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Open Government Leaders Forum: what inclusive participation really means

Irene Dominioni |

 

“What we are trying to do is to support people to understand that enabling them to be part of the decision-making is not just something that we should be doing, it’s an absolute right.” These are the words with which Doreen Grove, Head of Open Government for the Scottish Government, described what participation is at the Open Government Leaders Forum in Milan.

 

The Forum, which took place at BASE Milano on February 5th, at the start of the Italian 2018 Open Government Week, is only one of the many events that the Open Government Partnership helps to organize to gather policy-makers, civil servants, high level experts and civil society organizations’ representatives to discuss the role of civic participation to improve policy making and public governance systems.

 

 

Now in its second year, the Forum served as a way to to discuss the reasons why participation is needed, to display best practices around the continent, and to reflect on what the future holds for participatory processes. The fishbowl discussions and open talks, which included representatives from many European countries – Italy, Romania, Ireland, Portugal, France, Estonia, Georgia and Belgium, just to mention a few – plunged right into the topic.

 

 

“I believe this event is already a success for those taking part today,” said Marianna Madia, Italian Minister for Simplification and Public Administration. “The democratic values at the basis of the EU cannot be truly experienced unless we implement transparency and participation and unless the civil society becomes more open. We need to cooperate to regain trust towards the institutions and it is essential to get young people involved, because they live with technology every day.”

 

 

Indeed, technological advancements are key to promoting increasingly inclusive processes. Sanjay Pradhan, CEO of the Open Government Partnership, declared that, “In the age of technology, citizens want to shape policies for the things they care the most about. We need to make sure that the most vulnerable groups are included in participatory processes, and use them to involve marginalised youth.”

 

 

Participation, in brief, cannot really be considered participation unless it involves everyone, including the weaker groups in society. The example of Scotland is a relevant one in this respect. With 5.2 million inhabitants, the country is one of 15 local pioneers selected by OGP, with its first action plans to open up government being implemented throughout 2017. Within its Open Government Action Plan it has developed its first British Sign Language (BSL) National Plan and the Access to the Elected Office Fund to increase political participation of disabled people.

 

 

“[Participation] is absolutely about changing how people work, about recognizing that everybody has a value and that communities are likely to be the most informed about the things that affect them,” Scotland’s Grove explained. Deaf and deaf-blind citizens were fully involved in creating the first BSL National Plan, which set out Scotland’s ambition to be a great place for BSL users. At the same time, the Elected Office Fund (a £200.000 investment by the local government) provided practical support for disabled people who wished to run in the 2017 local elections. The figures displayed in the poster gallery at the Forum’s venue read that the plan helped 39 disabled candidates run in 12 council areas in 2017, with 15 of them being elected thanks to the Access to Elected Office Fund. A true success, and a positive case to look at for replication.

 

 

Yet, challenges are still pressing – first, because society is so diverse that it is not easy to really include everyone. Grove noted: “We’re being very mindful about what our processes are, we’re trying to look at a framework to help civil servants be better at thinking about when and where this will be effective, although in fact you can’t do [participation] everywhere, and you also can’t do it with all the people all the time.” The Scottish government is starting to address gypsy travellers through open government principles, including them in the discussion and starting from what their needs are: “We’re looking at ways to put participatory processes into our system, whether that’s about disabilities or whether it’s about any of the protected characteristics.” Grove said. “We’re a long way from perfect, but we are trying to really go out and go to where people are.”

 

 

Naturally, diversifying and being inclusive is no easy task. Another aspect to it is that while it might seem that people are hard to reach, “most of the time, it is actually the government that is hard to reach,” Grove pointed out. Responsibility by public administration bodies is still a big issue, because it requires a substantial change of mentality. “Participation is what happens beyond going to the ballot,” said Daniel Freund of Transparency International EU, and this is something that should be better understood on both sides: institutions and general public alike. Zuzana Wienk, of the Fair Play Alliance and an OGP Steering Committee member, specifically called on the governments in the room to take it seriously: “Participation needs to be real, we cannot use it as a marketing tool – not even ‘flashy tools’ will be enough to succeed unless politicians give up their power,” she said.

 

 

After all, participation is a matter of trust, cooperation and equality. “One of the big problems that we all perceive is that governments simply haven’t listened in the past, so extremism has been allowed to grow, and inequality has also grown,” Grove concluded. With the rise of new technologies and the parallel, ongoing crisis of traditional institutions, though, things are changing quickly – to the point that the crisis itself might even be an occasion for change. In Scotland, Grove explained, it began with the referendum for independence in 2014: “What it did, regardless of people’s political views, was raise [the people’s] willingness to affect the future of Scotland and wanting to be part of that conversation. At that point, people truly realised that their voice was as strong as the ruling class’ voice. It was an extraordinary event that changed the dynamics within the country.”

 

 

With the role of civil society becoming increasingly central in our modern democracies, participatory processes are going to become evermore systematic. “The future of participation will be played in connecting traditional and new forms of participation to allow citizens to mobilize politicians,” said Sam Van der Staak, of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

 

 

In sum, there is no alternative to participation: the only question is how to implement it with responsibility, transparency and openness. A challenge that participants at the Open Government Leaders Forum started to address, and which OGP works to overcome every day.