Points of View 10th May 2013

Critical components for engaging civil society in the National Action Plan | Simon Burall, Involve

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

This was originally posted on the international Open Government Partnership blog: http://blog.opengovpartnership.org/2013/05/critical-components-for-engaging-civil-society-in-the-national-action-plan/

In two recent, companion posts on this site, Graham Gordon from the UK OGP Civil Society Network and Ilaria Miller from the Cabinet Office reflect on whether the process of drafting the UK’s second National Action Plan (NAP) has been worth it. Both, despite the challenges, agree that it has been. Ilaria finishes her post by saying:

I AM VERY PROUD OF HOW FAR WE HAVE COME, WE COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT OUR CIVIL SOCIETY PARTNERS AND WE WILL NEED THEM EVEN MORE GOING FORWARD.

What I want to do here is go into a little more detail about how the UK process has actually happened. And I think this is important because we have been engaged in a different kind of conversation about how to implement open government. In doing so we are piloting a different way of making policy. Along the way I will reflect on a number of the challenges that we have faced which haven’t been picked-up in either of the previous posts.

At its very simplest, the process for creating the draft NAP has seen a small network of civil society organisations meet with two Cabinet Office civil servants from the Transparency Team on a weekly basis. These weekly meetings are used to discuss, debate and build a better understanding of the key elements of Open Government which will need to be included within the NAP. More recently they have been used to discuss, edit and amend the draft text of the NAP.

There are 7 components to the process which I would identify as being critical to its success so far. We haven’t got all (any?) of them totally right yet. The simple descriptions hide a lot of nuance, but at their baldest they represent a good picture of why the process has worked so far.

1) Having a clear way of explaining how what we are doing is different: the UK’s first NAP was produced through a fairly standard consultation process; government defined the issue, asked the questions, heard the responses and drafted the plan. The second NAP is being drafted by the civil society network and civil servants working together for submission to Ministers. The civil society network and civil servants are attempting to co-produce the draft NAP for political sign-off. Government isn’t identifying the key questions and commitments, but neither is civil society. We are engaging together to do so.

2) Regular meetings, owned by both sides: the regular meetings have been critical for building the relationship and trust between government and civil society. They have been co-chaired by both sides, with the agenda being jointly developed. It is during these meetings in particular that government has been able to demonstrate that it is trying to draft this NAP in a very different way.

3) Being very clear who we are: this is particularly important for the civil society organisations involved. We do not represent civil society en masse (who could?). We don’t claim to be more than a very small number of civil society organisations who have the energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of relevant areas of open government to make a contribution. We don’t even claim to be the only organisations with enthusiasm and knowledge in the area. The civil society organisations understand that the Cabinet Office, which has been leading the process from the government side, does not represent the whole of government and cannot make commitments which fall within the jurisdiction of other government departments. This will mean considerable effort on the side of those most fully engaged with the NAP process to develop on-going relationships with the relevant ministries.

4) Attempting to reach-out: this is the one critical component I think we have done least well. The civil society network began as being largely, but not exclusively, made up of international development and governance NGOs, with a small smattering of people interested in open data. We have managed to draw in a few more organisations and individuals working in the UK at national and local level. However, we have not got beyond the process and governance geeks to draw in organisations interested directly in public outcomes rather than government process.

On the government side it has largely been the Cabinet Office which has engaged. Other departments have joined some meetings, but these have been largely one-off and they therefore don’t properly understand how the process is different and what value it brings.

The next phase of the NAP development will have to see us reaching out much more widely, particularly to civil society organisations working with local communities on issues that matter to them. We will also have to ensure that key government departments engage more deeply as the commitments are firmed up.

5) Keeping the process itself open and transparent: while those who are part of the network can’t and don’t represent civil society (and haven’t had the resources to reach out widely), we can make sure that the process is open and transparent. Through using a blog set-up for the purpose and actively posting details of the latest status of the NAP, when and where meetings are and on what topic, and publishing minutes very soon after each meeting, we hope to demonstrate that this is an open process and to draw others in.

6) Using a combination of face-to-face meetings, email lists, document sharing platforms and teleconferencing facilities: even with a small, largely London based set of civil society organisations taking part, people find it difficult to attend meetings. A combination of methods has been important for ensuring that everyone is kept aware of what is happening, and giving them many ways to participate and contribute.

7) Having dedicated coordinators: the open government agenda is far wider than the mandate of any one organisation. From the civil society side this has proved a particular problem as it means no-one can justify the staff time to coordinate meetings and civil society responses to developments in the process. It is a measure of how important they feel this is that they have funded my organisation Involve to coordinate the network and, from the civil society side, the process. It certainly feels from my perspective that we couldn’t have got as far as we have without this key resource.

As both Graham and Ilaria acknowledge, this is challenging. The NAP will make firm, time-bound commitments for what the government is going to do to open up government. Different political perspectives will mean that the government will not do everything that civil society wants to do. However, given the nature of the process, government feels the NAP is going much further in some areas than it would do alone.

For those close to the centre of the process (on both the government and civil society side) this feels fine, the levels of trust are relatively high. For those much more distantly connected to the process the same is not true. I suspect this is because, different as the process is trying to be, it still looks like a government consultation to anyone not following it closely. It is an indication of these challenges that the NAP, which was due to be published on 24th April, has not yet emerged from the government machine. It will do, government and civil society will continue to work towards a shared set of actions for open government, and the plan will be stronger as a result.

Simon Burall – Director, Involve

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