Last week around 2,500 people from 79 countries gathered in Ottawa for a series of events and meetings as part of the Open Government Summit 2019. The event brings together civil society and government representatives from countries committed to the Open Government Partnership, who each produce action plans every two years outlining their commitments around transparency, accountability and participation.
The timing couldn’t have been more apt. Just a day before I headed off to the Summit the Welsh Government published their commitments for the next two years.
In short, these are:
- Increasing engagement with a wider range of stakeholders
- Helping people find out more information about Welsh Government and how it works via improvements to the Welsh Government website
- To increase the amount of open data that is published by the Welsh public sector
- Greater clarity about Welsh Government grants
- To make Welsh law more accessible
- To raise awareness of Welsh Government finances, specifically about where the money comes from and how it is spent.
They represent a really significant step forward in Wales on open government. As just the second action plan the Welsh Government have produced, and the first with civil society input, this plan contains tangible steps that will make it easier for people to engage with decision makers. What’s more, the plan commits to a number of proposals made by Welsh civil society members who contributed to the civil society manifesto on open government, which we published last year.
Just days after the Welsh Government published their commitments the UK Government released their full action plan. As part of the UK network, we’ve been involved in this process for the last two years. The plan comes almost a year late and has received heavy criticism around both the delay and the scope of its commitments, including in the form of a letter sent to DCMS Minister, Margot James MP.
This heavy criticism contrasts with the Welsh process, which has on the whole been very positive. But that’s not to say it’s been perfect: there is still a way to go in achieving open government in Wales.
At the Summit in Ottawa, nothing was more apparent than the number of countries who are using this process to genuinely change the game for their citizens. Take the Indonesian Government, which has introduced a complaints mechanism that has been heavily advertised across the nation. This has led to an increase in women raising incidents of sexual violence or harassment. Or Austin, Texas, where a commitment has been made around increased data on homelessness in an effort to support more people affected by it. We’ve also seen the launch of Break the Roles, a campaign being run by people across the world which aims for an increased number of commitments around gender globally, such as the commitment for women in politics in Sri Lanka’s action plan.
When we look at how government can open up in Wales, we should be looking at these examples and bettering them. What we have now is a great starter for ten, but this is an iterative process and our work on transparency and participation cannot and should not end here.
Over the next two years, while delivering on these commitments, we’d like to see measures to increase political engagement with the democratic process. It’s notable that when the Welsh plan launched last week, it was with no fanfare. It was also a missed opportunity that no Welsh Government official or Minister went to Ottawa. In contrast, Scotland had great representation from their Head of Open Government, who spoke on multiple panels and was able to push the Scottish work to a global audience. Welsh Government should put ministerial heft behind the open government process – and at the very least ensure that Wales is represented on a global open government stage.
What is important to emphasise here is that these action plans are not static. Further commitments can be added before 2021 – and this is an opportunity Welsh Government should snap up. There is other related work going on right now which isn’t included in the plan: government integration.
The siloed approach government often takes in policy development inhibits the kind of cross-governmental vision that a full action plan should ideally have. Welsh Government would do well to ensure that the principles of open government become an aspect of every department’s work and that action plan development involves cross-departmental input.
Open government could have massive potential in Wales. With low political engagement, a small and inhibited media and a relatively weak civil society, surely measures around transparency and participation are an obvious aid.
Our new action plan is a great start, but this is only the beginning of the journey. At the next Open Government Summit, wherever in the world that may be, delegates should be leaving with exciting lessons from Wales, just as I’ve been invigorated by tales from across the globe.
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