Collecting Success Stories

Recently, the Netherlands published its self-assessment report on its first National Action Plan (2014-2015). In the report, eight learning points and challenges are mentioned in order  to improve the impact of the open government activities in our country. Three of them relate to involving (citizens through) civil society organizations (CSO’s) and public professionals. 

It seems no coincidence that precisely this issue is so prominently on the agenda in the self-assessment report. Involving CSO’s and public professionals in the open government movement seems to be a big challenge in many countries which are participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This was illustrated in Paris on 29 September, when the OGP Points of Contact met at Étalab in Paris the night before the OECD International Forum on Open Government. As we updated each other on developments in our countries, one question returned in almost all of our updates: how to organize - or improve - involvement of CSO’s and public professionals. Whether because there seem to be only so few CSO’s in a country dealing with open government, or because there are so many. Also during the OECD Forum the next day on 30 September, this theme came across several times.

In the Netherlands we also experienced difficulty involving citizens, CSO’s and public professionals during the consultation for the self assessment. For the consultation we used VOLIS, an online platform developed in Estonia and currently used on a project basis both in Sweden and the Netherlands. It is a user friendly platform, we brought it repeatedly under the specific attention of our Inspiration Team for Open Government (over 400 people from CSO’s, companies and public service) and yet we only received a couple responses. 

So what can we do about it? Though there may not be perfect solutions, some experiences in the Netherlands have made us wonder if we should not try to create more involvement on the overall, abstract theme of Open Government (such as is the case when consulting on the self assessment open government), but instead focus on specific issues. Because there ís great interest in themes such as open data, smart cities and open spending and there ís great energy in the Dutch network for (local) participation (in Dutch called ‘do-democracy’). Only when the theme we communicate is general and abstract, responses are low. 

So maybe the answer is: focus on specific issues people are concerned with, focus on local issues and find innovative, open solutions together with civil society and other relevant partners (CSO’s, public professionals, companies etc). Let me showcase some examples. 

Firstly, there is the initiative called MijnWOZ in the Dutch municipality of Tilburg. A relatively unknown municipality, sixth largest in the Netherlands, it developed an innovative approach towards house owners to establish the amount of taxes to be paid for their property. This initiative included: developing a website together with citizens, giving access on this website to the data the municipality has registered about the property and its owner(s), giving the opportunity on this website to change data that are incorrect and finally showing how the amount of the taxes is then determined. This approach has turned out to be very successful. Since citizens use this website, there are far less formal objections to the taxes laid upon these citizens and the work process at the municipality has become substantially more efficient. With this initiative, MijnWOZ was rewarded with a 5th position for the Open Government Awards this year at the OGP High Level meeting in New York. (OGP Awards Booklet, page 6)

Other examples are underway. In the province of North-Holland, nine municipalities together with citizens, CSO’s and companies are using open data to solve specific problems, such as the transport of disabled people to daytime activities. Also the website www.openspending.nl turns out to be a great success. Initiated by the Open State Foundation (NGO) in 2013, local and regional authorities rapidly are joining and publish their financial data on spending and revenues, making it easier for citizens, politicians and journalists to check the way public revenues are spent and to participate actively in their communities.

All these examples illustrate the possible success of focusing on specific issues people are concerned with in their daily lives (taxes, transport), of focusing on local issues (‘my house, my neighbourhood, my municipality’), and finding innovative, open solutions together with citizens, CSO’s and other relevant partners for the specific issue at hand. 

On a national level, noticing this trend, the team working on Open Government at the ministry of Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations is increasingly putting energy in collecting the ‘local success stories’, trying to disseminate them through online blogs and network meetings. Specifically, our newly started Point of Expertise Open Government is taking on this role. First experiences already show that success stories on specific themes and local level create positive energy, give people new ideas and inspiration and thus make it rewarding to be dealing with open government, even if this general label isn’t tagged to it. 

So the involvement of citizens, CSO’s and public professionals may sometimes lead to concern, such as happened with the consultation for our national self assessment, at the same time many people in the country already are participating, actively involved and genuinely motivated to open government and improve democracy on a daily, local basis by focusing on specific themes. In 2015, the focus of the Open Government team and the Point of Expertise Open Government will therefore be on collecting and disseminating the success stories, and on activities to bring further specific themes such as open data, open spending and active openness (e.g. active publication of government reports). Stories from abroad are also welcome, so if you have stories to share, let us know!