Ben Simmons: Lessons from the NHS for the future of Open Government

29/08/2016
angela

Campaigner Ben Simmons says its up to citizens to make sure Scotland takes advantage of its Open Government opportunity

THE Open Government movement in Scotland is gathering momentum. Civil society and the Scottish Government are in discussions about how we can use our new Pioneer status to tailor a strategy specific to Scotland away from the UK agenda set by Westminster. 

If you’re not sure yet what Open Government means or why it should matter to you, there’s a brief explanation here

There’s a lot of work to be done to make it happen, and we need everyday people to make themselves heard so that the end result puts citizen at the centre of government.

Read more: What is 'Open Government' and why should we care?

Let’s imagine that we succeed. Let’s imagine that Scotland becomes the most open government in the world and an example to others. Let’s imagine that as a result of the combined voices of civil society and an engaged citizenry we move into the unknown territory of a truly participative democracy where citizens can easily speak to government in a public space about the services they receive, where the government is serving them well and where the government is falling short. 

Let’s imagine that the government develops a citizen feedback platform that anyone can use, with which citizens can speak not to a customer service representative, or send an email privately to a catch-all inbox, but instead have a dialogue with the people directly responsible for administering the element of government they just experienced. Let’s imagine that these conversations are visible to anyone, anywhere, and conducted between individuals, not between an individual and the state.

In fact, we don’t need to imagine at all, as this platform already exists. Patient Opinion is a non-profit organisation which runs a website where patients can anonymously speak in a public place directly to the nurses and doctors that treated them, outside of the secretive, complex and intimidating formal complaints procedure. 

The platform has the explicit support of the Scottish Government, which expects all health boards to respond to stories shared on Patient Opinion and currently funds subscriptions for boards which wish to access enhanced features. So what can it teach us about the way that an 'open' public service engages citizens?

The predictably sad fact is that organisational culture has the turning circle of an oil tanker, and based on the PO experience, official government responses to an open forum will probably vary wildly between individuals and between government departments. 

When we talk about Open Government it is easy to build success in from the start, to see a new process as a solution and see the outcomes we achieve as the realisation of our goals. 

Some departments will do everything they can to bring any 'open' conversation behind closed doors by responding to any complaint with a phone number and an invitation to be fed to the beast that is a formal complaints process. 

Some departments will have no faith in their citizen-facing staff to speak to citizens and will centralise any responding process in a 'citizen experience' manager far removed from the front lines. 

Some managers will use a feedback process as a stick to beat staff with if negative feedback is received, and this will make staff become secretive and do whatever they can to make citizen engagement a box-ticking exercise and any collected information as useless as possible. 

Some departments will claim that they need a bespoke feedback process of their own design, which isn’t fit for purpose because they perceive the purpose to be against their interests.

But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless or that we should even be discouraged. There will areas where visionary leaders engage meaningfully with their citizens, where services can be agile and respond to feedback through making a small series of changes over time, rather than being ripped and replaced after a period of years with the same structural problems behind the scenes. 

People will see that their governments, local and national, really want to serve them as well as possible, and as a result we will see engagement increase, approval ratings climb, and civil discussions emerge in place of spittle-flecked partisan shouting matches because government transparency means we can see what they promise, what they actually do, and how they try to do it. 

Positive feedback will increase job satisfaction of public servants and spread best practice where departments are able to learn from each other in how they engage citizens productively.

We must learn from openness efforts in the NHS to make sure we understand the challenges we will face in convincing public services that it is safe to be open.

When we talk about Open Government it is easy to build success in from the start, to see a new process as a solution and see the outcomes we achieve as the realisation of our goals. 

We must learn from openness efforts in the NHS to make sure we understand the challenges we will face in convincing public services that it is safe to be open, that an open government doesn’t mean a government saturated with punitive performance management to be gamed in the name of self-preservation. 

We need senior officials to truly understand what it means to be open with citizens, to practice openness themselves, and to change the way they work with their juniors to encourage openness instead of secrecy. 

We need them to put the citizen back at the centre of public services. We must make sure that any change we achieve accelerates the pace of change and doesn’t represent 'mission accomplished'. 

Ultimately, we must shift the power to govern away from the few and into the hands of the many, and then work hard to keep it there, regardless of whether it makes some individuals in Holyrood or Westminster uncomfortable. 

Ultimately, we must shift the power to govern away from the few and into the hands of the many, and then work hard to keep it there, regardless of whether it makes some individuals in Holyrood or Westminster uncomfortable. 

A truly Open Government will not be an antagonistic relationship between citizens and the state; it will be a collaborative relationship based on shared goals. Already in the halls of power we have champions striving to get us there, and we need to engage with them, support them, and do what we can to strengthen their hand.

After all, a democracy shouldn’t mean electing a government deaf to its citizens every few years. A true democracy happens every day, in an open place, between citizens and those we elect to serve us and not between vested interests behind closed doors. Elections should be fought between parties striving to give us what we want rather than trying to gain our approval for their own plans.

A participative democracy will not happen without us. If you think that’s a future you want to see in Scotland, come to our public forum in Glasgow on September – get your tickets here – and help make Scotland the most open government we’ve ever seen.

Picture courtesy of Mr Seb

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