The following sections set out in detail the key steps, descriptions of activities and the learning from the development of the UK’s 2013-15 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan. The key stages of the process were as follows:
i. Formation of the civil society network (April 2012 to October 2012)
ii. Early meetings with the Government (November 2012 to January 2013)
iii. Draft National Action Plan (February 2013 to June 2013)
iv. Finalising the National Action Plan (July 2013 to October 2013)
Civil society network forms in response to the UK’s first National Action Plan. Network members write to Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) and produce a collaborative analysis of the UK’s first NAP.
The Minister responds to the civil society networks letter, welcoming the engagement of CSOs in the OGP and NAP.
Members of the civil society network agree on the need for a civil society coordinator, and Involve is asked to take on the role
A one-day workshop is held by members of the civil society network to develop a shared vision for the OGP.
In the months following the launch of the UK’s first National Action Plan, a network of UK civil society organisations with an interest in open government began to form in response. Members of the network established a mailing list and a blog for collaboration and engagement.
In early April 2012 these CSOs wrote to Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for the OGP) welcoming the UK’s membership of the OGP and calling for greater engagement with civil society and a broader focus (i.e. beyond open data) going forward. In addition, these CSOs produced a collaborative analysis of the NAP and wider open government policy environment which was published in mid April 2012.
In early June 2012 the Minister responded, welcoming the engagement of civil society organisations in the UK’s co-chairmanship of the OGP, stating his personal commitment to “open consultation and civic engagement”, and proposing the formation of a civil society forum to “meet regularly to review UK Government commitments and performance, to provide feedback on progress and to challenge the UK government to do more.”
It was suggested by the Minister and government officials that the CSO network should appoint a high-level representative to meet with the Minister on a regular basis. CSOs, however, were concerned that this would introduce a gatekeeper into the process, with the chance that they may capture it for their own means. It was also felt that there was no suitable candidate with sufficient seniority and understanding across the breadth of open government, and that this reflected too much of a traditional model of policy making. The CSO network therefore decided against appointing a high level chair.
In September 2012, after a number of discussions about how the civil society network could better function, it was agreed that a coordinator was needed to facilitate engagement with the Government, reduce the burden of engagement by organisations and support collaboration across the network. Involve, a UK based CSO with a focus on public participation, was asked by other members of the network to take on this role.
At this point, initial meetings were held between members of the CSO network and officials with responsibility for the NAP from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team to discuss the role of the network in developing the UK’s second NAP.
On 11 October 2012 members of the CSO network met to develop a shared vision for what the network wanted to achieve from the OGP. This full day workshop – organised and facilitated by Involve and Tim Davies – was divided into two parts, with the morning consisting of introductions and updates on the OGP and quick-fire presentations covering key open government issues, ideas and initiatives. The afternoon took the form of an open space discussion on key civil society priorities for the OGP. In preparation for the meeting, CSO representatives were asked to produce one page briefings to inform the discussions, and following the meeting group rapporteurs wrote up their notes of the open space discussions.
In the days following the civil society workshop, members of the CSO network collaborated over Google Docs to develop a UK civil society network vision for the Open Government Partnership. This became a source document that informed many of the discussions with the Government in the following months.
The existence of the civil society network was important for government as it provided a ready-made point of contact with civil society. However, the downside of this was that it perhaps reduced the impetus to engage more broadly. The status of the network and its relationship to wider civil society was a recurring issue throughout the process. On the part of the network, members were careful not to claim to speak for “civil society” and acknowledged that they primarily came from a particular segment of civil society interested in governance and accountability issues. The need to engage wider civil society was recognised throughout the process, but good intentions were hampered by a lack of resources being devoted and breaks in the process due to staff capacity.
The mailing list of the civil society network, which has grown steadily since it was established, was essential for maintaining communication between members of the network. Those on the list were involved in the development of the NAP to varying degrees, with some very heavily involved, others dipping in and out, and some lurking in the background. This mixture of engagement levels is an unavoidable result of trying to achieve a breadth of engagement. It is also arguably desirable as it allows the process to be driven forward by a core group of engaged CSOs, but remains accessible to others to enter if/when issues arise that have relevance to them. The blog was also important for publicising the activities of the network, communicating open invitations to meetings and recording the discussions and outcomes of meetings between the civil society network and government. They both helped to ensure a good degree of transparency and participation in the process.
The decision of the CSO network not to appoint a high level representative to meet with the Minister has been discussed on a number of occasions since. On the one hand it could be considered to have been a missed opportunity as the process did suffer from a lack of engagement between CSOs and senior government ministers and officials. However, on balance the general feeling remains within the CSO network that it was correct not to appoint a high level representative for the same concerns expressed at the time (i.e. concern it would install a gatekeeper and lack of an appropriate candidate).
The civil society coordination role proved to be vital to the success of the engagement between government and civil society. Key was that the coordinator was chosen by civil society organisations, and remained independent of government. Securing sufficient resources for the coordination role proved to be a challenge. Funding from government for this role was discussed, but it later became clear that this could have restricted the ability of the civil society coordinators to challenge government when needed.
The production of the civil society network vision proved to be important for coordination and collaboration within the network, and as a starting point for conversations with the Government. It was successful from a civil society standpoint in leading and framing the discussion with government officials. However, the one sided nature of proposals at this stage proved to be problematic later in the process. It became clear that commitments should have been proposed by both civil society and government at this stage, to avoid the issues later encountered with the draft NAP being considered to be just a wish list from civil society and commitments from government being proposed late in the process.
The lead officials from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team demonstrated a strong desire to develop an open and collaborative process with civil society, and were open to the process itself being co-developed with civil society. This required them to make the case to Ministers and take on a significant amount of risk. Early meetings between officials and the civil society coordinators were important for acknowledging these risks and reassuring officials of the worth of taking them on. CSO network members recognised the personal commitment to the process of officials, which helped to reassure individuals of the value of engaging.
Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) gives his support for the NAP to be developed in partnership between government and civil society.
Meetings are held between government officials and CSO network members to co-design and agree the NAP development process.
A series of open meetings are held between the CSO network and government officials to scope out the action plan and commitment areas.
On 17 October 2012, Francis Maude announced at a conference – “The Future is Open” – that the UK’s second National Action Plan would be developed in partnership with civil society. The following week members of the civil society network and Cabinet Office officials met to discuss the process for developing the NAP, including the key milestones and how collaboration would take place. It was agreed that a draft NAP would initially be produced to be launched at a OGP Steering Committee meeting in late April 2013, which would subsequently become the basis for external engagement and further collaboration, with the final NAP being published at the OGP 2013 London Summit.
This led to the establishment of a series of working lunches between the civil society network and government officials (hosted at the Open Data Institute) to begin to scope out the narrative and contents of the NAP. These included an initial meeting on 15 November 2012 where four areas were agreed as a focus for the subsequent discussion: Extending the principles of openness and transparency; Moving forward the global agenda on openness and transparency; Participation and open policy making; and Anti-corruption.
A document was drafted, based on this initial discussion and the civil society vision, which outlined the policies and issues that the civil society network wished to address under each of the themes. This subsequently informed a series of meetings on each of the four themes over the following couple of months. Each of these meetings were roughly two hours in length, with the chair alternating between government and civil society. Cabinet Office Transparency Team officials were present at all of the meetings and sought to bring in relevant officials from other departments where possible.
These meetings were open to any representatives from civil society, with each advertised through the civil society network blog and social media. Though in principle these meetings were open to any representatives from UK based CSOs, in practice the location and timing of these meetings in London at midday restricted access. In an attempt to mitigate this, remote participation was established for meetings through a webinar service. Notes of each of the discussions were also recorded and posted on the CSO network blog to ensure that the process was transparent to any interested observers.
These initial meetings were successful in building up good working relationships between civil society representatives and Cabinet Office Transparency Team officials. Taking place in a “neutral” location and in an open and collaborative manner they helped to establish a different way of working. It also helped to develop understanding of what could and could not likely be achieved through the process.
Not all relevant officials were included in these meetings and connections were not maintained with many of those who did attend. As a result, key stakeholders from departments were not fully engaged in the development of draft commitments at this stage. There was a misunderstanding on the part of members of the civil society network about what could be driven and achieved by the Cabinet Office Transparency Team in isolation, meaning that too much focus was put on developing what CSO representatives considered to be a perfect NAP and not enough on engaging relevant officials. This led to problems in the subsequent phase.
The narrative for a draft NAP is co-developed
Members of the CSO network hold a session on the draft National Action Plan at an open data event in Manchester
The draft NAP, which included commitments agreed by government and civil society and an annex of additional civil society asks, is published for public consultation
Following the discussions on the each of the themes, a meeting was held in mid-February 2013 to discuss the narrative for a draft NAP. Based on this discussion, officials in the Cabinet Office Transparency Team developed a first draft of the narrative. This was subsequently shared via a Google Doc with members of the civil society network, who commented on and edited the narrative. After a few iterations, a common narrative was found that linked the open government commitments that had been discussed over the past five months, and presented a vision of open government driving both prosperity and democratic renewal.
Following the earlier meetings on each of the themes, members of the civil society network had continued to develop the proposals for commitments. The intention had been at this stage that the Cabinet Office Transparency Team would facilitate collaboration between relevant members of the network and policy officials to develop the commitments. In part due to the team being under-resourced, this did not take place. Instead, the civil society network developed its own draft of the NAP, which included the co-drafted narrative alongside civil society asks.
Departments were engaged during this time on which commitments could and could not be made by the Government, leading to further iterations of the plan. This included a series of commitments that could be made in the main body, with an annex of additional civil society asks that would continue to be discussed. When a final draft had been reached through collaboration between the CSO network and Cabinet Office Transparency Team, it was submitted for a departmental sign-off process to secure agreement for publication. However, at this stage the lack of strong cross-departmental engagement resulted in a number of unanticipated issues arising, with officials being concerned about the inclusion of some commitments within the draft NAP and about the status of the civil society annex. This ultimately meant that the intended publication date for the draft NAP was not met.
At this time, the two key lead officials who had driven the process both left the Cabinet Office Transparency Team, resulting in a two month gap with nobody in post. By the time the posts were filled in early June, the draft NAP had been delayed by two months, and the momentum was set back and optimism that had built up around the process had been damaged.
During this time members of the CSO network held a session on the draft National Action Plan at related events in Manchester and London. It was intended that this would lead on to a number of similar outreach events on the draft NAP around the country led by government officials, but the pause in the process caused by the loss of personnel from the Cabinet Office team resulted in this not happening.
In mid June 2013, members of the civil society network met with Nick Hurd MP (Minister for Civil Society) and the new Cabinet Office Transparency Team leads on the NAP. Concerns were expressed in these meetings at the delays in the publication of the draft NAP and the gap in personnel at a key stage of the process. Critically, the Minister and Cabinet Office officials were open about the problems that had been experienced and were committed to solving and learning from them, which gave members of the CSO network renewed confidence that it was worth remaining engaged.
The draft National Action Plan was published at the end of June following these meetings and became the basis for a public consultation.
At a number of times throughout the process, collaboration between government and civil society was hampered by the restrictions of government IT; including, for example, not being able to access Google Docs, which the CSO network used regularly for collaborative drafting.
It became clear during this period that key stakeholders within government departments had not been engaged sufficiently, which led to significant delays in the process. The OGP at this stage was still relatively unheard of throughout much of government, meaning that officials in the next phase had to commit time to “selling” the OGP to departments whilst also attempting to secure commitments and finalise the NAP against tight deadlines. This reinforces the necessity of ensuring that all key stakeholders are engaged in the process as early as possible. Civil society similarly needs to be mindful of this and support it taking place. The allocation of responsibility for the OGP to officials within each department would, perhaps, be a way of ensuring greater understanding and engagement with the OGP. It is important that the coordinating department functions as a facilitator – rather than gatekeeper – connecting relevant CSOs and government officials together and being on hand as an intermediary to resolve any issues that arise.
The two month break in the process with no lead government personnel threatened the success of the NAP by restricting the amount of time available for public consultation and finalising the NAP, and diminishing the trust and momentum that had been built up. Consistency of resources and personnel throughout a collaborative process such as this is critical to its chances of success. Key to the process getting back on track was the openness of the Minister for Civil Society and officials to the issues that had been encountered, and the commitment and energy they showed to build on the positives from the process and learn from the negatives.
The lack of handover time between government officials meant that the new policy leads came into the process cold. Not having a background in open government meant that some time was lost as officials acquainted themselves with what is an extremely broad agenda, including the technical language and how commitments fit together. Conversations were repeated between government and civil society that had taken place with a number of other government officials, suggesting a need for better handover and contact records management systems.
New policy leads meet with civil society network members and government policy leads
Cabinet Office Transparency Team sets up and facilitates meetings between civil society network members and policy leads to set up working groups on relevant commitments
Public consultation is held based on the draft NAP
Commitments are agreed between government and civil society, and meetings are held to clear up any issues arising from some commitments
An open letter is sent from the civil society network to the Prime Minister calling on him to make a series of ambitious commitments
Plan is launched at OGP Summit
Over the following months, the new lead officials in the Cabinet Office Transparency Team held a series of meetings with members of the CSO network and policy leads in other government departments. Their commitment to the process helped to regain much of the trust and momentum that had been lost due to the earlier delays and gap in personnel.
The focus during this period was primarily on the civil society asks within the annex of the draft NAP that had potential to become commitments for the final NAP, as well as further developing the detail of a number of the commitments that were included in the draft.
The conversations between civil society network members and government officials were aided by the development of a template for commitments by the Transparency Team. This helped to focus people’s minds and ensure that collaboration was productive. The Transparency Team also played an important role in facilitating these meetings and in some cases playing an internal advocacy role to push commitments along and ensure that they were as ambitious as possible, which also helped in building the trust and engagement of CSOs.
The majority of the meetings held during this time were of small groups of CSO network members and government officials working on the detail of specific commitments. However, one large group meeting was held on 1 October to discuss progress across the commitments and the narrative for the NAP, which was again drafted jointly by government officials and civil society representatives. It was agreed at this meeting that, subject to what happened in the following weeks as the NAP was finalised, the process had been a partnership between government and the civil society network.
Commitments had progressed well and were stronger than had previously been the case, but it was felt by members of the civil society network with a month to go before launch that there were no standout headline commitments that showed significant ambition from the Government. It was felt that this was problematic for the success of the NAP and continued civil society engagement, but also for the success of the OGP if – as lead co-chairs – the UK did not announce something significant. Therefore, an open letter from the civil society network was sent to the Prime Minister calling on him to make a series of ambitious commitments.
Up until this point, most of the discussion had centred around commitments that had been proposed by members of the civil society network. However, in the final few weeks before the publication of the NAP new commitments were suggested by government departments. In some cases there was disagreement between civil society and government over whether these suggested commitments should be included and little time to properly discuss them. This threatened to undermine the partnership nature of the NAP as CSOs would be unwilling to show support for the document as a whole if it contained commitments that they felt could be damaging.
Some of the commitments suggested at this stage were either supported by civil society network members or were considered to be uncontroversial, so after some work to further develop the commitment were included in the NAP. After some discussion between government officials and civil society network members, a few of the other proposed commitments were agreed to be not strong enough or not directly relevant to open government, so were not included in the NAP.
One commitment, however, on health data, had significant support from within government and health related civil society organisations, but was a source of concern for privacy and open data CSOs. Specifically, it was felt by these CSOs that the framing of the commitment conflated linked data with open data, which was considered to be a danger for the privacy of citizens and for the open data movement. In an attempt to find some agreement, meetings were held between representatives from these CSOs and key policy officials, facilitated by the Cabinet Office Transparency Team and the civil society coordinators, to discuss the intentions behind the commitment and the concerns of CSOs. After some intense discussion and further iterations of the commitment, agreement was found over wording that reframed it in such a way that CSOs no longer considered its inclusion to be damaging.
During the final few weeks of the process, drafts of the NAP were shared with members of the civil society network. There was some concern from government officials that the NAP would be leaked, but a recognition that for the partnership to work civil society organisations needed to have access to the final drafts of the NAP, not least to go through their own internal sign-off process for the civil society foreword and commitments they were associated with. It was therefore agreed that the final drafts should only be shared with those CSOs that had been engaged in the process, rather than the full network mailing list.
In the final two weeks leading up to the publication of the NAP, it was circulated around government departments for sign-off. Due to the level of engagement with departmental stakeholders by this stage, and because commitments had already been signed off as they were completed, no problems arose in the sign-off process this time. In a parallel process, CSOs developed and signed off the civil society foreword and agreed to being associated with commitments.
One commitment, however, continued to be outstanding at this stage. Discussions within government and between government and CSOs had been ongoing on whether a commitment would be made to a public register of beneficial ownership. Government was analysing responses to a recently closed consultation on the subject. The final decision to include this commitment was not taken until the day before the NAP was announced.
A few months prior to the launch of the NAP, the UK Government had chaired the G8 at which it launched a number of transparency initiatives. As a result, in a number of areas policy officials felt unable to make additional commitments for the OGP. This issue stemmed partly from a lack of awareness of the OGP, but also from there not being a strategic view of what should be launched and when. Attention needs to be paid to how the OGP fits with other international initiatives.
The gap in policy leads and the delay in publication of the draft NAP meant that the 12 week public consultation was squeezed into the process and not given the attention it needed to secure significant input. This resulted in a very limited response and little time to feed the results into the final NAP. The original intention had been to conduct external engagement after the publication of the draft NAP. However, the delays meant that this fell over the summer months, during which time there were no events that could be piggy-backed on, and the Transparency Team did not have enough staff capacity to devote to engagement with the other demands on their time. CSO network members had previously proposed a series of dedicated outreach events, but these suggestions were not taken up due to lack of resourcing. The result was that there was very little outreach to different sections of society. This reinforces the need for engagement to be properly resourced, with dedicated staff time, and the need for consistency of resources and personnel across the process as a whole.
The publication of the Independent Reporting Mechanism’s report on the UK’s 2011 to 2013 NAP at this stage came too late to inform the development of the 2013 to 2015 NAP. The need for the IRM to come at the end of a NAP period suggests that the ongoing self-evaluation of progress by government and civil society will likely be critical for informing the development of new NAPs.
The development of the template for commitments proved to be critical for focusing government departments and civil society organisations on the task in hand. Earlier discussions would have benefited from this template being developed at the beginning of the process.
The Cabinet Office Transparency Team played an important role of facilitating conversations between policy officials and civil society network members to develop commitments. These small working groups were successful in getting into the detail of commitments and jointly developing them. However, these smaller group meetings were not as open as previous large group meetings had been, meaning that in a few cases key people were not invited. In the case of some cross-cutting agendas, it was also sometimes unclear who the government lead was or should be, which hampered collaboration. The OGP can add value to existing civil society – government conversations through inter-departmental discussions of cross cutting issues.
For civil society during this time a delicate balance needed to be found of demonstrating commitment and optimism towards the partnership to government officials (to maintain goodwill and engagement on their part) at the same time as putting pressure on Ministers through more traditional advocacy methods. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was some disagreement between government and civil society over the level of ambition of the commitments, while messages that were not perceived to be particularly negative by civil society network members were heard as being quite negative about the process and NAP by government officials. The trust that had been built up to this point, as well as strong and robust communication, were needed to ensure that the process hung together.
The fact that there were no leaks of the NAP in the final weeks reflected the amount of trust and goodwill that had been built between government officials and civil society network members. These relationships proved to be critical at every stage of the process, ensuring that issues were quickly dealt with calmly and did not undermine the process. However, the process could have been perhaps strengthened and earlier issues avoided if similar relationships were in place with officials at more senior levels within the government. Likewise, the civil society network lacked a direct line to the Minister, in part due its decision not to appoint a high level chair through fear of installing a gatekeeper. Civil society would benefit in future from developing an advocacy strategy to ensure that important relationships such as these are developed.
There was some disagreement during this stage about the nature of the partnership and, indeed, whether the process constituted a partnership at all due to the imbalance of power between government and civil society. At all times it was understood that Ministers held the final decision over which commitments the government would agree to include. In turn, civil society held a veto over whether the process was considered a partnership or not, based on the principle that a partnership required joint ownership of the plan, which provided some leverage for ensuring commitments were not included that members considered to be damaging. However, the asymmetry between the two parties for some continued to be a source of concern over the language used, particularly when new commitments were added by government. This will be an every present issue, and it is right that a NAP is the site of tensions between what civil society wants and what government is prepared to do. Government will always have the final say over whether a commitment is included, but working on the basis of partnership and co-ownership should mean that robust discussions are had to find compromise on the tensions inherent in the process. It is the working through of those tensions that delivers a strong and robust NAP. The overriding principles should be: no regression and no surprises.
The late suggestion of commitments by government departments threatened to undermine the partnership process at the end. This was primarily due to the contradiction of timeframes between typical policy processes and what is needed for a partnership process, but also awareness of the OGP becoming more widespread due to the efforts of the Transparency Team. This experience demonstrated the need for a clear timeline with a cut-off point beyond which new (particularly controversial) commitments cannot be added, backed up by high level buy-in to the partnership process and its implications (i.e. no last minute surprises). An important principle to work to is that any commitment included in a NAP has sufficient time for consideration of its implications and is subject to a rigorous approach.
More dedicated resource within government could have resulted in a stronger and more ambitious NAP. Two full-time staff is not sufficient given the intensity of work, complexity of the process and range of stakeholders involved. The development and implementation of a NAP should be approached as an ongoing programme of work, rather than a one off project.
The OGP NAP process and the OGP Summit provided an impetus for some of the commitments, which otherwise may not have been made at all or at this time. These included the public register of beneficial ownership, a timeline for the extractives transparency commitment and the cross departmental anti-corruption plan.
The process has set a precedent for a new way of working – itself modelling open government in action – and is the beginning of a cultural shift within government
Planning for the next steps of the UK process is currently underway, but a number of priorities areas have already been identified by government officials and the CSO network:
Present the learning from the process to date to the Minister for Civil Society and other countries set to develop their new NAPs.
Secure ongoing resourcing for the coordination of the CSO network to facilitate continued CSO involvement in the process and conduct activities outlined here
Continue to build the breadth and depth of the CSO network to increase its diversity and make it more representative of wider civil society
Where necessary, government officials and CSOs to continue to work together to develop and agree the details of commitments
Continued collaboration between government and CSOs to implement commitments and track their progress.
Establishing an ongoing record of progress against each commitment to enhance transparency and accountability of their implementation
Explore the potential of transitioning to a rolling action plan, with the possibility of new commitments being made when identified and agreed, published alongside regular progress updates. The bi-annual NAP could then be presented with a new, ambitious and stretching ‘wow’ commitment alongside an update on all the other commitments.
Revisit and develop the partnership agreement between government and civil society.
Work with government and civil society from devolved administrations to greatly increase their involvement in future NAPs
CSOs to build the understanding of open government and the OGP across all UK political parties
Continue to build knowledge and ownership of the OGP across government departments, and facilitate new civil society – government partnerships