A presentation I gave to Involve’s board of trustees last week prompted me to collect together these thoughts on why I think open government matters to public participation, and the opportunity and challenge of building an open government movement.
Why open government matters to public participation
Starting at the most basic level, public participation would, of course, be meaningless without the presence of other core elements of open government. For participation to be meaningful and effective, it requires the policy process, systems of governance, accountability and scrutiny, the evidence base, and the engagement process and outcomes to be transparent to citizens. For this reason, any advocate of involving citizens in decision making should also be an advocate of transparent decision-making processes.
This is a fairly obvious point to make. However, not enough attention is paid to the context in which public participation sits, and what changes in that context mean for the practice of participation. For example, what does the data deluge mean for how citizens engage with government? And, what is the likely consequence for public participation of the Government’s plans to weaken FoI legislation and not to extend it to private providers of public services?
At a more conceptual level, open government is arguably the first reform narrative in which citizens are not just the beneficiaries of the transformation of the workings of government, but are integral to bringing it about. The dominant conceptual models of organising the State in the twentieth century – from traditional public administration through New Public Management – almost completely ignored the role of citizens, or at least had an extremely partial understanding of citizenship. To put it crudely, consumers were lauded, voters tolerated and citizens considered an inconvenient distraction from the day-to-day business of governing. Public participation from time to time has caught a wave of political interest, but it has never been considered an integral part of attempts to make government work better.
Open government has the potential to change that. It can move us from a place where public participation is considered a nice-to-have, to one where it is seen as essential not only to good governance, but also to effecting broader cultural and institutional change within government.
The opportunity and challenge of building an open government movement
If a coherent and compelling narrative can be established for open government – that links together its constituent elements and establishes both an intuitive and well evidenced story of its benefits to the lives of citizens – then it should be the case that the open government movement is stronger together. But this will require an open government movement, rather than a set of disparate groups packaged as one.
There are a number of challenges to this – a couple of which I will mention here. The first is creating the space within our own organisational agendas to be able to devote time and effort to collaboration. This is of course the perennial challenge of collaboration: there’s an upfront cost, and the benefits can take longer to accrue and be harder to identify.
The second is that governments are often quite keen to adopt some aspects of openness, but not others. Open government often appears to be seen by governments as a menu from which to choose the most easily digestible dish, rather than a dish itself requiring all of its constituent ingredients. This goes some way to explain how the UK Government can declare it wants to be the most open and transparent government in the world (based on its admirable work on open data), yet be moving in the wrong direction on FoI, and dragging its feet in a number of other key areas. The inevitable question then is how an open government “movement” should engage with government when there is prospect for progress on some issues, but not others? This is a question occupying the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network at the moment.
Eight months into coordinating the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network have left me with no illusions, if I had any before, that overcoming these challenges and others will be easy. But the prize of a broad coalition of reformers (both inside and outside government) working together to make the principles of open government a reality, might just be worth it.