Towards Meaningful Democracy – Lessons for Governments and Civil Society: Ireland’s Action Plan and Beyond

In 2013 I spoke with Irish civil society actors engaged in OGP processes on two occasions: first with Denis Parfenov and Martin Wallace about their active lobbying campaign for Ireland to join the OGP; and later that year, with Nuala Haughey about the process of public consultations coordinated by Transparency International Ireland (TII), the organisation that successfully bid to undertake the OGP civil society consultation process.

In December 2014 I picked up the conversation again, this time with Evelyn O’Connor of the Government Reform Unit (GRU) in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) Ireland, in addition to Denis Parfenov of Open Knowledge Ireland/Active Citizen (OK Ireland/AC), Nuala Haughey who led the formal Irish Civil Society consultation process for TII and is now with the Think Tank for Action on Social Change (TASC), and Paul Maassen, Director of Civil Society Engagement in the OGP Support Unit, to reflect on experiences to date and lessons learned.

For the Irish government, “joining the Open Government Partnership was not a choice, but a necessity,” says Evelyn O’Connor of the Government Reform Unit (GRU) of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER). This, because “increasing the effectiveness of government is vital to the functioning of a modern state.”

The Irish coalition government’s political reform agenda committed state institutions to becoming more transparent in how they function, providing a good fit with the OGP agenda. Irish civil society has high expectations for the significant changes that implementation of the OGP Action Plan (AP) can effect towards increased democratic decision-making and state-citizen accountability.

While civil society players pragmatically acknowledge that Ireland’s OGP AP was not likely to introduce radical new measures that would differ greatly from the agreed programme of government, it is hoped that implementation of the AP will boost moves towards strengthening democratic policy-making, resulting in policy proposals based on evidence, more opportunities for Irish citizens to participate in real discussions about policy, and stronger accountability of Government to parliament and citizens for the outcomes of their decisions.

Nuala Haughey says: “Having commitments down on paper provides us with a starting point and something to build on. It is useful to see these commitments listed in the plan – accompanied by timelines – as a further sign that they will be delivered as part of a coherent set of open government measures.”

O’Connor points out that the OGP’s inclusive engagement approach was “not the usual way of doing things for government. We have learnt that we need to have actual face-to-face engagements to listen to citizens, and to involve citizens more effectively in processes of governance. It’s one thing to think you know what people want, but in this process we also heard directly from people what they wanted,” she says.

New Ways of Doing

The OGP AP engagement process witnessed several innovations in Irish state-civil society engagement toward increased government responsiveness and accountability to citizens.

This included:

  1. Formal civil society consultations processes funded by government and implemented by civil society;
  2. Using online and social media tools for engaging citizens, to make information easily available, and include non-Dublin-based perspectives;
  3. Alternating the chairing of consultations equally between civil society and government;
  4. Holding meetings both during and after work hours to include citizens in full-time employment who are unable to attend meetings during office hours; and  
  5. Committing government to civil society monitoring of AP commitments, a cornerstone of the OGP process.

Economic Constraints, Citizen Engagement and Technology

With the effects of Ireland’s economic meltdown still tangible, the cost of civic engagement was a concern. O’Connor says: “Economic constraints meant thinking of different ways of engaging with citizens outside the capital city. Using online forms of consultations was new for government, as was using social media for consultations and increasing awareness of OGP through civil society organisations that have a presence outside Dublin.”

The online engagement process ran simultaneous to the face-to-face engagements and beyond, and included those not able to participate in the Dublin consultations, increasing the diversity of views.

This experience has the potential for unlocking new ways in which public bodies engage with citizens. A commitment to review current approaches is included in the AP.

Reflecting on the experience to date, O’Connor says: “The joint working group with civil society on open governance is seen by government as something that worked well. Another innovation for government was that civil society was at the table from the start.”

Opening Successes: The Abolition of Upfront FoI fees

Undoubtedly, a key initial success for civil society activists was securing the cancellation of upfront fees for citizens wishing to access information held by the state, says Denis Parfenov of OK Ireland/AC.  Flora Fleischer, also of Open Knowledge Ireland succesfully, led this campaign. Paul Maassen, Director of Civil Society Engagement in the OGP Support Unit, describes this gain as a “perfect illustration of how civil society smartly campaigned and worked together, to achieve a clear result using the OGP process to date.” He adds that the team effectively used the opportunity of the OGP European Regional meeting hosted by Ireland to raise the profile of the issue and to secure this commitment.

“The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform was strongly canvassed by civil society advocates to abolish the up-front application fees for Freedom of Information requests,” O’Connor notes. She argues that this success illustrates how effectively “OGP advocacy can work in practice.”

Securing Buy-In: Coordination within Government

O’Connor notes that getting other public bodies on board was initially a challenge. “This was overcome when government bodies realised the OGP agenda was part of their public mandate, and in line with the policies of the incumbent government.  We took the civil society report to the other public bodies, analysed the recommendations, and kept them informed of the process throughout – how it was going, what civil society was thinking, and what was feasible and in line with government policy,” she says.

While most of the areas covered in the AP fall within the ambit of the DPER, some areas relate to other departments including the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, the department most actively engaged in service delivery, and therefore having the most interaction with citizens. “This meant keeping all of these departments in the loop to ensure they had the information they needed, were able to agree on how to proceed, what the benefits were in line with government policy, and ensuring there was understanding and support and that everyone was on board.”

Translating the consultation report’s sixty recommendations into potential AP commitments meant checking whether they were in line with government policy and how practical they would be to implement. “This involved taking the report to broader forums, talking through what is possible and what is not. And ultimately, we have a good plan in place,” O’Connor says.

The Road Ahead

Parfenov warns that “it is one thing to have a plan, and another to make it reality.” He emphasises the importance of civil society following up and monitoring implementation “to make sure government delivers on its promises.”

A meeting on the establishment of the AP Implementation and Review Group, a joint civil society-government monitoring group committed to in the AP, took place in December 2014. Regular monitoring and reviews of progress made towards greater openness and transparency in government is planned.

For civil society, the next strategic step involves normalising and sustaining the changes committed to by government in the AP.

Haughey emphasises: “The immediate challenges are to ensure the AP commitments are delivered, and that the AP lives on beyond the life of the current administration. With a general election on the horizon, we need to ensure that OGP is embedded sufficiently so that it will endure.”

Parfenov sees the next elections and its campaigning processes as an opportunity “to ensure that every party has further political reforms” in their manifestoes to ensure that future governments continue to live up to the Open Government commitments.

Authors: Sarita Ranchod
Filed Under: Champions