Will Stormont embrace open government?

6 May 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 May 2016

Among the various political goings on right now, NI politicians have until the end of June to feed proposals into a UK-wide action plan on open government.

The Department for Finance and Personnel has spent more than six months working with the NI Open Government Network on potential measures by which local government can embrace greater transparency, accountability and inclusion.

A series of proposals have been put forward and finalising what plans – if any – we make is now in the hands of our politicians.

Stormont has until the end of June to submit proposals to the Cabinet Office; Westminster is putting together a UK-wide open government plan based on their own aims and input from the devolved jurisdictions.

Many local politicians speak positively about the benefits of open government. This was reflected in recent party manifestos.

The UUP’s document spoke about open government explicitly, the DUP have become open to the idea of publicising party donors, the SDLP’s document talks about transparency, while both Alliance and Sinn Fein have given backing to greater transparency for a long time. Fresh Start, our most recent agreement following a crisis, has an appendix on citizen engagement.

Presumptive First Minister Arlene Foster, answering a question about open government in the Assembly, said:

“Open government principles have the potential to support the aims of the current reform agenda, in particular by supporting greater Executive accountability for the delivery of outcomes and by fostering greater collaboration across government and across sectors. Those developments are, therefore, timely, as we look forward to the restructuring of the Executive Departments and the transition to a more outcome-focused Programme for Government.”

However, Stormont has a few weeks of transition ahead and the Cabinet Office deadline is approaching. Moreover, while they might speak in favour of openness the natural tendency for politicians generally is to push back against oversight rather than embrace it.

There has to be a real fear that this could be an opportunity missed.


However David McBurney, a member of the Open Government Network, argues that more openness will ultimately be to the benefit of our elected representatives.

Apathy remains an issue in Northern Ireland. Turnout for this week’s elections is hovering around 55%. Recent polls have shown public faith in the Assembly to be desperately low.

“We have had our fair share of scandals recently, financial and political, and people have lost trust in politicians. We want to see who is lobbying them, who is funding them, who is meeting with ministers. This would restore trust in government and, by doing so, it would help politicians, as well as helping citizens too.

“Another aim of ours is more citizen engagement. Politicians can sometimes get their mandate, then disappear and do their own thing but people – end users and those providing services – should have input into policy.

Mr McBurney pointed out further than greater engagement itself breeds more trust in politicians among the electorate. Feeling like you are part of the decision-making process and being able to see the thought process behind policy increases faith in the entire political process.

“Moreover, an open government agenda can make it easier for our politicians to make the difficult decisions they face. If you get citizens involved with your reasoning, have them listen to experts but also bring their own values into the debate, we might make better decisions with hospitals, revenue raising, and so on.”

Network asks

The Open Government Network – which was established in 2013, is aligned with the UK Civil Society Network, and now with over 200 individual and organisational members, with funding from the Building Change Trust and the support of a full time secretariat – has a number of specific asks for the upcoming Programme for Government, which are in line with the proposals it worked on with DFP.

The asks come under six different headings, and are summarised below, with the OGN wanting Stormont to acknowledge the importance of:

Open Data – with data commitments across public agencies, with the Executive Office and public sector to reform themselves towards being open by default.

Access to Information and Freedom of Information – have government publish its internal performance data, have a meaningful FoI system, assist the public in using FoI legislation, enhance the role of the Information Commissioner, adopt recent independent recommendations.

Fiscal and political transparency – timely publication of essential budgetary documents in user-friendly fashion, create a citizen’s budget that summarises and explains relevant information, publish all departmental spending transactions over £25k, disclose documents relating to public contracts to increase oversight, accountability and thus performance.

Innovation and new technology – use technology to improve access, with research done into how new tools and platforms can improve citizen access.

Public accountability – respect the principle of democracy, and improve efficiency, responsiveness, responsibility and integrity across government and the public sector; publish annual diary information about departmental business, and commit to greater lobbying transparency with a statutory register of lobbyists covering engagement with ministers.

Civic participation and citizen engagement – commit to open policy making and public procurement, develop a Westminster-style petition system that promotes participatory democracy.

It is very difficult to argue against any of these demands in principle, there is little issue about feasibility, and the Open Government Network makes compelling points about the practical benefits.

The interests of Northern Ireland would surely be served by having open government at the heart of the upcoming mandate and, as part of that, Stormont should ensure it takes part in the UK-wide action plan.

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