News 27th June 2013

Note of meeting between Nick Hurd MP (Minister for Civil Society), Cabinet Office Transparency Team, and UK OGP civil society network

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

Introduction

On 20 June, members of the UK OGP civil society network met with Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, along with members of the Cabinet Office Transparency Team to discuss progress on developing the UK’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan.

In attendance were: Nick Hurd MP (Minister for Civil Society), Pete Lawrence (Cabinet Office Transparency Team), Francesca Orpen (Cabinet Office Transparency Team), Graham Gordon (CAFOD), Sam Barker (Tearfund), Simon Burall (Involve) and Tim Hughes (Involve).

Process of developing the NAP

The Minister began by asserting his commitment to the collaborative process of developing the UK’s national action plan, stating that he wanted it to work and wanted civil society network members to be frank in their assessment of the process to date.

Members of the civil society network reported that the collaborative process of working with officials from the Cabinet Office did feel different from previous experiences of engaging with government. We emphasised that members of the civil society network did not see themselves as representatives of civil society, but were rather individuals and organisations with a particular interest in issues of governance and process. We also highlighted that the process of engagement with some government departments had been challenging

We stated that the key to progress would be to improve engagement within government and civil society, and to work on moving a commitment in each of the sections of the plan from the annex (i.e. civil society asks) to the main body of the text. We stated that we viewed the role of the Cabinet Office as a broker and coordinator of relationships between departments and the Network.

The Minister asked if there had been any specific problems with any particular departments, how the rest of civil society could be engaged and for a sense of prioritisation of issues in the annex.

The Cabinet Office Transparency Team highlighted that issues with the departmental sign-off process were in part due to resolving comments received in response to the collective clearance process and in part due to a lack of resources within the team that had now been resolved. The team also noted that engagement with departments had not been as robust as it might have been and there were plans in place to improve this going forward and for the development of the final plan.

To engage wider civil society organisations, we discussed with the Minister that the Transparency Team and civil society network might use a twin track approach of engaging through national infrastructure organisations and identifying organisations working in particular sectors to engage with – health, education, transport or justice were suggested.

The issue of describing the process of developing the action plan was raised. We highlighted that while the narrative of the plan was co-drafted, the fact that government maintains control over what commitments are included meant that the plan itself could not be considered to be co-produced. The Minister acknowledged this and asserted his commitment to demonstrating the best possible process of working with civil society to develop the action plan. Officials from the Transparency Team asserted their ambition as facilitators to make the process as collaborative as possible.

The Minister asked what a good outcome would look like for the Network. In response, we stated that moving two or three commitments, balanced between domestic and international from the annex to the main body of the plan would demonstrate success. We highlighted that there are a number that currently sit within the annex that government has now made commitments on through the G8.

It was agreed that the focus over the coming months should be to engage with wider civil society on the contents of the plan and to aim to identify a few commitments on which government and civil society can find common ground to develop together for the final plan.

It was acknowledged by members of the civil society network and the Minister that the process of developing the final plan will require some give and take from both government and civil society, and that the best way to do this would be to get members of civil society and government officials from across the relevant departments in a room together. The Cabinet Office Transparency Team emphasised that they see their role as facilitating these conversations over the coming months.

The Minister stated that he was happy to attend events with civil society where his diary allowed to discuss the action plan, highlighting that he was keen  for more of civil society to understand the open government movement

Content of the NAP

It was acknowledged by all present that the delays in publishing the draft report meant that a number of the commitments were now out of date. We highlighted that there were a number that currently sat within the annex (as suggestions of action by civil society) that the government had now made commitments on through the G8, particularly around natural resource transparency, tax transparency and illicit financial flows and the Open Data Charter. For the final plan, we stressed that these commitments needed to be ‘upgraded’ to concrete commitments. However, it was agreed that in the interests of publishing the draft plan as soon as possible (in order to start engagement around it) it made sense for these to remain as they were and be updated as the final plan is iterated.

We also suggested that the OGP Annual Meeting in October-November gave  the UK government two significant political opportunities: first to build on the success of the first half of the G8 Presidency and to show progress on specific issues in the UK National Action Plan, for example though undertaking consultation on whether to make the register of beneficial ownership public, and on implementing the register of lobbyists. Second, to encourage all OGP member countries towards greater commitments across the board, for example on legislation for natural resource transparency or improved budget transparency scores – thus raising the bar at international level.

We highlighted that the participation section of the plan was currently the sparsest, in part because commitments were e of a different nature. However, we suggested that open data engagement – through the 5 Stars of Open Data Engagement or otherwise – would be a significant commitment to move from the annex to the final plan. While the Minister emphasised the need to continue to focus on getting the data out – and that this core job is not done yet – he was interested in and recognised the importance of open data engagement to make the agenda relevant and empowering to citizens.

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