Faces of Open Government – Tim Hughes
How did you get involved in open government – what is your personal story about why you joined the movement?
I came to open government movement through wanting to make government and public services work better for people. On the one hand, I was struck by their enormous potential to improve people’s lives. On the other, I was frustrated by what seemed like perverse structures, systems and governance that failed to understand people’s needs, or benefit from their capacity to tackle their own problems. As a student and early in my career I saw this through researching public service reform initiatives, but as I’d grown up I’d experienced it first hand at home.
My dad lived with severe multiple sclerosis, a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, and left him unable to walk and talk. As a child, I watched my mum – my dad’s sole carer – battle to find out what support we were entitled to, and face impersonal and inflexible structures that often seemed to cause more problems than they solved. We came across lots of dedicated public servants, but often they seemed to be in spite of the system – battling themselves within its confines.
It’s difficult to know exactly how much this influenced my path into the open government movement, but one question has always persisted for me – surely there’s a better way?
Post-Brexit, where do you see the open government movement going in the UK?
The Brexit vote has revealed a fractured politics and society in the UK. Many people on both sides of the debate believe that the current system does not work for them. The vote itself has led to a polarisation of opinion and division of society – those in favour of Brexit are often cast as gullible, ignorant or stupid, while those who continue to campaign in favour of remaining are accused of being “re-moaners”. Trust in politicians, experts and institutions continues to fall, with evidence and facts increasingly called into question (sometimes rightly so, but often not). And we’ve seen High Court judges be branded as “enemies of the people” for ruling that Parliament must have a vote on triggering Article 50 to start the process of leaving the EU.
As the Brexit negotiations get underway, there’s a real risk that fundamental decisions about the future of the UK and EU get made behind closed doors, with no involvement of the public or even scrutiny by Parliament. It’s hard to see how the animosity and fractures we’ve seen around the vote won’t continue to grow ever larger as a result.
The open government movement in the UK must respond to these challenges. We need to build a movement that demands a political system that works for everyone. In the immediate term, pressure and scrutiny is needed to ensure that Brexit is open to the public. Longer term, urgent work is needed to mend the rifts within society, and particularly reconnect politics and power with the people.
What’s your “open government pitch” – how do you sell the idea to the uninitiated?
I think there’s a simple but powerful idea at the heart of open government – that governments and public services will work better for us, the public, if we know and can influence what they’re doing, and hold them to account for it. Everyone has an example of a policy, decision or service where they think some combination of “I could have told them that”, “well of course that didn’t work”, or “surely it’d be better if…”. That’s usually the hook for talking to them about open government.
You co-wrote the new OGP co-creation guidelines. What’s new in this version, and why was it important to update the guidelines?
It was important to develop new standards that reflected the principle of co-creation at the heart of OGP. As we say in the Standards:
‘This requirement is not set because of a lofty principle, but to reflect the realities of making open government reforms work. Put simply, the collaboration of citizens, civil society, political and official champions and other stakeholders is essential to developing, securing and implementing lasting open government reforms.’
Participation and co-creation are by no means simple to achieve. They require a different way of working by government and civil society, which takes time and patience to get right. Some of the most important ingredients (e.g. motivations, behaviours, etc.) cannot be defined clearly in standards. That said, the new Participation and Co-creation Standards are intended to give countries more support in establishing the essential foundations for a successful OGP process.
Unlike the previous consultation guidelines, they cover the full OGP cycle, give specific guidance, and focus on the quality of engagement. They’re based on international best practice in public participation, as well as from leading OGP countries.
What advice do you have for open government newcomers for getting involved in their country’s next National Action Plan?
For newcomers to an OGP process, I would suggest:
- Find out who the key players are in coordinating the national process (e.g. The Government Point of Contact, responsible Minister, multi-stakeholder forum members, active CSOs, IRM researcher, etc.) and make contact with them. This information should be available on a website or webpage – if it’s not, refer the Government Point of Contact to the Participation and Co-creation Standards.
- Find out what the process is for developing the NAP and when the key points for influence are (e.g. making proposals, commenting on drafts, signing off commitments, etc.). Again, this information should be available on a website or webpage – if it’s not, refer the Government Point of Contact to the Participation and Co-creation Standards.
- Come with specific proposals for commitments you want to see included in the NAP, but also be prepared to compromise and consider alternative means to achieve the same end. My experience is that well worked up ideas (e.g. with a clear problem statement, specific proposals for addressing, and consideration of how to implement) are most likely to be successful.