Ben Simmons: What is ‘Open Government’ and why should we care?


Campaigner Ben Simmons explains why Scotland now has an opportunity to set the agenda on Open Government
OPEN GOVERNMENT is an idea that we can change the way our government operates by default so that we as citizens can more easily understand and be aware of the decisions that are being made that affect our lives. 

Open Government is also about opening up the data that is held by the government on all kinds of topics so that businesses and other interested parties can use that data to create services to sell back to the government or to the general public. 

An example of this could be as simple as using the data on the location of public bathrooms to create a mobile app citizens can use to easily find a loo when out and about. Another use of it could be through the media holding the government to account and raising awareness of the effects on society of policy decisions.

The UK Government is signed up to an international organisation called the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a result of committing to fiscal transparency, access to information, asset disclosure, and citizen engagement. 

Every two years the government releases a National Action Plan showing how they’re going to move towards these goals, and who is in charge of which bits. The latest one covering 2016 to 2018 is based on two broad topics; reducing corruption by forcing anyone who contracts with the government to do so in a public way that can be scrutinised, and how the government should structure and release its data in order to make it useful to the public and society ('Open Data'). 

Membership of OGP grants access to support networks such as other Open Government working groups in different governments for peer exchange.

We now have the opportunity to create our own agenda for an open government in Scotland away from the UK picture as a whole, and we as citizens have an opportunity to direct that change.

Until now the engagement with OGP and access to these support resources has been through Westminster and the UK Government. However, this is about to change. The Scottish Government applied for and received 'pioneer' status last April, which means that Scotland is a pilot project for how Open Government would look in a 'sub-nation' (boke). 

We now have the opportunity to create our own agenda for an open government in Scotland away from the UK picture as a whole, and we as citizens have an opportunity to direct that change, to set the reform agenda, and together with the government and civil society find a way forward to make Scotland’s government an example to the rest of the world.
SCVO is the lead organisation coordinating civil society activity in conjunction with the Scottish Government, but as yet direct citizen engagement is minimal. Let’s use this pioneer status as a jumping off point, as a way to get the general public a seat at the table, and a way to put Scottish citizens and our needs at the centre of discussions. 

We need to remember that our government exists to serve us, and create an expectation that democracy is a collaborative endeavour between ourselves and those we elect to work for us in Holyrood and Westminster.
A movement is beginning around creating an engaged citizenry here in Scotland. You don’t need to be an expert in democratic or political structures, we have enough of those already. 

What we need are people who care about seeing a better society come about as a result of the processes already underway to speak up about the outcomes they want to see, so that those with the expertise, access and power can bring about the changes we desire. 

To get involved, register with the OpenGovScot forum, search for Meetup Groups such as the Edinburgh OG Meetup, and watch this space for forthcoming forums where you can make your voice heard and shape Scotland’s Open Government future.

Picture courtesy of Descrier

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