Issue 14 - December 2016

OPENING UP GOVERNMENTS?

By Ruchir Shah, Policy Manager, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

When professional politicians armed with their statistics tell people how wrong and ignorant they are, they simply come across as distant and patronising. The post-truth society it is indeed.

Across our fragile political world societies are tearing themselves apart.

The EU referendum, US elections and now developments in Italy, France, Germany and elsewhere have brought home to policy-makers across the globe the deep divisions in society.

A lot of pundits place the blame at rampant globalisation leaving many people behind socially, culturally and economically, at a time when the gap between rich and poor in most countries is wider than it has been ever before.

The bedrock under many politicians and political parties is collapsing as people no longer trust political experts, economists or scientists. Angry citizens are manipulated by cynical elites to blame the system and the 'other' for their problems. When professional politicians armed with their statistics tell people how wrong and ignorant they are, they simply come across as distant and patronising. The post-truth society it is indeed.

The race is now on to find a positive way to heal these divides before we see a repeat of the global breakdowns of the early 20th century.

One proposition holds particular promise to tackle the disconnect between people and their government.

The international Open Government Partnership was founded around five years ago by a number of governments including the UK, with its international secretariat sponsored by the US State department under the Obama administration. Its vision was to build greater transparency, accountability and participation in governments, by encouraging firm 2-year action plans by its members to unveil their government processes.

Crucially, these action plans had to be drawn up by governments jointly with representatives from civil society.

Now in its third iteration, the partnership has grown to 70 member countries, at different stages of their journey towards openness. But the agenda has evolved to i) find ways to better connect people with decision makers; ii) ensure people are better informed of how government works (pressures, constraints and opportunities) and iii) help people better hold governments to account (more information and feel closer to decisions).

By the time you read this, a five point plan will have been unveiled at the December Paris Open Government Summit committing Scottish Government to driving openness around performance, budgeting, social security, participation in policy making and financial transparency.

The theory here is that a shift to openness will help government make better decisions by becoming more responsive to the people and communities they serve.

The read across to healing divisions and distrust is clear.

Scotland's place in this agenda was given a boost this year. The international partnership realised that government at more local levels than the nation state is where a lot of the action now happens, particularly around public services e.g. devolved states within states, local government and cities. As a result, they initiated a sub-national pioneer programme which would provide a global arena for action plans produced by governments at these more local levels. Scotland secured a place alongside 15 other localities to be one of these pioneer areas during the initial 2 year pilot phase.

As a result, there has been a flurry of activity within Scottish Government. As action plans need to be done jointly with civil society, SCVO and others in the Scotland's Open Government civil society network have had input into this process. By the time you read this, a five point plan will have been unveiled at the December Paris Open Government Summit committing Scottish Government to driving openness around performance, budgeting, social security, participation in policy making and financial transparency.

But it is not enough for government to make itself open to citizens. People need to be ready to make best use of this opportunity. If government makes lots of policy documents and data sources publicly available, it won't be much use unless citizens can process this information.

SCVO and our partners across the UK have therefore initiated a programme of work with lottery support to build the capacity of citizens and civil society to use open government approaches to secure progress with their governments at the devolved levels in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the Open Government Pioneers Project UK, and will bring tools, techniques and resources to citizens and civil society organisations across the UK. We are particularly planning support for marginalised groups that don't normally get a voice in the issues that affect them.

One of the most important advantages of the Open Government Partnership is that it is operating simultaneously with government buy-in at international, UK, and UK home nation levels. This offers a lot of opportunities for sharing learning around what works in facilitating better connections between citizens and the State. But it also needs a common frame of reference given the very different political systems and policy platforms operating in the different parts of the UK, let alone between the UK and other countries.

Luckily, the rise of the open government movement has coincided with the publication of the UN Sustainable Development Goals late in 2015, a process with strong buy-in from Scotland's First Minister. As the SDGs break down progress into a range of social, environmental and economic indicators, they map neatly to many ambitions that have cross-party support in Scotland. These range from social justice and food poverty, to tackling inequality and protecting our natural environment. Indeed, one of the Goals (number 16) is specifically about opening up government institutions and making them more responsive to citizens.

The challenge now is to use the momentum towards open government and the sustainable development goals as a counterpoint to the rise of extreme divisions in the US, Europe and elsewhere, to repair people's trust in government and ensure it focuses on their everyday concerns around public services, access to jobs and control over the decisions that directly affect them.

Ruchir Shah is Policy Manager with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

By Ruchir Shah, Policy Manager, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Issue 14 - December 2016

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