This plan comes at a time when trust in government in Ireland is worryingly low. Its publication also coincides with the annual MacGill Summer School, whose invited guests are discussing the need for root and branch review of our institutions to ensure more transparency and democratic accountability – like they do every year.
The Open Government Partnership is not about such radical transformative change. As a voluntary partnership with a modest qualifying threshold for membership, it is more carrot than stick, reform rather than revolution. Since its launch in 2011 it has grown from eight participating countries to 64. In many of these states, governments and civil society are working together to develop and implement open government reforms with various degrees of ambition.
And yet it would be wrong to dismiss OGP as just another genteel club affording politicians a global stage on which to boast about how open and transparent they are. One of the key strengths of this nascent partnership is that it provides an international platform for domestic reformers – both public servants and civil society – who are committed to making their governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens. This generates a healthy peer pressure between countries to do better, go farther. It also allows non-governmental organisations to share and compare strategies and goals, to showcase good practices and to build alliances to push for reforms at national, European and global levels.
OGP also provides a new domestic platform for reformers by encouraging governments to consult with citizens and civil society in drafting and implementing National Action Plans. In Ireland, the National Action Plan was drafted by government officials with input from interested citizens and civil society members from a range of non-governmental groups, including TASC.
While some countries’ OGP action plan commitments may be weak, the partnership has helped deliver some substantive reforms in its four years. In the UK, the government committed through OGP to create a publicly accessible central registry of information on beneficial ownership of companies in a bid to crack down on aggressive tax evasion and money laundering.
In Ireland, sustained pressure from civil society groups involved in Ireland’s first OGP National Action Plan attributed to the recent announcement by Minister Brendan Howlin that up-front application fees for Freedom of Information requests are to be dropped. This will remove a bureaucratic barrier faced by members of the public and journalists, who currently have to cut a cheque for €15 each time they seek access to public information.
In the face of the critical and systemic governance shortcomings facing Ireland, today’s National Action Plan constitutes a modest step. But is it a step in the right direction and civil society needs to continue to work to see the commitments implemented and to maintain the drive for more ambitious reforms towards increased openness and accountability in public life. For readers interested in following Ireland’s OGP journey and/or getting involved in the loose civil society grouping which has formed around it, please sign up for the mailing list or visit the website www.ogpireland.ie for more information on the civil society activities around OGP.