Networking Mechanism Report: Access To Information Session in Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 4, 2012
Networking Mechanism Networking Session on Access To Information at the Second European Regional Outreach Meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia
October 4, 2012
The Government of Croatia hosted the Second Open Government Partnership (OGP) European Outreach and Support Meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia on 4 – 5 October, 2012. At the event, the OGP Networking Mechanism organized a networking session to connect representatives from 16 governments in the region to nine experts on access to information registered with the Networking Mechanism. This was the first in a series of planned events in the Networking Mechanism’s strategy to serve as an active matchmaking agent between governments and experts in order to facilitate action plan implementation.
Participating countries included Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. Experts in attendance were Toby Mendel (Center for Law and Democracy), Anne Thurston (International Records Management Trust), Rosemary Agnew (Scottish Information Commissioner), Helen Darbishire (AccessInfo Europe), Nikhil Dey (MKSS), Yuliya Tkachuk (IREX Ukraine), Gergana Jouleva and Alexander Kashumov (Access to Information Programme Bulgaria), and Paul Lenz (MySociety).
A new approach
We tested a different engagement approach to bring about fruitful conversations between government representatives and open government experts. The idea was to move beyond the panel discussion format and focus on facilitating individual outcomes-oriented conversations around key access to information themes, including legislative reform, proactive disclosure, enforcement and monitoring, records management, civil society engagement, ICTs, and government implementation. Conversations were held around the key access to information themes in 15-minute intervals to give an opportunity for all participants to interact.
Governments were asked to come prepared with specific questions on their access to information commitments in their national action plans. Correspondingly, experts were requested to familiarize themselves with country national action plans.
Following introductions, the session began with governments sharing challenges faced in implementing their access to information commitments, followed by experts responding with thoughts on addressing those challenges and prioritizing reforms. Those discussions served as a point of departure for individual conversations that followed between government representatives and experts.
Discussions covered the different aspects of access to information implementation issues. Participants had encouraging advice to share with the rest of the group as countries move forward with implementing their commitments. Following are a few highlights of conversations that took place:
- The challenges of the quality and usability of data was discussed across a number of countries. Nikhil Dey from MKSS, a civil society member of the OGP Steering committee, stressed the need to talk about the use of information based on a citizen-centric prioritization of information needs.
- Several countries discussed challenges of engagement related to strengthening the demand side of access to information, particularly in getting CSOs and technology groups to use the data and services made available by governments. Charlotte Hodridge from the UK government, currently a co-chair country for OGP, challenged governments to “make data relevant to the user.” Nikhil Dey highlighted ways for governments to stimulate information use, including reaching out to citizens offline and using low-tech platforms for information exchange.
- Managing government records through the National Archives was a common challenge in many countries, especially in the context of a growing and increasingly fragmented digital environment within which access to information requests occur.
- Netherlands and Finland commented on their experience of implementing open data projects with an enthusiasm unmet by civil society, prompting a government participant to question if open data is a ‘solution without a problem.’ Norway recognized the danger of backsliding due to a growing perception that “transparency has gone too far” at the expense of individual privacy.
- Armenia recognized low levels of participation, lack of resources, and a dearth of expertise as factors in delaying reforms.
- Spain and Albania were interested in drafting effective right to information laws and issues of implementation.
- The Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew spoke about enforcement within the access to information context as the key to change. She encouraged governments to build enforcement processes from the beginning and to view enforcement as a trust-building mechanism by making citizens aware of their rights.
- Experts emphasized institutionalizing participation through various means, like public audits or e-petitions to strengthen access to information mechanisms’ role in making government more open.
Lessons learned and Next Steps
A major goal of the session was to create the space for engagement between governments and open government experts to allow conversations initiated at the session to develop into concrete country assistance efforts. A concrete request from Armenia for assistance with establishing a website to raise public awareness of its national action plan is an illustration of that principle sat work. The Networking Mechanism will continue following up with participants to monitor the outcome of conversations as well as generate case studies for peer learning.
Positive participant feedback and the willingness of governments to talk about issues and seek potential solutions for implementing OGP commitments confirmed the value of facilitated face-to-face exchanges, a priority for the Networking Mechanism.
There were also lessons learned that will be applied to future sessions. To ensure deeper discussions and encourage peer learning, participants suggested that conversations should be scheduled for intervals longer than 15 minutes and can be conducted in small groups to give governments the opportunity to learn from each other.
The energy and enthusiasm in the room was encouraging and clearly demonstrated the potential of the OGP as a convening platform to animate and accelerate open government reforms globally. Given the success of this event, the Networking Mechanism proposes that themed networking sessions should be replicated across different regions based on a needs analysis of regional OGP action plans and priorities. This would allow governments to explore potential solutions as they pivot towards action plan implementation this year.