Action Plan Proposals Begin to Take Shape

Summaries of Open Government Partnership Working Group Discussions August 8

The four Open Government Partnership Working Groups set up as part of this consultation with citizens and civil society on Ireland’s first National Action Plan have been hard at work. At the second of three public meetings on August 8 the groups’ facilitators summarised participants’ priority action points. The working groups are based on the OGP core principles of Transparency, Accountability, Technology & Innovation and Citizen Participation. The aim is to come up with strong concrete commitments for government to include in Ireland’s first OGP National Action Plan.

Here are the facilitators’ summaries from August 8. This plenary session was moderated by Noel Wardick. See the video of this session.

Imelda Higgins BL: Facilitator Accountability Working Group

Five priorities were identified and discussed by the Working Group:

i)                    Poor financial oversight;

ii)                   Best practices and standards on accountability;

iii)                 Weak accountability in institutions;

iv)                 Lack of clear legislative framework;

v)                  Legal costs as a deterrent to accountability.

Poor Financial Oversight –Suggested Action Points:

The focus of the discussion was predominantly on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General in reviewing financial waste within government departments.

–          There was a strong view that there was a need for more accountability, Firstly that those reviews should take place in real-time more than after the fact – so on-going monitoring is required.

–          Sanctions for excess waste should be real and these could include dismissal. Those found to have waste within their department should be red-circled and subjected to enhanced scrutiny over subsequent years.

–          The group felt that it was important that sanctions be seen; for example public servants obtain increments which can be lost for poor performance. We felt it would be important for the public to know when increments are lost for performance related problems.

–          Similarly it was felt that the results of the cases heard by the public services disciplinary tribunal should be publicly available because there is a perception that nothing is done,  that public servants lack accountability, and this perception might not be completely true but without the information there is no way of knowing that.

Best Practice and Standards on Accountability – Suggested Action Points:

–          Sign up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative

–          Implement the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunal recommendations

–          Implement Articles 6 and 13 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Article 6 emphasises the need for a preventative institution for promoting integrity and article 13 is concerned with civil society involvement.

–          Ratify the Council of Europe’s Civil Law Convention on Corruption.

Weak Accountability Institutions – Suggested Action Points:

–          The Proposed Planning Regulator should report to Oireachtas rather than to any individual minister.

–          An independent commission against corruption should be established

–          Complaint procedures from accountability bodies should be less formalised and there should be the use of more anonymous complaint procedures

–          Accountability institutions, particularly those within the public service, should have specialised staff

–          Increased Inter-agency cooperation should be facilitated

–          We need a legislative basis for imposing corporate criminal liability

–          Additional training is required

 Lack of Clear Legislative Framework – Suggested Action Points:

–          All new bills should be accompanied by a legislative impact assessment explaining the impact of the bill on other legislation

–          The Oireachtas website should indicate commencement dates for new laws

–          Accessing up to date legislation should be made easier (e.g. where an Act has been amended, this should be clearly shown etc. We felt that this point might be more appropriately positioned under the Transparency or Technology and Innovation groups).

 Legal Costs as a Deterrent to Accountability – Suggested Action Points:

–          Consideration should be given to having a preliminary proceeding in public interest cases where judges can decide initially whether or not they have a public interest point, and then decide on the costs at that point rather than at the end of the trial. So that for somebody interested in bringing public interest litigation, they know what the likely cost implications will be when they bring the case.

Sarah O’Neill: Facilitator Transparency Working Group

Challenges / Barriers

i)                    Data is not easily searchable.

ii)                   Official data is not usually user-friendly.

iii)                 The problem of ‘Where do I begin?’

iv)                 Lack of coordination and integration in government IT systems

v)                  Freedom of Information – is the Bill adequate?

Data is Not Easily Searchable – Suggested Action Points:

–          Data should be made more searchable. More data visualisation tools around government information should be developed / provided, with graphics and filters that allow individuals to easily compare and see different breakdowns of government information. With respect to information on the budget, John from Department of Public Expenditure spoke about how a steering committee has been appointed to further breakdown budget information which currently is very high-level. There is no time-line, but in the next couple of years there should be more information available.

–          There is a need for more comprehensive databanks to be available

–          With respect to local authorities, minutes/records of meetings, particularly those at which decisions are made, should be available. The justification for the decisions made should be recorded at these meetings. (These records are kept for national meetings but not for local authorities, from the experience of the group.)

Official Data is not User-friendly – Suggested Action Points:

–          The government should release the raw data, which is easily filtered and visualised by citizens. This would assist civil society to analyse and take different interpretations from the data.

–          Any online platform provided for the provision of data should request feedback from users. This feedback could then be used to improve and direct the service.

The problem of “Where do I begin?” – Suggested Action Points:

–          A data audit should be performed. The output of this audit should be:

  • Details of what information each government department has.
  • Details of the format the information is available in.
  • A commitment that data will be released to a certain standard.

–          Information which is not in a format which is appropriate or possible to release should be brought up to the proper standards to ensure machine readability.

–          Details of what each government department deals with / does should be made available such that citizens know where to direct their requests for information.

Lack of coordination and integration in government IT systems – Suggested Action Points

The proposal was for each system and each process within each department to be simplified and automated and then hopefully in the future, integrated. This was considered a more long-term goal as it would require one set of standards across all departments who presently use relative and uncoordinated systems. This was viewed as being beyond the two year mandate of the action plan.

Freedom of Information Bill – Suggested Action Points:

–          The FOI Bill should be scrutinised and compared with OGP standards to ascertain if its provisions are appropriate.

–          There should be higher penalties for destroying documents (proposed penalty under the current draft of the bill is only €4000).

–          Legal professional privilege under the bill should also be scrutinised

There was disagreement among the group on whether or not fees should be charged for non-personal FOI requests.

Diarmaid O’Sullivan: Facilitator Citizen Participation Working Group

The group’s discussions focused primarily on the following four areas and I’ll give feedback on six of the action points – this is not everything covered by the group but a flavour of the action points. The four solution areas focused on were:

i)                   Fostering active citizenship

ii)                  Returning power to local level

iii)                 Putting people before the economy

iv)                 Bridging the digital divide

Fostering Active Citizenship – Suggested Action Points:

–          Lowering the age of voting to sixteen. While this is already being covered in the Constitutional Convention, the group’s feeling was that the OCP should ‘second’ it to add weight.

–          Reform CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education) in Junior Certificate – making changes in terms of educational content to encourage more active engagement etc.

–          Training is needed for civil servants around local government participation. More work is required to further refine and define this action point.

Returning Power to Local Level – Suggestion Action Points:

–          With respect to direct democracy; there should be a Citizens’ Initiative whereby signatures of between 1%  and 2% of voters can call for a Constitutional referendum or legislation on a particular matter. (Clarification from working group participant: the percentage should be of the total ballot poll of the previous general election. For example the population at the last election was about 4.5 million people but the total valid poll was about half that 2.2 million people.)

–          The Constitutional Convention should be used also to make a commitment towards sustainability in the Constitution; to impose an obligation to seek to hand on to future generations a sustainable environment

–          Finally, we also recognise that there is this opportunity at the moment to incorporate some of the OGP processes at local level and I think we still have more work to do on that one as well in terms of shaping up, where the opportunity exists. At the moment there is a lot of government reform. We’ve been told by the civil servants that there is an opportunity, a limited time frame, to engage in that. I think we have some homework to do in that to see where best to interact with that.

The group has more work to do on a number of the action points, including perhaps a discussion on best standards and practice in citizen participation. The group has committed to doing more work online to sharpen Action Points.

John Handelaar: Facilitator Technology & Innovation Working Group

The discussion focused on the following points:

We had a couple of things that didn’t fit in our group, one of which related to voter registration – the group felt that this should no longer be a paper based system. (The Department of the Environment may be looking at this so it may not need to come under OGP)

Working group member Ross O’Mullane outlined proposals for a  website / App that engages people and explains the work of government – one central resource for all government information. Information should be made more engaging. User experience experts should be involved so that information can be made engaging and make people want to use the information. In the UK for example, they are creating a website that is one central resource for all government information.

Improve Open Data Relating to Local Government: Suggested Action Points:

–          The Department of Environment (or if not a more suitable entity) to define a standardised list of datasets which all local government entities should be producing and to mandate them to produce them. (e.g. to avoid the situation where Fingal Co Council has datasets that no other local authority replicates). That also goes for the format in which it is published.

Raising awareness of open data –  its opportunities and its potential revenue among innovators and others – Suggested Action Points

–          Public money should be spent on raising awareness, marketing and promotion. There are benefits both to the economy and to efficiency in government itself related to the use of open data. The UK has a website that promotes using government government data, directing people towards open data competitions and hackathons and local enterprise boards and mentors that might be able to help you with your ideas. People are still talking about producing open data as a cost, but that need not be the case. Promoting the use of open data in commerce can produce jobs and tax revenue making it a benefit to the State.

–          Quality assurance of data should not inhibit the release of data, as a general principle. We would like it to be available early more than we would like it to be perfect.

–          Public procurement – there should be more opportunities for civil servants to engage with experts (rather than potential suppliers) in tendering for large IT projects. Neither civil servants nor those tendering for contracts may be experts in the areas in question.

Improving Baseline Data – Suggested Action Points:

–       All data published by the government should be published in machine readable, non-proprietary formats.

–       Some of us in particular would like us to concentrate on releasing data which is releasable which relates to our ability to track the outcomes of public services.

–      Baseline spatial data to be available as soon as possible i.e. boundaries, postcodes. It has been pointed out in the group that there is a move potentially afoot for the OSI to do a general mapping agreement with the state and we would be enormously in favour of that.

–      An audit per department and organisation of what datasets are available in each department and organisation i.e. a large catalogue of the metadata of the data, describing what datasets exists.

–      Budget data should be available in a more granular format. We would like it to be specifically linked with spending data and with contract values and contract outcomes.

– A general publication threshold for government spending above a certain level, which level would be different at different levels of government.

Separate point raised by John Handelaar:

We are engaged in a process whereby TI is facilitating this consultation and we will get to a point where we have come up with our suggestions about what we think should go in to the National Action Plan but by that time our conveners will no longer be under contract to provide that service so we’ll find ourselves towards December and when we come to the end of this process at the end of the year with us having produced a list of things we want and people in the Irish government who are prepared to talk to us about how we take two lists and make it into a National Action Plan and I would like us to start thinking about if not actually immediately discussing who among us will be sitting opposite the persons from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform when that time comes. Because we’re not an organisation and we need to start thinking about creating a much larger more representative ad-hoc organisation than the one that was in place before.

Are you interested in joining a working group ahead of the final meeting on September 5? You can contribute to documents online. Find out how.


Action Plan Proposals Begin to Take Shape

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