Sustainable Development Goals Scotland
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We need to mobilise in order to challenge the culture of secrecy, by Ruchir Shah

Ruchir Shah is Policy Manager for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and Director of the Open Government Pioneers UK Project. He feels we need to mobilise in order to challenge the culture of secrecy, and proposes a number of actions to address this concern.

In their opinion piece in last week’s edition, Jim and Margaret Cuthbert concluded that “unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision making.”

I couldn’t agree more. However, now that we recognise the dangers, we next need to mobilise in order to challenge this culture of secrecy head on. The credibility of Scotland’s exclusive Open Government ‘pioneer status’ is at stake, and we cannot afford to become a laughing stock in the international community – particularly with ongoing Brexit negotiations already making this a time of uncertainty for many.

Scotland is currently being assessed by an internationally commissioned ‘independent reporting mechanism’ against five commitments to open government which were made by Joe Fitzpatrick MSP in Paris, December 2016. The international agency involved is the Open Government Partnership, which – with a membership of around 70 countries – has the power to name and shame governments that do not uphold these commitments or strive to be open and transparent in their work.

The Open Government Partnership take a strong cue on progress from civil society – i.e. trade unions, journalists, charities and non-government organisations – as well as social movements in the respective countries involved. This means we have a strong hand to play in tackling this culture of secrecy that seems to have hardened within our state institutions.

One notable development in this regard is the report of the Budget Review Group, set up jointly by Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to review the national budget setting process in Scotland. While most of the group’s recommendations have focused on parliamentary scrutiny, it has also left the door wide open for them to improve public engagement in the national budgeting process. Not only does this create an opportunity to open up the budgetary and spending data that the Cuthbert’s have found to be so remarkably closed – and, potentially, a more open debate about where the Scottish Government invests its money, which could lead to better policy making – it is an essential direction the Scottish Government must take if it is truly committed to taking this seriously.

Another development is the digital mobilisation of citizens and organisations concerned with improving openness in government activity. We now have the Open Government Network for Scotland, a growing and diverse forum of people who want to take action to ensure greater transparency, accountability and public participation in the decisions made by government at local and national level.

The First Minister’s commitment to embracing the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring Scotland’s national outcomes align with these 17 high-level targets for progressing society, economy and environment is also an opportunity to change things for the better – but this depends on real action being taken and not simply a list of promises. Goal 16 is all about open and transparent government, and these goals offer a powerful framework to hold government to account. Having now been active for two years, provides an established platform through which civil society and government can explore a more open approach to decision making in Scotland.

Ultimately, there are some key actions that must to be taken in order to create true transparency and openness in Government in Scotland. Scottish Government ministers need to take their commitments to FOI (or the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002) much more seriously. The budget setting process needs to seek public participation, and make information and data available to support this. Finally, local and central government must start making much more explicit commitments to institutional transparency in line with Scotland’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, if we are to see any true progress in line with both national and international objectives.

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