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A Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus: Protecting Participation and Deliberation

Guía de gobierno abierto y coronavirus: Protección de la participación y la deliberación

Guide pour un gouvernement ouvert et le Coronavirus: Protéger la participation et la délibération

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COVID-19 has upended policy agendas across the globe. Governments have paused nonessential legislation and regulation and fast-tracked measures to respond to the pandemic.

Governments are entitled to effectively and efficiently make decisions and policies using emergency powers. Unfortunately, governments often abuse this power, intentionally or unintentionally. Secret laws, extralegal procedures, and public participation and oversight rollbacks are major concerns. While some governments were already rolling back participation prior to the crisis, others are leveraging the current situation to curb public participation.

Continued public participation at all levels of decision-making – policy, programs, and practice – in the context of COVID-19 is vital. It ensures governments uphold the rule of law and that exceptions to standard procedure are just that – exceptions, with a basis in law. It builds trust and legitimacy in the process and its outcomes and reduces conflict.

Ongoing public access to the legislative process is also crucial. Many, if not most, legislatures are not meeting, limiting oversight and the passage of new laws. Lawmakers have less ability to meet with constituents, vote, and deliberate. These obstacles inhibit legislatures’ important role in the system of government checks and balances. To compensate, opportunities to participate must be built into digital tools as governing bodies go virtual. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of digital deliberation tools.

The following section provides recommendations for maintaining robust public participation in administrative and legislative processes in the context of COVID-19.

Recommendations

Open Response

Open response measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of immediate government efforts to curb contagion and provide emergency assistance.

Participation in administration

Administrative decision-making is happening quickly through abbreviated or non-standard processes in the context of responding to COVID-19. In many countries, channels established in the law are not followed or the laws lack clear rules for open government.

Best practices for participation in administration under the conditions of COVID-19 (and beyond) include:

  • No secret laws: Publish all laws, rules, and legal opinions on emergency powers.
  • Notification: Continue or improve publication of ex-ante evaluations such as regulatory or environmental impact assessments in advance of consultations to allow public deliberation.
  • Public comment: Carry out enhanced online deliberations and maintain timelines except in exceptional, reasonable, and legal fashion on a policy-by-policy basis, presuming continuity in best practice. Public comment periods should be extended for non-emergency decision-making.
  • Public review: Extend and allow for challenges to regulations and decisions within adjusted timelines, given closures in courts and other tribunals with review powers.

Participation in legislation

As legislative bodies that adapt their procedures to address social distancing measures, public participation must remain a central element of decision-making processes.

Online legislative continuity: Public observation and participation must be incorporated into video conferencing applications as legislatures convene, deliberate, and vote.

  • Postpone nonessential proceedings and widely publicize and livestream proceedings that do take place.
  • Publish information on changes made to the legislature’s proceedings, including who was involved in decision making and how changes will be implemented.
  • Require all participating lawmakers to be clearly audible and visible at all times, including to the public.
  • Ensure identity and vote verification mechanisms for legislators within digital legislative platforms.
  • Record, transcribe, and archive all sessions and make recordings available for later access online
  • Publish the agenda, attendance, votes, bills, and documents discussed in plenary and committee sessions online in a timely manner and in an open format when possible.
  • Provide translation services for all virtual public participation channels, consider using an online platform that allows for multilingual remote interpretation.
  • Permit the public to provide comments through email or the chat function.

Offline legislative continuity: Ensure continued public participation in instances where technological barriers require legislatures to continue meeting in person but the public cannot be present.

  • Postpone nonessential proceedings.
  • Ensure opportunities for the public to submit written questions and comments in advance.
  • Broadcast proceedings and ensure any documentation, such as meeting minutes or recordings, are promptly published.
  • Parliamentary budget transparency: Publish parliamentary budgets, particularly any new expenses or procurement processes in response to the crisis. See the sections on fiscal openness and public procurement for more information.

Digital transformation in deliberation

The COVID-19 crisis has required the consolidation of online decision-making processes across all parts of government. The following are several best practices for virtual deliberation:

  • Multistakeholder advisory councils: Involve an inclusive council of stakeholders from across government, civil society, and special interest groups to review and design measures related to virtual public participation.
  • Broad digital tools: Use an array of digital tools, such as surveys and virtual ‘office hours’ to create multiple spaces for public engagement.
    • Provide mechanisms for citizens to virtually comment or provide votes of opinion on issues being debated in the legislature.
    • Ensure a variety of communication channels to reach public officials, such as working phone numbers and social media accounts.
  • Digital engagement platforms: Consider using digital deliberation platforms such as Consul, DemocraciaOS and Bang the Table, online participatory budgeting like Balancing Act, or moderated discussion forums such as the National Issues Forum.
    • Include a learning phase to ensure citizens can use the digital tools and provide tech support throughout the process.
  • Traditional broadcast tools: Continue leveraging traditional communication channels – such as radio, television, local government and social organizations – to reach all segments of the population and actively engage individuals not represented online.
  • Technological inequalities: Increase internet and computer access to ensure inclusive participation in virtual governance, through service provision or fee waivers. Actively seek to include groups that face barriers to virtual participation, such as senior citizens, women, and rural communities.

Open Recovery and Reform

Open recovery and reform measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of ongoing efforts extending to the medium and longer-term rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Similarly, open reform initiatives ensure that the public is at the heart of government in the post-pandemic world.

  • Clear end date: Restrictions to public participation and deliberation in response to the pandemic must have a clear and predetermined end point.
  • Virtual civic participation: Governments’ technological adaptations in response to COVID-19, such as holding virtual public forums, should be evaluated and implemented to the extent that they increase public participation in lawmaking going forward.
  • Technical and legal frameworks: Governments should partner with civil society, technologists, and other special interest groups to construct the legal and technical infrastructure necessary to implement innovative public participation tools.
  • Digital education: Invest in digital literacy and ensure public officials are equipped with the tools and knowledge to leverage virtual public participation tools.
  • Inclusive participation: Expand citizen access to the internet and computers to improve the inclusivity of virtual public participation.
    • Continue to take advantage of the benefits of virtual civic engagement to engage groups such as people under 18, women, non-citizens, and recently incarcerated people.

Examples

The following examples are recent initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are drawn from our crowdsourced list as well as partner materials.

  • France: The French Parliament hosted a virtual public forum to collect citizen opinions on the direction of France’s policy priorities post-COVID-19. Deliberations took place over the open-source and GDPR-compliant application Decidim, where 15,000 French citizens made accounts and discussed topics such as health, labor, consumerism, education, solidarity, and democracy.
  • Finland: The Finnish Ministry of Finance in partnership with the Dialogue Academy and Timeout Foundation have organized a series of Lockdown Dialogues on how the crisis has affected citizens’ lives and is reshaping their country.
  • Ecuador: Civic and private organizations coordinated a 2 day Post-Crisis Hackathon that gave citizens the opportunity to discuss their vision for Ecuador after the crisis in a number of policy areas, from health to the environment.
  • Madrid, Spain: The City of Madrid is using the platform Decide Madrid to enable citizens to submit ideas for solidarity, connect with businesses in their neighborhood, and ask municipal experts questions about the crisis directly.
  • Brazil: The Brazilian Senate is currently deliberating legislative responses to the COVID-19 crisis proposed by citizens through the e-Citizenship Portal.
  • Scotland, United Kingdom: The government held an online consultation to enable the public to submit and rate comments on the government’s COVID-19 response.
  • France and the United Kingdom: Both countries have pivoted to hold their climate change citizen assemblies online. In France, 150 representative citizens are participating in seven weekend sessions. In the UK, 100 participants will meet over four weekend sessions.

The following examples are commitments previously made by OGP members that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above.

Public participation in administration

  • Croatia (2014-2016): Prioritized public participation throughout the drafting process for the national Anti-Corruption Strategy.
  • United Kingdom: (2013-2015): Involved civil society in designing the Cross-Government Anti-Corruption Plan.
  • Latvia (2017-2019): Committed to raising awareness and strengthening processes for public participation in decision making.

Public participation in the lawmaking process

  • Latvia (2015-2017): Enabled the collection of signatures online to initiate a referendum.
  • Uruguay (2016-2018): Involved civil society in creating a participatory water management system under the National Water Plan.
  • Ireland (2014-2016): Held three referenda that arose from Constitutional Convention recommendations.
  • Chile (2014-2016): Implemented and monitored the Lobbying Law, which regulates lobbying activities.

Digital public participation

  • Jalisco, Mexico (2019-2021): Committed to providing a digital platform for citizen participation in the creation and approval of laws.
  • Colombia (2015-2017): Created automated services to process citizen comments and input.
  • Georgia (2016-2018): Enhanced citizen participation in the supervision process of public finances.

Resources

For more information, see the Open Government Partnership Practice Group on Dialogue and Deliberation’s guides on Deliberation and Informed Participation.

Participation in legislation

  • The Inter-Parliamentary Union is tracking how parliaments around the world are adjusting procedures in response to the pandemic.
  • OpeN hosted a Webinar on “Parliaments and Pandemics: Going virtual and staying open in the COVID-19 age.”
  • Directorio Legislativo and ParlAmericas’ paper discusses adapting and strengthening the role of parliaments in the Americas and Carribean in the COVID-19 context.
  • The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance released Parliaments and Crisis: Challenges and Innovations. Parliamentary Primer No. 1.

Digital public participation

  • The National Civic League’s COVID-19: Resources for Individuals and Governments aggregates resources, including a number of digital tools for virtual deliberation and participation.
  • Participio has a series of articles about bringing deliberation and civic participation online.
  • The Local Government Resource Bank from What Works Cities compiles a number of resources and examples of local level initiatives in the United States in response to the pandemic.

Partners who can
provide further support and information

Our thanks to partners at Directorio Legislativo and the OECD’s Innovative Citizen Participation project for sharing recommendations and reviewing this module.

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