Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Open government mid-term report shows need for sustained momentum behind reforms

Nuala Haughey: An independent report charting progress (and lack of progress) on Ireland’s open government reforms will be published in Dublin this week. The report is a mid-term assessment of the extent to which Ireland has fulfilled the goals set in its first Open Government Partnership National Action Plan 2014-2016.

For the uninitiated, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a global initiative that aims to secure commitments from governments to their citizenry to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

A novel feature of this voluntary enterprise is that it encourages governments and civil society to work together to introduce, implement and monitor reforms. In Ireland, a small but diverse ad hoc group of civil society representatives and citizens coalesced around the creation of Ireland’s first two year National Action Plan, which contained 20 reform commitments, and was launched in June 2014 (you can see details on www.ogpireland.ie).

This week’s report is a welcome milestone in Ireland’s journey as a member of the  unique global OGP initiative, which started some four years ago under the leadership of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin.

Written by TCD political scientist Professor Raj Chari, the report charts the first year of implementation of the National Action Plan’s commitments, from 2014 to 2015. Dr Chari’s overall verdict is that the plan contained “ambitious commitments” on citizen participation, ethics in public office, lobbying regulation, and whistleblower protection. He concludes that “while much progress has been made in implementing the commitments, some areas need strengthening and reinforcing.”

One of the most pressing of these surely relates to ethics and standards in public life. An overhaul of our weak ethics regime was a central plank of a suite of legislative reforms aimed at enhancing transparency and accountability in government and public life contained in the last Programme for Government. These also included lobbying, whistleblower and freedom of information reforms.

The Public Sector Standards Bill was finally published in December 2015 and was before the Dáil in February 2016 when it lapsed with the calling of a general election.  Hopefully the incoming Oireachtas will restore this vital draft legislation to the Order Paper by resolution. 

The Bill contains many reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal into planning corruption. Lest anyone think that such matters are ancient history, a troubling glimpse of current standards in public life was revealed in a recent RTÉ investigates probe, Standards in Public Office.

Prof Chari’s report contains five key recommendations (see box below) aimed at ensuring that high level political commitment to open government reforms endures and that Ireland’s second National Action Plan 2016-2018 contains ambitious and meaningful commitments. 

 Source: Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) Progress Report 2014-2015: Ireland

These recommendations also aim to ensure that the modest momentum built up in government and civil society around Ireland’s membership of this unique global partnership is not squandered. 

As the report notes, ‘back-room deals’, historical opaqueness and perceived corruption in Irish politics has damaged public trust in our democratic institutions and may have played a part in our recent economic collapse. The launch of this mid-term assessment at a time of intense political uncertainty must not mean that future open government reforms are sacrificed on the altar of the “national interest”. 

* A draft of the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) Progress Report 2014-2015: Ireland is available for download. The final version, including TASC’s comments on this draft, will be published this week.

Nuala Haughey is a project manager with TASC and was involved in civil society’s efforts to produce Ireland’s first OGP National Action Plan 2014-2016.

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