Faces of Open Government – Scott Miller, Volunteering New Zealand
How did you get involved in open government – what is your personal story about why you joined the movement?
While the principles of open government have existed for as long as democracy has been championed as the rule of the people, my journey to open government, like most others, has not been linear.
It was several years ago, as the Chair of ComVoices, a national network of NGOs in New Zealand, that I had the privilege of hosting a Parliamentary breakfast on OGP, attended by the OGP Support Unit. This breakfast, a meeting of MPs and civil society representatives, was a seminal moment of a maturing understanding of OGP in New Zealand. It solidified a narrative of engagement that went wider than just an exclusive set of interested parties and government representatives, to a conversation that connected our (civil society) aspirations for a partnership with government that could drive innovation, transparency and participation at both a domestic and international level.
Aside from my time as Chair of ComVoices, I hold roles as the Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand, as an Expert Advisor to the New Zealand government on Open Government, and as a Consultant to the Kettering Foundation, a US-based democracy think-tank doing brilliant work on community-led democracy, which is strongly aligned with open government principles.
What’s your pitch to get novices involved in open government? How do you pique interest in the process? What’s the best way to get involved?
To many novices, I feel the words “open government” sound elitist. These words virtue-signal an intention or an aspiration to disrupt the status quo, which for many citizens and CSOs is either too disconnected from daily life, or too risky to personal or organisational well-being.
Yet, from a volunteering perspective, I see volunteers’ effort as analogous to creating the context for social change in our communities. That is, formal volunteering is in itself is a civil act of politics, where individuals meaningfully take time to advance some social outcome or impact through an NGO. However, this work is often reassigned by NGOs and governments as ‘service delivery’, which benignly removes the political agency and makes volunteering a function of an NGO’s agency, which I believe is increasingly becoming disconnected from community interest.
Therefore, my pitch to novices is to reframe people’s volunteering as a means of participatory democracy, building their skills and understanding of how they are making open government work as it should. Volunteering then becomes a deliberative process, conscious of the power and process required to truly emancipate people from the narrative that they are “just voters” that express their democratic agency every 3-4 years at general elections.
What does OGP mean in a country like New Zealand, with its high-income status and with high scores on governance and freedom indices? What do you see as the benefit of using the OGP platform?
New Zealand (population <5 million) regularly takes pride in international rankings of being among the world’s:
- least corrupt (first),
- free (third-equal), and
- open with our state budgets (first).
We also take pride in our clean, green image, and what often appear to be progressive values. While these plaudits often acknowledge the work of our civil society, public officials, and MPs over many years, there is a great deal more to achieve.
For example, New Zealand citizens, like those in a lot other high-income status nations, need to acknowledge that, for as much as we enjoy the fruits of freedom of speech and association, we should never take such liberties for granted. We, like both high and low income countries, are experiencing decreasing trust and confidence in our public institutions, increasing inequality, and degradations to our environment that make frameworks like the OGP more vital than ever before.
And perhaps this is the true transformational potential of the OGP platform – for citizens and governments to come together to identify, deliberate and decide upon commitments every two years, while also seeking to stretch targets for starred commitments – we’d like to see at least two in our next National Action Plan!
Following on that – what’s the next generation of reforms for a place like New Zealand?
At the end of 2017 New Zealand shifted from nine years of a centre-right government to a coalition government of centre-left parties. For many civil society organisations, this transfer of power has provided a sense of optimism that things might get better, both economically and legislatively.
On one hand, early examples have included:
- the introduction of a new Ministerial warrant for Open Government (as an Associate Minister for State Services),
- discussions on a review of punitive advocacy legislation for charities, and
- some high-level policy work done on including the country’s human, social, natural, and financial/physical capitals in a wider assessment of our GDP assessments.
Additionally, our NZ Independent Research Mechanism reporter, Keitha Booth, produced a very well-considered and articulated mid-term report that has done justice to both government and civil society. Her recommendations for reform have received widespread support, and included:
- adding anti-corruption commitments to the next action plan, covering whistle-blower protection and a public register of company beneficial ownership
- standards for public consultation on policy initiatives, and
- introducing citizenship education to increase democratic participation.
These recommendations, and the current engagement process on our third National Action Plan, are shaping up to be our best yet, and will inevitably drive more people to speak up and out on how to make a better New Zealand in 2018 and beyond.
However, at an institutional level, New Zealand’s public service, and increasingly, our NGO sector, remain uncritically committed to ‘new public management.’ This propensity to view citizens as customers has many uncomfortable implications for how we organise in the future, which is where I see the emergence of digital era governance as an opportunity worthy of further exploration.
Civic space is on the decline around the world – even in high-income countries. How can citizens and civil society act to protect it?
Citizens in the digital age have new means of organising themselves, without being tied to conventional activist organisations or approaches, which allows different forms of expression and association. However, there are also efforts by governments and corporations to reduce and marginalize civil society organisations, both in person and digitally.
This tenuous relationship is complex and requires people to remember that organisation, whether it is between peers, neighbourhoods, or communities, still fulfils a vital function of civil society. The work of the Kettering Foundation, through their six principles of democratic practices, is perhaps most relevant to maintaining and rebuilding civic space. That is, that people, together, can solve shared problems. This process, however, requires people to be brave, own their agency, and realise that like Margaret Mead once said: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
What’s a story of open government that sticks with you?
What I love about the Open Government Partnership is its ability to transcend institutions, communities, and citizens. The too-often espoused narrative of “government and civil society should work together” is replaced with a concrete expectation and commitment that these two sectors will (and do) complement each other’s work. This gives credence to a future state of society that enables our citizens to hope, believe and achieve in the real potential of society. This sticks with me daily, and is the story I share where I can whether with volunteers, public officials and my family.