Report: Agenda for pioneering Open Government

Ben Wray

In April 2016 Scotland was selected as a ‘pioneer’ country to show what more innovative and radical Open Government looks like

SCOTLAND could lead the way in developing new and innovative approaches to democracy including Mini-Publics, a Citizens Assembly and Participatory Budgeting, a new report by Common Weal for the Open Government Programme has argued.

The report, Agenda for pioneering Open Government, can be read in full here

Researched by Dr Ben Simmons, writer and campaigner for Open Government in Scotland, and with comment and input as an open source document on the social media site Common Social, Agenda for pioneering Open Government is a contribution to the Open Government Programme, an international project involving 70 countries to bring government and civil society together in a partnership to improve participation and transparency, reduce corruption and protect privacy. In April 2016, Scotland was selected to be a ‘pioneer’ of what a a more innovative and radical Open Government would look like.

Common Weal has been involved in OGP since it began and this paper outlines a number of its ideas to create a real democracy in Scotland defined by mass participation and deliberation of citizens. Ideas in the report include: 

  • Citizens Assembly – a second/revising chamber of Parliament. Citizens would be selected at random, while being reflective of national demographics.
  • Participatory Budgeting – citizens affected by spending decisions have a right to be involved in setting budgetary priorities but as part of a process that requires them to make those decisions in the context of the whole budget.
  • Mini-publics – randomised groups of citizens balanced to ensure they are representative of the demographics of the population as a whole. They can then form ‘citizen’s juries’ which will take evidence from experts, practitioners, those affected by decisions and anyone else they wish. They will then draw their own conclusions and provide advice on that basis. Government can then act on that advice.
  • Beneficiary Audit – Government and public sector should proactively publish a beneficiary audit each time legislation is passed to make clear who benefits financially from Government action, such as private companies or contractors.
  • Mutual Transparency – organisations who engage with the Scottish Government should also be obliged to be transparent and adopt an open way of working.
  • Lack of Public Data – Scotland is a data desert and should adopt an independent statistics agency. This would provide missing data such that concerning land reform issues and economic data such as imports and balance of trade.
  • Lobby Watchdog – a monitor of lobbying and influence of money on Government policy.

Robin McAlpine, Director of the Common Weal, said that the western world “has a form of democracy which is little changed since the 19th century and looks almost exactly the same as it has for nearly the last 100 years.”

He added: “That was an era when there was the widespread belief that the ruling classes simply knew better than the rest of us and the best government was one that allowed a certain class of person to manage everyone else for their own good. That this is still the model we use today in an era when we know that no one group knows how to run society on their own is a sure sign that we’re in need of real innovation.

“The ideas contained in this report show what shape a 21st century democracy might look like and explains how all of us could be constantly involved in governing our own country. I think one day the idea that democracy meant ticking a box once every five years will come to seem utterly daft.”

“The open government movement could be one of the most important ways we can reconnect citizens with their governments and with each other. We therefore welcome this timely contribution of practical ideas about how to build a more open and inclusive Scotland.” Ruchir Shah, head of policy at SCVO

Dr Ben Simmons, lead researcher on the report, stated: “The idea that the policies and practices of government should represent the will of the many and not the few is not a new one, and it’s a sad indictment of the way that power has seeped away from communities that democracy needs a sexy new name like Open Government. We are fortunate to have a window of political interest, public awareness, and financial resources to start putting this right, but it is essential that it is not those with the power deciding what power-sharing means. In this spirit we need to be using civil society to give a voice to communities and then get out of the way, to become a megaphone, not an interpreter or translator.

“For me, Open Government at every level would mean individuals and communities drawing down the resources they need to enhance, repair, and protect their communities. National politics would be much less relevant and divisive when communities pursue and receive tailored support and governance.”

Ruchir Shah, Head of policy for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), commented on the report, stating: “2016 will be remembered as the year when we realised just how divided our society has become at home and globally. The open government movement could be one of the most important ways we can reconnect citizens with their governments and with each other. We therefore welcome this timely contribution of practical ideas about how to build a more open and inclusive Scotland.”