Campaigner Ben Simmons reflects on CommonWeal’s Imagining Open Government for Scotland event and examines how citizens can get more involved in policy
ON the 4 September 2016, 30 members of the public gathered in Glasgow to discuss what they would like an Open Government in Scotland to mean to them.
This was not a discussion about the existing National Action Plan put forward by Westminster, but rather started from the principle that a citizen voice should articulate what citizens want, not just what citizens think about what the government wants. It is a good omen that there was some significant overlap with the government around transparency and accountability, but there were several topics raised which represent a new voice and vision for a reform of the way government should operate in Scotland. Several of these ideas will be incorporated into an upcoming CommonWeal policy paper, and the fully documented meeting outcomes will be included in their entirety as an appendix.
A very interesting concept raised was the idea of mutual accountability, where those organisations engaging with the Scottish Government are obliged to adopt an open way of working in turn. This will change the supplier landscape away from multinationals, who will reject openness in Scotland because of the impact on their customer expectations abroad, and favour Scottish businesses who are happy to adopt best practice, creating jobs and propagating openness and transparency out from the public sector into the private and third sectors.
Whistleblowing does not need to mean vast data leaks a la Edward Snowden, it can be small scale, such as raising awareness when nepotism in appointments takes hold,
Transparency will depend in part upon whistleblowing. Whistleblowing does not need to mean vast data leaks a la Edward Snowden. It can be small scale, such as raising awareness when nepotism in appointments takes hold and we have the farce of only one candidate applying for a role in the public sector. Whistleblowing could also be in the form of civil servants flagging processes that they feel are broken, ineffective or counterproductive, which could then be co-designed with citizens to be more useful to society at large, challenging the perception of government as being something ‘done to us’, rather than ‘for us’.
The media will play a significant role in enforcing government transparency. Public service broadcasting should be independent, not balanced, so that we are hearing an independent clear summary of the issues that affect us rather than two opposing political spins. This could be achieved by establishing a fund for alternative media, bypassing the need for clicks for survival.
Public service broadcasting should be independent, not balanced, so that we are hearing an independent clear summary of the issues that affect us rather than two opposing political spins.
A popular idea was the creation of an Open Government watchdog to monitor lobbying and the influence of money on government policy, including the lucrative contracts offered to public sector employees in the private sector following favourable legislation. Public registration of lobbyists, meeting times, and meeting duration should be mandatory, and not just published but promoted. In order for participation in government to be effective there needs to be clear evidence where citizens have had an impact. This would need protecting from spin or other massaging of the message, and could potentially be a responsibility of the watchdog suggested above.
Participative democracy is not necessarily about citizen decision-making, but about using citizen voices to design policies and services around the needs of citizens, and this is one of the most important ways that Open Government would improve the ‘lived reality’ of the citizens experiencing the services and policies put in place. Citizens are not a burden to be carried by civil servants, but are instead a source of expertise on the challenges that policy making and public spending seeks to address.
Participative democracy is not necessarily about citizen decision-making, but about using citizen voices to design policies and services around the needs of citizens,
Based upon the range of issues raised when we talk about Open Government, we should consider whether Open Government is a term that accurately represents what we want. Perhaps we should be talking about Accessible Government, to reflect the idea that we want information and access to power to be easily available and understood, rather than simply possible to be found. Language is a powerful tool, and we must be sure that we get what we ask for, and not merely something with the same name.
Picture courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Burg
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