Northern Ireland 30th April 2020

COVID-19: What is the role of Open Government?

by Connor McLean

From the Board of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network

Part 1 – Transparency in a Time of Crisis

What is the role of Open Government while we face an unprecedented crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our normal way of life; it is placing substantial strain on the fabric of government, public services and social cohesion. Containment measures are restricting civil liberties in unprecedented ways.

Some commentators are suggesting that now is not the time to question the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. They insist that this can be done at some stage down the line, maybe through a public inquiry after the crisis is over, when we can see how everything has panned out, when all the facts and outcomes are known.

The Board of the Open Government Network have been reflecting on our response to this new social order, and in particular asking if there is a role for open government during a pandemic? If so, what? Or do we wait till it is over and help examine the ways the Government could have reacted better?

In this two-part blog, we look at two crucial aspects of open government and how they relate to this particular crisis – transparency and public participation. We take the position that in difficult times, we need more and better democracy, not less.

From the outside looking in it seems that the Northern Ireland Executive have not responded well to this crisis.  There have been mixed messages coming from Ministers,with some being accused of going on ‘solo runs’ with new policies.  We are hearing inconsistent communication on the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), concessions around business rates, and how and when we re-open society. It is not just the Executive that seems inconsistent in its response to this crisis, but councils too. The question is what could they have done differently, from an open government perspective?

We are already in a “fake news” arms race. Social media is full of fake news, from 5G masts as the cause of coronavirus to theories that the virus was created in a lab in China.  Mis- and disinformation about science, technology, and health is neither new nor unique to COVID-19.

Amid an unprecedented global health crisis, many journalists, policy makers, and academics have echoed the WHO and stressed that misinformation about the pandemic presents a serious risk to public health and public action. Sadly there is no cure for misinformation and addressing its spread with regard to COVID-19 will take a sustained and coordinated effort by independent fact-checkers, independent news media, online platforms, and public authorities to help people understand and navigate the pandemic. But our Governments can do more, and can do it more transparently.

For citizens, the most effective and relevant time to insist on transparency and hold government to account is now.

Independent media, open public discourse, and the free flow of information are vital. Government must:

  • commit to transparency
  • tackle misinformation
  • promote authoritative health advice

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) guidance states that: “Transparency is an important element of democratic decision making” and says that “evidence should be published”. Yet the group has been involved in an escalating row over transparency.

Sir Patrick Vallance,the UK’s chief scientific adviser has said “it was standard procedure for the group’s membership and minutes to be published, but only after a crisis had ended, and that SAGEhad been “very strongly advised” that members’ independence and security could be jeopardised if their identities were made public”.  Over the coming days the Government is expected to publish some of the names of the SAGE group.

This is not the transparency that we are looking for. While composition of SAGE is important we do not know what evidence they have used to steer the government’s COVID-19 strategy.  The strategy on tackling coronavirus also appears to have changed several times, including the abandonment of a laissez-faire path to herd immunity in favour of trying to suppress the virus; the admission that mass testing of the population will be necessary to exit the lockdown; and the decision to review advice on the wearing of face masks in public.

Such managed and uneven access to knowledge prevents scrutiny, restricts collaboration and undermines trust.

‘The Health Protection Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020’ were put in place on March 28. And this legislation mirrors the coronavirus restrictions implemented in GB. But local messaging has been undermined by splits in the Executive.

There has been public disagreement between the parties in government about school closures, about which businesses should be shut during the crisis, and even about whether cemeteries should be open. This has led to contradictory advice and some public confusion.

An engagement forum, set up to advise the government, drew up a list of businesses that should be classed as essential. But, as this list is only advisory, it has no legal force. Likewise, guidelines on travel by car to parks and forests has been a matter of dispute. Due to mixed messages regarding the new Coronavirus Bill Emergency Powers, the PSNI and Department of Health released a press statement regarding the PSNI’s powers admitting that “In an ideal world, they would have received detailed scrutiny at the Assembly before becoming law”.

First Minister Arlene Foster has indicated that Northern Ireland may emerge from lockdown at a faster pace than other parts of the UK. And this could lead to further splits within the Executive. The claim is that restrictions will be eased only when certain scientific and public health criteria are met. But we will need transparency on the science behind any decisions to help public confidence and trust in the Government’s exit plan, and the public need to be involved in the weighing up of any trade-offs and implications of the various options (more about that in Part 2)

As Transparency International points out: “During crises like the outbreak of a deadly virus, the risk of corruption in healthcare is exacerbated by dramatically increased pressure on the system. Disruption, uncertainty and distraction contribute to an environment in which corrupt actors can take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit.”

The Northern Ireland Open Government Network supports the UK Anti-Corruption Network’s call for procurement to be open and transparent:

“We (UKACN) recommend that all COVID-19 related procurement be published openly, tagged specifically as COVID-19 and that this information be collected and shared publicly through Contracts Finder, Public Contracts Scotland, Sell2Wales and eSourcing NI and eTendersNI on specific public pages related to COVID-19. This should apply not only to the competitive tenders but also to direct contracts and framework call-offs and including PPE being purchased through the new NHS Supply Chain PPE Dedicated Supply Channel. By doing this, public confidence can be maintained and it may help to stimulate new sources of supply. This will create a basic dashboard to allow better planning and supplier mapping.”

Open government might seem less important right now. But, we would argue that a successful and sustained response to COVID-19 must include efforts that leverage an engaged and empowered citizenry as well as the transparency and accountability needed to build trust in government action. There is a risk that the centralised decision-making that has driven COVID-19 response becomes part of the ‘new normal’, to the detriment of our democracy.

In Part 2, we will outline some of the approaches to public participation that can help make better decisions during a crisis, and may be able to expedite our society’s adaptation to a post-COVID reality.