I’m enthusiastic about SCVO’s involvement in the Open Government Partnership. It has the potential to show Scottish local authorities that, by operating openly, they can do a better job and heal divisions between citizens and institutions.
Open government doesn’t just cover transparency, information and data. It’s about exposing the machinery of decision making and pro-actively enabling everyone who has a stake to get involved.
As Head of Policy at Alzheimer Scotland, my focus is on making sure that decision-makers hear and respond to the needs of people living with dementia, and that decision making is a participative process, involving everyone who will be affected. The push for open government is, therefore, directly relevant to my work; and I know that many of my colleagues across the third sector in Scotland share this focus.
Scotland’s local councils handle many issues that affect everyone’s daily lives. From the environment that shapes our children, to delivering care services for people who need help with washing, dressing, eating and getting up and about.
Local councillors are now members of the Integrated Joint Boards that run community health and social care partnerships. This brings a massive amount of responsibility and is tricky enough without the huge financial pressures currently facing public services; since its peak in 2009-10, total like for like local government funding from the Scottish Government has fallen by around 10% in real terms.
Imagine you are one of those councillors. How are you to make decisions in a sustainable, sensible and realistically way, and bring the community with you?
There’s no easy answer and there’s no one way of doing it. But an open and participative approach throughout can make people aware of the constraints and competing priorities at work. It also has the potential to unearth new solutions by moving us away from the problem of ‘group think’ towards policy that reflects wider public opinion.
The culture change required to allow such an approach to work is massive. It involves re-drawing lines of accountability, letting go of control and being honest about what is difficult. The traditional political power games of local government have no place in an open, participative way of doing business. It’s about ceding and sharing power, not amassing more of it.
Open government is not about consultation, having a plan and asking people what they think about it. It’s about working with others to see if you need a plan in the first place, drawing in others along the way as it becomes clear that they too will be affected. Then it’s about figuring out how the plan should be made and together putting it into practise.
You might call it co-production. For the people living with dementia that I work with, it’s about participating in the decisions that affect their lives. For local authorities, it’s about open government.