Meeting notes 21st May 2015

What Next for Making Government More Open & Transparent? |Co-hosted with GlobalNet21| 18 May 2015 | Meeting note

by Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She works on the Open Government Partnership and supports the coordination of the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network.

GlobalNet21 and the UK Civil Society Open Government Network hosted an event on 18 May 2015 to explore the priorities for making the new government more open and transparent. The aim was to explore what open government issues matter most, and how we can take forward discussions on them.

The meeting started with two opening statements from Tim Hughes, UK Civil Society Open Government Network and Emily Randall, Unlock Democracy. The meeting then divided into three working groups to discuss ideas to explore the issues in more detail.

Tim Hughes, UK Civil Society Open Government Network

Tim introduced the principles behind the open government movement, the work of the UK Civil Society Open Government Network and their relationship to the Open Government Partnership. The Open Government Partnership is a platform for reformers inside and outside governments around the world to develop reforms that “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”. The UK government has been a member since 2011. The UK Open Government Civil Society Network is a group of organisations and individuals committed to making government work better for people.

Tim commented that the last government had a mixed record on issues such as Freedom of Information and open data. The government had pledged to be the “most open and transparent government in the world”, and whilst they have achieved openness on some measures, such as availability of data, on other measures they have done less well.

Tim commented that open government reformers have a good opportunity with the new government to build on what has come before, with the priority being not to lose the gains we have already made. He particularly identified the proposed reforms to the Human Rights Act as an area of concern.

Tim introduced the Open Government Manifesto, the network’s project to crowdsource ideas open government reforms to input into the next UK National Action Plan as part of the Open Government Partnership. The UK National Action Plan is due to be agreed by government and civil society by the end of the year. Tim identified the Open Government Partnership as the best thing the UK government did in the last parliament for open government.

Emily Randall, Unlock Democracy

Emily spoke on behalf of Unlock Democracy. Emily acknowledged the claims made by the last government that they were the best at openness but contested this claim, saying that open data is a good step, but not the same as being fully accessible. The big issue is about how the data is available and whether it is truly accessible – do you need a degree to understand what’s on the parliament or government website? She noted that Unlock Democracy volunteers often give up on getting the information they need from government websites and end up Googling.

Emily commented that we need a culture of transparency. Citizens should have full, easy access to information without having to ask for it. She referenced the projects “Follow the Money” and “Under the Influence” which seek to make money in politics more transparent. A major barrier for these projects is the formatting of the data being different across different Whitehall departments. For example, some departments use MS Excel and some use PDFs.

Citizens should know what influence the lobbying industry has had on policy. For example, there’s a good chance that Tesco has influence on taxes, the cost of fuel, employee rights and more. But we don’t know what they’re saying and how they’re influencing. The Lobbying Bill has not tackled this problem; the lobbying industry is on the record as saying their own regulation is better than the government’s.

Emily also commented that a ministerial veto on Freedom of Information is now on the cards when we should be progressing, not going backwards.

Working group feedback

After presentations from Tim and Emily, the meeting divided into three working groups to discuss ideas to explore the issues in more detail.

Table 1

The table discussed the important foundation of education necessary to hold government to account, ensure it is transparent and that it involves citizens. We need citizenship education and embedding a sense of citizenship, democratic schools, and to equip people with the right skills.

The table asked the question: is society set up for people to participate? At the moment we don’t have the ability but a Citizen’s Income could give people the space to participate.

The table also reflected on the Digital Democracy Commission, saying that the issue is the culture not fitting well with those recommendations. All the recommendations are good recommendations, but there are wider systemic issues.

Table 2

The table had a discussion about the importance of ministers getting out into the community and facing the public, meeting people, being held to account on promises.

The table also discussed the  need for more data pre election. We need to audit and fact check policies.

They also discussed different ways of voting, referencing the Swiss system as more systemic. Should we be voting on policies?

Table 3

The table felt that the commitments all had merit but that there were too many to look at in such a short time.

Therefore the table concentrated on transparency in contracting, a topic which people on the table had expertise in. It is difficult to give increased transparency because of commercial sensitivity to do with pricing and performance, and anti competition legal issues. Also a lot more information is available than you think, but the issue is that no one knows it’s available, so no one asks. Citizens need to be able to understand the system and how to access information.

On this theme, the table discussed the idea of have a contact at the local authority with the specific responsibility to let people know about information and answer questions, and who is independent.

The table also discussed the idea of participatory budgeting in projects, and the need for the opportunity to be available to a diversity of people, so that those involved are not viewed simply as another intellectual elite.

Contribute to the Open Government Manifesto

If you attended this event and you would like to comment and make suggestions on the commitments discussed on the tables, you can do so here: http://www.opengovmanifesto.org.uk/

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