By Steven McCaffery
THE words `Stormont’ and ’Open Government’ do not sit easily together.
The political institutions are regularly found to be teetering on the edge of crisis.
The smaller parties on the Executive claim to be left in the dark about DUP/Sinn Féin deals.
And the British and Irish governments are accused of leading the round-table talks at Stormont in ever decreasing circles.
But despite this backdrop, groups from around Northern Ireland are being invited to use new UK commitments on ’Open Government’ to maximise the Assembly’s potential.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative was launched in 2011 at the United Nations with the aim of increasing transparency, participation and accountability in governments around the world.
Sixty countries have joined the OGP, including the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Elsewhere in the world, Open Government initiatives have seen greater transparency over politicians’ use of public money, on the funding of political parties, and on the inclusion of non-governmental organisations in shaping public policy.
The Building Change Trust, an organisation that seeks to develop Northern Ireland’s voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE), is spearheading efforts to ensure society here can make positive use of the opportunities in the Open Government agenda.
The Trust’s Development and Implementation Officer Paul Braithwaite said: “Currently the Open Government Partnership has little impact in Northern Ireland due to the fact that the commitments made are almost entirely at central government level and hence only apply in England and to some extent Wales, with one commitment applying in Scotland."
But he believes there is potential.
“We feel that a more open and participative government would mean a more efficient and well run executive.
“We think that it could be the change of strategy that Stormont desperately needs at the moment.”STORMONT
The Department of Finance and Personnel is taking the lead on important aspects of OGP at Stormont.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton spoke positively about the principles of Open Government in an address to a recent Building Change Trust conference. The event in Belfast’s Malone House also heard from a representative of the Cabinet Office which is leading on the OGP for the UK government.
Mr Hamilton outlined plans by his department to bring policymakers together with voices from outside government.
These included a Public Sector Innovation Laboratory, which is an initiative to draw-on expertise from outside the civil service, initially covering issues such as procurement, big data and a focus on dementia.
The Department of Finance has also established the SpatialNI website to help with the mapping of data covering publicly important information.
Mr Hamilton linked the aims of the Open Government Partnership with the overhaul of the public sector in Northern Ireland and said: “I view an open government as a key underpinning principle of my public sector reform agenda.
“My department has demonstrated its support for open government already in the areas of open policy making and open data.”
The minister added: “Opening up the policy making process to people from outside of government brings a different insight and should lead to better, more tailored policy solutions.”
But he also noted the prime responsibility of elected representatives in decision-making.WHERE WE’RE AT
A report compiled for the Building Change Trust’s November 5 conference by consultant Peter Osborne detailed both the potential of Open Government and the challenges.
It surveyed 182 people from the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE).
There was some knowledge among those surveyed of the Open Government Partnership, with 22% expressing awareness. But far fewer knew of the UK and Irish Open Government Partnership Action Plans.
Survey findings showed an interest in maximising the opportunities of Open Government, and ensuring it relates both to Stormont and to the network of new ‘Super Councils’ being set up across Northern Ireland.
But the survey also showed that when perceptions of the performance of Northern Ireland’s government structures were gauged against the aims of the Open Government agenda, they were found to be performing badly in key areas.
The conference heard of one quote that emerged from the research which summed up both the expectation and frustration among the VCSE sector.
“The public want a long-term relationship with the state, but sometimes civil servants and politicians want a one night stand.”OPEN GOVERNMENT AND OPEN DATA
The fear that continuing cuts will emerge as a result of Stormont’s crisis-hit budget has fuelled gloomy predictions about the future and risks further undermining public confidence in the Assembly.
The negotiations around the future of the institutions are ongoing.
But, as politicians consider their options, it seems change may be on the cards.
Cutting the number of Assembly departments is one possibility.
Any future reshaping of the Assembly might present opportunities for the Open Government reformers to make in-roads, though it’s hard to picture transformative change any time soon.
But the Open Government Partnership, allied to a separate pledge to release more government-held data, could make steps in the right direction.
The Open Government Partnership has emerged at a time when the British and Irish governments are also committed to bringing in an era of Open Data, where huge volumes of information held by the authorities are made available to the public.
The availability of millions of pieces of data from government will provide insights on every facet of life and into the delivery of a wide range of goods and services.
But the volume of data is so huge, it can be very difficult for members of the public to make use of it.
The Detail is using its experience in Data Journalism to capitalise on this initiative.
We recently launched a major project aimed at putting such data to positive public use. For more information click here.
It may be the case that Open Government and Open Data can be important new tools for better understanding society’s needs and better influencing how government meets those needs.
There is no reason, given the public commitments of both the British and Irish governments, why the Stormont Assembly couldn’t take the lead on such initiatives.
Up to now people have looked to the creation of new political parties to deliver fresh ideas and alternative thinking.
But the international commitments around Open Government and Open Data could provide other avenues for change.