News 19th November 2014

Meeting with Francis Maude | 4th November 2014

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

Introduction

On 4th November 2014, seven members of the UK Open Government Civil Society Network met Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) and officials from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team to discuss progress and next steps on the Open Government Partnership in the UK.

Attendees

Civil Society Network

Andy Williamson, Democratise
Anthony Zacharzewski, Democratic Society
Claire Schouten, International Budget Partnership
Martin Tisne, Omidyar Network
Rachel Davies, Transparency International UK
Simon Burall, Involve
Tim Hughes, Involve

Cabinet Office

Francis Maude
Paul Maltby
Kitty von Bertele
Lizetta Lyster

Progress to date

Claire Schouten introduced a discussion on progress to date on the behalf of the civil society network.

The value of open government principles being applied to private as well as public sector organisations was highlighted, and the government’s recognition of this through the commitments included in the 2013-15 National Action Plan was welcomed.

 Attention was drawn to the positive developments from the action plan, including the commitments on beneficial ownership and the anti-corruption action plan. The UK’s leadership on beneficial ownership in G20 was welcomed.

There has been a marked difference in the level of constructive engagement during the process of developing the 2013-15 National Action Plan. However, civil society representatives reported the need for more consistency across government departments in engaging with civil society on the delivery of commitments.

A circular or statement from the minister outlining expectations for all in terms of collaborative engagement would help government and civil society was suggested. The movement of staff and retaining knowledge of the process has been a particular problem.

More notice from government departments on opportunities to engage was requested, in order that civil society can provide more constructive feedback. Government tends to allow itself much more time to prepare something, than it allows others to comment on it, which needs to be overcome in order to support civil society engagement.

Collaboration between government and civil society needs to carry through to the delivery of commitments. This needs to be factored into the development of the next National Action Plan. The collaborative and open process could be as, if not more, transformational as many of the commitments.

The process must not become a tick box exercise by government departments, but allow for the unpicking of issues. It was questioned how the process and relationships between government and civil society could be improved. Regular reviews are not enough. It was suggested that government department to department peer exchange might help to embed culture change.

Regarding the status of commitments, Francis Maude felt that progress had been good despite some commitments being behind schedule. He remarked that if this were not the case, then the action plan would likely have not been ambitious enough. The minister spoke of his commitment and pride in what’s been achieved, but emphasised that the rest of the world is moving fast and the UK can’t rest on our laurels. He spoke of being very keen to ensure we continue to do challenging things.

Government will be assessing the engagement between government and civil society as part of its own self assessment, including what has and hasn’t worked well.

It was suggested that lessons could be taken from the legislative openness group’s public facing events as a way of building and maintaining momentum, and getting more people involved in the process.

The OGP has given ‘rocket boosters’ to work already taking place in government, such as on open policy making. While it is not yet the default, it has become more normal. It was suggested that support for open policy making now needed to move from a hand-holding to a supportive role.

Francis Maude said that he felt the case for open policy making being the only way of doing things still needed to be made: Where a policy issue is not controversial, it doesn’t matter how you make policy, so you may as well make it openly; Where a policy issue is controversial, if you try to make policy in the traditional way then you start with the maximum amount of suspicion – the open policy model is the only way you can mobilise support and get consensus. Unless you go to great lengths to show your working and there are no fears of hidden agendas, you just won’t get things done.

Civil society organisations are actively trying to sell this message into government, but there is an issue of open policy needing lead time to set up. How do you get policy makers to start the process when it doesn’t feel immediately necessary, rather than when the policy process is under pressure? 

The role of the Transparency Team in ensuring progress updates were completed and that departments engaged with civil society was emphasised and welcomed.

Next steps

Kitty von Bertele introduced the next steps discussion, outlining that the Transparency Team wanted to use the next few months to better embed the process and encourage attitude change.

There has been much international interest in the development of the 2013-15 action plan, as well as some justified self-congratulation. However, its now important to capitalise on what has been achieved so far and maintain the UK’s leadership position. How do we properly stretch ourselves?

Widening participation was identified as a priority – how do we get more people involved and create opportunities for people to engage? There is an opportunity to work out how to make the OGP relevant to different people in different regions and demonstrate that it’s possible to piece together in a complex structure. 

Scotland are potentially interested in hosting a roundtable, which would be a good starting point. The Minister signalled his interest in this. It was emphasised that the process must not be driven or owned by the Westminster or Whitehall, but would need to adopt a networked peer-to-peer approach. 

The question of the role of cities was raised. This is something that Mexico is going to be looking at and that the OGP is going in a local direction. The UK could potentially trial an approach to involving local areas to see how it works. There would need to be a balance between maintaining the national level as well as getting local interest.

A network of peers could be established in the UK and internationally of people doing open government well at a local level. 

In order to widen participation we need to speak the language of those working on particular areas – currently it’s still a case of the open government geeks talking within the church. There’s a need for a broad civil society group beyond those interested in open government specifically. 

It was discussed that political transitions have not worked well in other OGP countries. It’s important that we maintain the momentum – the civil society network can help the government plan for this. Open government is not contentious in a party political sense. The civil society network needs to speak to relevant individuals in all parties to get open government on the agenda.

Open government manifesto

Tim Hughes introduced the open government manifesto, stating that the civil society network was using it as a “hook” to engage a broad range of civil society, ensure momentum through the election, and to start scoping out priorities for the next National Action Plan. Involve, on behalf of the network, would be attending events and establishing workshops to get people to feed in, and are interested in the role the Cabinet Office can play in supporting the initiative and ensuring it gets out to as many groups as possible.

The timeline for the manifesto was discussed, which is currently for the crowdsourcing phase to be open for 4 months, with an expert group then prioritising the commitments, and a shortlist being presented to the incoming government post election. 

It was suggested that there was opportunity for the government to get involved in the manifesto by supporting events and the broadening of participation.

AOB 

The issue of declining civic space in OGP member countries was raised and the operation of the OGP’s new rapid response mechanism policy. A current issue of concern is the attacks on the Montenegro IRM researcher.

Civil society representatives emphasised the importance of the UK government supporting international civil society through its role on the OGP steering committee. Government and civil society would need to work together to ensure that the relevant levers are used most effectively.

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