

Through a series of interactive democracy games, young people from across Northern Ireland have the opportunity to:

  • Create their own political party – devise the name and key messages
  • Produce their Political Party Manifesto – choosing and developing policies in the areas of education, health, employment, transport, justice, poverty, environment and culture
  • Launch their Party’s Campaign and debate issues and values with rival representatives at a party political hustings session
  • Vote for the political party that best represents their priorities and principles
  • Have some serious fun

At a Democracy Day event, we put democracy on trial; and the jury found that although democracy was guilty of some crimes, overall it was still our best option.

But back to the question – How to Ensure the Capacity of Citizens to Engage with Government?

If we stick to the principles of what we need from our government, then we have a baseline. Form there we can build on what we want from government in terms of policy-making.

That was my four minutes (4mins 52secs) with nice pictures of course, but my presentation nagged at me.

Civil Society may well be trying to lead on these and other issues but can we have an impact?  While I was speaking at this session, my colleague was speaking at another about the collapse of the NI Executive, the democratic deficit this created and how transparency for accountability is critical to address the glaring issues we have faced in Northern Ireland. It was getting frustrating to keep explaining to people why we don’t have a Government and how I can’t see us having one in the near future.  Answering important questions about Brexit and who’s representing Northern Ireland eventually gets embarrassing.

As for the rest of the summit: it felt like too many sessions missed the point. It felt like they were saying: ‘look at us, aren’t we great’; rather than addressing the elephant in the room: ‘what is the OGP for’.

The definition of OGP is “The OGP is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from national and subnational governments to promote open government, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.” How then are countries like Mexico allowed to be members?

The one session that addressed this issue was called ‘Civic Society’s role in Opening Government and monitoring civic space: restrictive trends and creative responses’. And it was the highlight of the summit for me. It was based on the concept that ‘Governments and non-state actors are increasingly introducing arbitrary and debilitating restrictions on the operating space for civil society organizations, social movements, and activists.’

It was the introduction that enticed me: “Much of the current analyses on civic space restrictions disproportionately focus on legal provisions; however, as shown by the CIVICUS Monitor, the tactics and strategies used by states and non-state actors are multi-layered and convoluted. Notably, technology is being deliberately used for the surveillance, intimidation, and blackmailing of activists and their movements, exacerbating existing power structures and systemic inequalities.”

Each speaker highlighted abuses of power from their Governments and others to close civic space; and CIVICUS highlighted that over 70% of OGP member countries had, at various levels, restricted civic space.  Throughout the session people discussed their frustrations with their Government and described what they’re doing to fightback.  This was not a ‘look at us’ session; and it filled me with hope that this conversation took place at the summit.  But sadly, there were no governments there to listen or to give their viewpoint.

After the session I was questioning what role technology is playing in Northern Ireland with the current issues around people’s data; and I was thinking that although the UK is seen by many as an open society, according to the CIVICUS monitor it has narrowed its civic space; and although Ireland is measured as Open, there are a number of issues (including a number of instances during the campaign to relax Ireland’s abortion laws) that led civil society groups to raise concerns that artistic freedom was being unduly restricted.

One striking memory I have from the summit is a member of civic society listening to a member of Government from his country amazed at the speech they gave and asked me ‘do I really live there?’

The OPG needs to define what it is. It needs to clarify what it stands for! Overall it’s a powerful vehicle for change, but we must be able to hold the Partnership and its member countries to account if they attempt to close our civic space especially here in Northern Ireland.