If you could get the Welsh Government to do one thing to be more transparent or engaging, what would it be? Especially if you knew the government had to listen and respond?
That was the premise of a recent consultation we did as part of the Open Government Network for Wales.
Open Government is a rather new concept for civil society in Wales, but it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon where governments across the globe commit to improving accountability, transparency and participation in their countries – and work with civil society to put those ideas into action. The idea is to break down barriers which exist between politicians and those they represent.
This has led to some genuinely game-changing policies across the world; innovative budgeting methods used inMadrid and Portugal which see communities vote on how budgets are spent, a ‘tripadviser’ model for reviewing public services in Mongolia where people can rate their local hospital, and a platform to crowdsource data on homelessness in Austin,Texas. These policies have made a real difference to people’s lives in these areas.
The Welsh Government now have the opportunity to do the same. This year will see the publication of their new action plan on Open Government. This is only the second time it’s happened in Wales – and the first which has truly engaged civil society.
The Open Government Network in Wales, led by ERS Cymru, WCVA and Cynnal Cymru, has been gathering ideas in preparation, ready to pitch these to the government in the hope that they can make up part of their final commitments.
We gathered the ideas through a workshop and an online ‘Discuto’ platform where people could offer their own suggestions. Through these wide-ranging suggestions, we pulled together a civil society manifesto, which hopes to set the gold standard in transparency.
Our proposals span from making the Welsh Government’s website clearer and more accessible to the introduction of budgeting methods that involve people in communities, to making the procurement process in Wales more transparent.
All this stems from a crucial fact: Wales has a serious democratic deficit, with comparatively few of us really engaging with public life here beyond showing up to vote in elections.
And when it comes to elections we have nothing to boast about. Just over 45% of registered voters turned out in the 2016 Assembly elections. In last year’s local government election this figure only just topped 41%.
Part of this deficit comes from a lack of understanding and engagement in the decisions made in Wales – and the government can take measures to improve this. Major steps forward in the areas we’ve highlighted will go some way to reducing Wales’ democratic issues.
Take for example one of our calls: that Welsh Government produces documents in a wider range of formats – including images and infographics – and worked with different platforms to ensure they reached a wider range of audiences. This sounds relatively simple but genuinely could make a big difference.
If consultations were made to be more engaging using these methods and were sent to a wider range of people on the media platforms that they actually use, perhaps more people would have their voices heard and policy decisions would better represent our society as a whole and what they’d like to happen.
Another of the key areas we’ve highlighted in the manifesto is the area of participatory budgeting (PB). The words mean little on their own (in fact, I’ve been in many high-level meetings where none of us can actually pronounce them), but in practice, PB is a tool that gives people in communities a real say on decisions that affect them and their area.
In short, we’d all have a say in where money is spent in Wales. There are lots of models around PB. Perhaps the most famous is Decide Madrid where every year residents vote on how €100m is spent. If your local authority had to make a decision around whether your local roads, schools, or waste services received additional funding that year, wouldn’t you want a say?
The proposals contained within our manifesto are the first united attempt from Welsh civil society to help open up democracy.
We hope that the Welsh Government takes them seriously. This is a significant opportunity for Wales and could genuinely begin a step change for the way government here works for the benefit of all of us.
To get involved in the Network sign up to the Open Government forum here.
Read the Civil Society Manifesto