Points of View 9th November 2015

Linking the SDGs and OGP in the UK

by Cat Tully

Catarina advises the UK and US governments on futures and national strategy. She trains government officials from across the world in strategy and is an active contributor to debates on strategy and global issues.

This post has been adapted from Cat’s submission to the International Development Committee on their Inquiry “Sustainable Development Goals”


As a youth activist leader from Ghana recently reflected, broad base ownership for the new set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been overwhelming. Compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were prepared largely by ‘experts’ at the UN, World Bank and the OECD, the process leading to the development of the SDGs has been broad-based; everyone felt that their voices were in there somewhere. So while the MDGs were criticised for being elitist and top-down, the SDGs can be described as a ‘Peoples Agenda’ for development.SDGs-GlobalGoalsForSustainableDevelopment-05

This is the power of transparency.  This is the power of accountability.  And this is the power of participation.

If the new Agenda is nothing less than a new vision for the whole world, what are the steps that are needed to take us there?  How can this framework avoid the bear-trap of many similar global and national, regional and city “visions” and commitments?  That generate a brief sense of goodwill and urgency.  But then the document stays collecting dust on the shelf.  The real challenge – as acknowledged by many participants of the SDG process – is how we resource, implement and achieve this aspirational vision.  Or rather – how do we meet the challenge set as laid out in the preamble:

“All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

The last two of the seventeen goals point to a solution – with goal 16 being in my view the most important one:

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Goal 16, goal 17 and the Follow Up and Review paragraphs of the outcome document makes a requirement for a clearer form of strategic planning at the centre for government – but one that is emergent.  What could this look like? Montenegro, Rwanda, Tunisia, Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia.  They are all trying to evolve their own approaches…  All countries need a process for systematically and ongoing looking at drivers of change in their country across the SDG framework – everything that affects the country’s social, environmental and economic (and security) across the range out to 2030 and beyond.  One that brings in agents of change, experts, people at the periphery and dissonant voices including those who are most affected by poverty, climate change and inequality.  One that acknowledges the interlinkages between the different goals, and that brings into the decision-making process the people who can contribute ideas, solutions, energy, authority, youth, well as new partnerships, capital and property.  This kind of emergent governance process needs to demonstrate value, impact and authority.  If it is interminable and long and disconnected, the very thought can make people shudder in fear of “paralysis” and interminable words without action.

So what does this look like in the UK?

The SDGs are indivisible and universal… the framework is not supposed to be a “developing country” or “aid” agenda.   This is a global agenda.   To achieve the 2030 vision, consumption and behaviour in rich countries need to be transformed.  How can we bring 1.1 billion more people onto the grid without choking the planet?  How can we expand a growing middle class with aspirations of consumption unless we change the patterns of middle class consumption everywhere?  How can we avoid international stability-threatening hypocrisy unless western countries start moving down from the 3 planetary resources they are using every year to 1?  And how can we build fences or walls strong enough or have big enough armies that insulate us from the effects of scarcity, drought famine, war, when these problems start knocking at our borders?

So – we need transformation at home – in the UK – as much as abroad.  Not just because we provide large quantities of aid to poor countries.  Not only because our behaviour abroad affects emerging economies.  Or because – as an important voice in Europe – we can advocate for effective European policy on sustainable development.  And not even because our consumption needs to change.  But also because how we act as a polity and a nation has a lot to gain from goal 16 (as well as the others: we still have a long way to go to address poverty, inequality, gender equity, and carbon emissions).  The critical strategic choice mentioned above holds also for the UK: how seriously are we willing to look at our own government operations and change in order to be able to deliver the vision promised by the SDGs?   We seem to be facing a crossroad – status quo or change?

Conversations about accountability, inclusion, effectiveness are just as important for UK institutions.  When the PM talks about fundamentally reforming the UK public service, he is facing a transformational task that is similar in magnitude though not in form to those faced in emerging economies: moving from the current status quo and facing trends of transformative potential of technology, increasing disaffection of citizens and growing inequality.  All put pressure on existing governance and public service arrangements.

So, this is the potential of the goal 16 in the UK.  Not for it to be pigeonholed as something that other countries need to do.  And not only to invest in peace-building, rule of law and effective institutions abroad.  But to invest in those assets, as well, here in the UK.  The PM correctly underlined the importance to “leave no one behind” in his role as Co-Chair on the High Level Panel.  I hope we can follow this call and harness the opportunity of the SDG framework, and use Goal 16 in a maximalist way in order to transform the UK.  A sign of the UK successfully taking up this challenge would be:

  • The reform and opening-up of processes at the centre – in particular making the link with the Open Government Partnership process and plan.
  • That the centre develops a “practicable ambitious national response to the overall implementation….and build on existing planning instruments”.  In the absence of cross-government economic and sustainable development strategies, it is worthwhile looking at how the primary existing cross-Whitehall coordination process – the National Security Council – could play a role in promoting an effective UK approach to SDG implementation…  Which will require some serious culture and perspective change to emphasise that this agenda is NOT about international aid and climate change, but includes a lot more – not least goal 16 in providing UK citizens with the institutions and democracy they deserve.
  • Most importantly: within these existing planning processes there needs to be open conversations within the UK with citizens, business, civil society about how we see our future in 2030?  What investments are needed to transition to a low carbon economy?  What measures do we take for full and productive employment when we face a changing labour market and skills-needs?  The UK Parliament could play a strong role in convening these conversations – inspired by the example of Finland’s Parliamentary Committee of the Future.
  • Hearing plans from the Cabinet Office, as well as HMT on how they intend to support and incentivise this transformative change across Whitehall, in particular how to encourage all departments as part of the settlement process to incorporate the right ambitions and cultural change.  In particular, for inclusive institutions to truly work and be legitimate over time, financial allocations and reporting needs to reflect the priorities and actions identified.  This link from engagement to policy development and especially resourcing needs to be made.  And will require significant changes in current practice.  Given it goes with the grain of some of the implementation drive and transparency agenda currently in place, there are opportunities to redouble existing efforts for reform.
  • An SDG Implementation Task Force is established to support the monitoring and evaluation process, measure implementation across different parts of government, and act as a central government focal point for the agenda.  It would be the docking point in government for Parliamentary citizen outreach on these issues, as well as be the engagement point for civil society network.  An appropriate mechanism to be able to hold the rest of government to account would be necessary, whether annual reporting or a commissioner role.  The UK would do well to learn from the Welsh “Commissioner for Future Generations” role that has been established.
  • That domestic ministries and domestic think tanks use the SDG framework and language to frame their own agenda and work…so the linkages between the domestic agenda (around consumption, women’s rights, health, education) are as relevant and integrated to the SDG implementation and monitoring mechanisms as conversations around trade, peace-building, infrastructure building abroad.
  • That agents within the governance ecosystem – from Mayors, Whitehall, Parliament, Lords, civil servants, councillors, the National Audit Office, Agencies, local parties, advocates for big data, open government, transparency and good governance, and even wider civil society and private sector for whom this is relevant – see the linkages between the SDGs (and where relevant goal 16) with their own work.  And see it as an opportunity to advocate for their own agenda.  An example of this is the current Cabinet Office Perm Secretary Jeremy Heywood’s attempts to promote strategic foresight and joined up teams across Whitehall.

I leave you with something that I DON’T want to see.  That Goal 16 becomes a line or number in a plan that gets reported on a yearly basis…and doesn’t change practice.  Let’s choose the right option.  Let’s make the SDGs real for UK citizens.  And let’s use it to finally transform and re-energise the relationship between citizens and our state.

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