Northern Ireland 13th June 2019

NI Open Government Network Blog – Open Government Commitments for Northern Ireland

by Connor McLean

Written Colm Burns

The UK’s fourth Open Government National Action Plan 2019-21 (NAP), published just in time for 6th Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Ottawa on 28 May 2019, builds on the previous plans published in September 2011, September 2013, and May 2016.

The NAP was developed in dialogue with the UK Open Government Network (OGN), a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government and other powerful institutions work better for people through enhanced transparency, participation and accountability.

In Northern Ireland, the Public Sector Reform Division, Strategic Policy and Reform Directorate at the Department of Finance worked with representatives from the NIOGN who had crowdsourced Open Government commitment ideas. And in the absence of an Executive, The NI Civil Service Board signed off on Northern Ireland specific commitments for inclusion in the UK’s 4th Open Government National Action Plan.

The NI specific commitments focus on the Open Government Partnership values of Access to Information, Public Accountability, Public Participation and Technology and Innovation. And the National Action Plan has committed the NI Government to delivering 36 milestones activities under the following eight themes:

  • Transparency in Government Contracting
  • Access to Government Land and Property Data
  • Open Data–increasing the number and quality of open datasets released
  • Improved Transparency and Public Accountability
  • Greater Citizen Participation and Open Policy Making
  • Increasing Open Government Skills across the Public Sector
  • Greater Public Sector Innovation
  • Greater Social Innovation

Commitment 1: Transparency in Government Contracting, is aimed at improving the publication of data on public procurement activity and contract spend managed by CPD. CPD will develop the current data set on contracts awarded to include the cumulative spend on contracts after they are awarded and explore the potential to include data on KPI performance and achievement against contract milestones. This will involve publishing and using open, accessible and timely information on government contracting to engage citizens and businesses to improve the transparency of public spending and enhance supplier interest and competitiveness in the public procurement market.

Commitment 2: Access to Government Land and Property Data, is about improving access to data relating to Government Land and Property assets. The commitment is to make comprehensive data on government land and property assets publicly available and create a channel to encourage collaboration and innovation on how assets could be optimally utilised. This includes increased free access to LPS OSNI location data. This will involve providing an increased level of no cost access and will remove the perceived barrier to using accurate complete authoritative OSNI mapping data by developers and SMEs. It is expected that this will result in increased economic activity in the NI small business sector.

Commitment 3: Open Data, aims to increase the number and quality of open datasets released. It’s about base-lining and significantly increasing Open Data publication by using the updated NICS Information Asset Registers as a metric. And it’s about continuing to improve the quality of data in open data formats including moving towards 5-star data sets.

Commitment 4: Improved Transparency and Public Accountability, aims to identify, develop and implement sustainable and ambitious open government actions to drive the open government agenda across the NI departments, in the areas of transparency and public accountability. To work with Community Planning Partnerships to identify innovative and original approaches that will encourage partners and the public to engage in a process that will give local people a direct say in how public funds are used to address local needs.

  • Adopting the ‘Open by Default’ approach to publishing of all information, will increase government transparency, build public confidence and awareness, allowing them to make informed decisions and help them engage with government moving forward.
  • Mapping the Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDG’s) to the draft Programme for Government (PfG) will help focus government policy/actions in relation to ending poverty and hunger, promoting health and wellbeing and equality for all, achieving better.
  • Reporting and explaining budget decisions in an open and simplistic format will improve the public’s knowledge and understanding of how much funding is received in Northern Ireland, how this is allocated and how it is spent.

Commitment 5: Citizen Participation and Open Policy Making, aims to develop and trial effective open policy-making and public engagement methods. DF will showcase best practice in relation to user centred service design across the NICS. The full implementation of PPI and Delivering Together will make public participation in government policy making more effective and meaningful.

Commitment 6: Open Government Skills across the Public Sector, aims to develop Open Government Skills across the Public Sector to enable staff to deliver the Open Government Agenda. It’s about integrating an openness mind-set into day-to-day business activities. Individuals working in departments across government will have access to learning material to build their skills and capabilities for using open data, open information, and open dialogue to support better operational and policy decisions.

Commitment 7: Public Sector Innovation, aims to significantly improve the adoption and use of open innovation approaches within the public sector. Encouraging the greater use of the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) by NI public sector bodies as a way of encouraging greater public sector innovation and also innovation in the economy

Commitment 8: Social Innovation, aims to promote and encourage the use of social innovation by the local public sector, in collaboration with other sectors, to help address social challenges whilst delivering on economic impact. Social Innovation, leading to potential collaborations, will further advance the following OGP values: Access to information & Civic participation.

Democracy is about creating the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. And this Action Plan indicates that despite the lack of an Executive, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is committed to improving the way people can understand, influence and participate in government’s work.

The NI Open Government Network welcome the continuing working relationship with the Northern Ireland Civil Service and look forward to continuing to ensure we work together to achieve these commitments.

The value of this National Action Plan is that it is a living document and other commitments may come to the fore as we work through the milestones. This process, although better than the last action plan process, is not without issues.

These are clearly Civil Service commitments, without a functioning Executive there has been no political input. Whilst many of these commitments will help make our Civil Service to become more Open, Transparent and Accountable, it falls short on helping to address fundamental issues in our democracy. We proposed commitments on Open Ministerial Diaries, Lobbying Regulations, Good Record keeping and others. Without Ministerial agreement there was no option but to exclude them from this cycle of the Action Plan.

As the parties are taking part in talks at Stormont Castle on restoring the Executive and Assembly we would ask all parties to put in proper engagement mechanisms with citizens and to, at a minimum, introduce a register of lobbyists and open ministerial diaries.

NIOGN proposed commitments on Introduce a register of lobbyists and Open Ministerial diaries;


Introduce a register of lobbyists

Problem or issue to be addressed
Secret lobbying is an issue of public concern. It goes to the heart of why people are disillusioned with politics and there is a lack of trust in government. It is important that citizens are aware of who is meeting with government ministers and potentially influencing government decisions. And a lobbying register would allow public scrutiny of lobbying activity. A refusal to introduce genuine transparency reinforces the perception that public scrutiny is something politicians would rather avoid.

The government explore the potential for the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists to help regulate lobbying and ensure greater transparency.

Relevance to Open Government
More transparency and accountability would restore integrity to government and make politicians more accountable to the people they serve.

The fundamental purpose of introducing a register of lobbyists is to allow the public to examine and understand the activities of lobbyists, to improve government accountability and ultimately to rebuild public trust in government.


Open Ministerial diaries

Problem or issue to be addressed
It is important that citizens are aware of who is meeting with government ministers and potentially influencing government decisions.

Northern Ireland Executive Ministers publish diary information about departmental business in an open data format on a quarterly basis.

Relevance to Open Government
More transparency and accountability would restore integrity to government and make politicians more accountable to the people they serve.

To increase public accountability, transparency and openness regarding ministerial activity.