Originally posted on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network blog: http://www.opengovernment.org.uk/national-action-plan/story-of-the-uk-national-action-plan-2013-15/ 

What we did, and what we learnt doing it – reflections by the UK civil society coordinators

Download the full report: Story of the UK National Action Plan 2013-15

01. Introduction

On 31 October 2013, at the Open Government Partnership Summit, the UK launched its 2013 to 2015 National Action Plan. Over the preceding 12 months, this plan had been developed in partnership by the UK Government and a network of UK civil society organisations. This process was developed with the intention that it should itself model the principles of open government, being transparent and participatory, and benefitting from the expertise and energy of government and civil society.

The collaborative process of developing the National Action Plan (NAP) was not without its challenges, but it ultimately resulted in a more robust and ambitious plan. Among other things, in the plan the UK Government committed to implement a public register of beneficial ownership, a cross government anti-corruption plan, and a global standard of financial transparency and accountability in the extractive industries (oil, gas and mining).

The UK had published its first Open Government Partnership (OGP) NAP in September 2011 at the launch of the initiative. The preparation of this plan in the early days of the OGP meant it was developed with little civil society engagement – a point acknowledged by the Government in its self assessment of the plan. The process for developing the second NAP was very different. Though it was by no means a straightforward or linear process, with blockages and setbacks along the way, it was successful in both modelling a new way of working between government and civil society and in delivering a NAP with some strong and ambitious commitments.

This report summarises the UK process and its benefits, and sets out a series of recommendations – based on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK process – for other countries developing new NAPs. This is followed by a detailed account and reflections on how the UK process operated in Annex A and next steps in Annex B. This report has been developed by the UK OGP civil society network coordinators, with input from members of the civil society network and UK Government officials, including through a dedicated workshop exploring the lessons learnt. We have sought to provide as balanced and impartial a reflection as possible based on these inputs, but not all participants in the process will necessarily agree will every point made.

02. Summary of the UK process

The chart above sets out the high level steps of the UK process, outlining the intended process and approximate timescales. In practice, the key stages of the UK process were as follows:

i. Formation of the civil society network (April 2012 to October 2012)

  • Civil society network formed in response to the UK’s first National Action Plan. Network members write to Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) and produce a collaborative analysis of the UK’s first NAP.

  • The Minister responds to the civil society network’s letter, welcoming the engagement of CSOs in the OGP and NAP.

  • Members of the civil society network agree on the need for a civil society coordinator, and Involve is asked to take on the role

  • A one-day workshop is held by members of the civil society network to develop a shared vision for the OGP.

ii. Early meetings with the Government (November 2012 to January 2013)

  • Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) gives his support for the NAP to be developed in partnership between government and civil society.

  • Meetings are held between government officials and CSO network members to co-design and agree the NAP development process.

  • A series of open meetings are held between the CSO network and government officials to scope out the action plan and commitment areas.

iii. Draft National Action Plan (February 2013 to June 2013)

  • The narrative for a draft NAP is co-developed

  • Members of the CSO network hold a session on the draft National Action Plan at an open data event in Manchester

  • The draft NAP, which included commitments agreed by government and civil society and an annex of additional civil society asks, is published for public consultation

iv. Finalising the National Action Plan (July 2013 to October 2013)

  • New policy leads meet with civil society network members and government policy leads

  • Cabinet Office Transparency Team sets up and facilitates meetings between civil society network members and policy leads on relevant commitments

  • Public consultation is held based on the draft NAP

  • Commitments are developed and agreed in further detail between government and civil society, and meetings are held to clear up any issues arising from some commitments

  • An open letter is sent from the civil society network to the Prime Minister calling on him to make a series of ambitious commitments

  • Plan is launched at OGP Summit

Annex A outlines these stages in detail, including highlighting the issues encountered in this process.

03. Benefits of the process

The development of the UK’s 2013-15 NAP by government and civil society through an open and collaborative process had a number of important benefits:

  • The process itself sought to model the principles of open government, and as a result demonstrated the UK’s commitment to the OGP

  • The active involvement of CSOs introduced new and alternative expertise and perspectives into the process, resulting in links being made with other initiatives and the development of more robust commitments that will better achieve their intended outcomes

  • The active and constructive involvement of CSOs made government officials more inclined and confident to advocate for commitments internally

  • The influence of CSOs over the NAP’s narrative and commitments resulted in a plan that CSOs could support, enhancing the NAP’s prestige

  • Engagement with government officials enabled CSOs to better evaluate the likely success of advocacy for particular reforms, and determine where to target efforts for greatest likely impact

  • By constructively engaging in the process, CSOs were able to influence the reforms that were considered and the detail of commitments that were included, improving their quality and ambition

  • Robust but constructive negotiation between government and CSOs ensured that weak commitments were not included within the NAP, and those that were included were suitably framed

  • The respect and trust built between government officials and CSOs through the process helped to ensure that differences of opinion and potential conflicts could be negotiated and overcome, strengthening rather than weakening the final NAP

  • The open and collaborative nature of the process enabled a full and frank review of its weaknesses, as well as its successes, ensuring that the UK (and other countries) can build upon what was learnt for the development of future action plans

  • The partnership approach will continue into the delivery of commitments, ensuring civil society involvement throughout implementation

04. Recommendations based on the UK experience

The recommendations listed below are based on a combination of the successes and weaknesses of the UK 2013-15 NAP development process. A more detailed account of the lessons from the UK can be found in Annex A.

  • Civil society organisations should form a network to engage with government. This network should be formed independently from government, be open to any civil society organisation to join and be fully transparent about its activities. CSOs should nominate a coordinator to facilitate engagement with the government on the OGP.

  • Government and civil society should work together to agree the process for developing the National Action Plan. This could include the development of a partnership agreement that outlines how each party agrees to work and how decisions will be made. A work plan should be agreed with clear milestones for when activities need to completed, leading up to the publication of the National Action Plan.

  • The work plan should include adequate time for relevant sign off processes within CSOs and government departments. It should be discussed and agreed at an early stage of the process how sign-off will occur.

  • Lead OGP officials should facilitate engagement by policy officials with the development of a NAP. In partnership with the civil society coordinator, they should connect relevant policy officials with relevant CSOs to form working groups to develop commitments. Internal stakeholder engagement should be built into the early stages of the process to ensure buy-in and ownership, and benefit fully from policy officials’ expertise.

  • Government should ensure that adequate and consistent staff capacity is devoted to the development and implementation of a NAP, and ongoing engagement with CSOs. Likewise, CSOs need to allocate adequate staff time to engage in the process.

  • Meetings should be held on a regular basis between government officials and CSO representatives to scope out, develop and agree the commitments to be included in the NAP. These meetings should take place in a neutral location and, as far as possible, be open to remote participation. The chairing of these meetings should alternate between government and CSOs to reflect the partnership nature of the OGP. Meeting notes should be published to enable any interested individuals to review what was discussed and agreed.

  • Web based tools (e.g. Google Docs, webinar platforms) should be utilised to enable collaborative working between meetings. The establishment and use of a civil society email list and blog is useful for coordinating activities, making the process accessible to any interested CSO and being transparent about what is taking place.

  • Both government and CSOs should have responsibility for expanding the group of stakeholders involved in the process. Beyond ensuring the process is accessible to any interested parties, targeted outreach is needed to reach beyond the self-selected groups that proactively engage.

  • CSOs must balance their dual roles of collaboration (working within the process) and challenge (pushing from outside it). Both roles are important and legitimate in their own right. Sceptical, but constructive, voices on the outside are important for keeping those inside the process honest.

Read a detailed description of the key steps, descriptions of activities and the learning from the development of the UK’s 2013-15 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan.