Posted here on behalf of Elric Honore, Chair, Open Government Civil Society Network
Full text as PDF: OGP Scotland Civil Society Network Response to COVID19 measures - Open Letter.pdf (216.6 KB)
17 April 2020
RE: Open Government in Scotland at the time of crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic
I am writing on behalf of Scotland’s Open Government Civil Society Steering Group
and network to set out our position on the current situation and to share some
concerns and proposals raised by members as both government and civil society
readjust to the pandemic.
The current crisis shines a light on the readiness and responsiveness of our
systems, further challenging the fragile threads that hold our communities together.
We are compelled to reflect on everything that has come to be accepted as the norm
in our society, economy and environment.
We understand that some civil servants need to temporarily shift their focus to the
important task of keeping Scotland safe. We have been in contact with open
government commitment leads to discuss the situation and to understand where we
can continue work and hold the space during this time.
It is vital that government and public bodies continue to demonstrate
openness and transparency. Civil society is committed to continuing
work with government and public bodies throughout this crisis and
beyond to ensure that our communities are safe, informed, empowered
and prepared. We welcome continuous dialogue about how that is best
achieved and about the important role of civil society and the resources
and support required in this endeavour.
We are plugged in to the actions and conversations happening in civil society and
communities across Scotland. Through our everyday work, we have heard a range
of concerns that are important to raise in the context of open government and
COVID-19 now, though we will no doubt hear more over time.
We welcome a continued space for dialogue on open government, which
involves ministerial presence, with a programme of steering group and
commitment specific meetings continuing through virtual means
We want to keep an open line of communication with the government so that we can
continue sharing these concerns and working to find the answers and solutions that
enable us to maintain a high level of openness and transparency throughout.
Delivery of Scotland’s Open Government National Action Plan
We are aware that the Scottish Government have proposed to postpone the delivery
of Scotland’s Open Government National Action Plan (2018-20) until December
2020, thus extending the original deadline by 6 months. We understand this is in line
OGP Criteria and Standards Subcommittee Resolution issue for the
. We support this proposal and consider it both sensible and
necessary at this time.
We maintain a continued interest in addressing the systemic issues that hold back
open government and progressing national outcomes in Scotland, but we appreciate
that right now the public sector and civil society needs to respond and prioritise
efforts where they are most needed to ensure our communities are safe and well.
When the time is right, Scotland should learn from this experience and
‘Build Back Better’ the infrastructure and systems that are meant to
inform, connect and support us all, at this time or any other. We hope
that we will continue with a refreshed commitment to open government.
Open government in times of crisis
We understand that these are unprecedented times and that swift action is required.
We also feel that, as a new movement aiming to build trust in government and in civil
society, it is possible for continuous open government to be undermined by rash and
It is important that the wider public provided with the information required to
understand the decisions taken, and believe that standards of openness and
transparency should not take a back seat in a crisis, especially when people may be
looking to the government more often for answers and reassurance.
We enter the open government partnership in the spirit of honesty and collaboration,
but civil society does also play an important role across the world in monitoring
government actions and highlighting where they fall short. In the letter, we have
taken the opportunity to highlight some current areas of concern in Scotland and
where we believe it would be better to work in partnership, transparently and in the
open. They are related to:
Open data and the impact of COVID-19
Emergency legislation and human rights
Freedom of information restrictions
Transparency of decision making
Like many, we welcomed the First Minister’s pledge for the Scottish Government to
be as open and transparent with the public as possible. We believe that civil society
has a strong role to play alongside government and public bodies in this endeavour.
Open data and the impact of COVID-19
We continue to advocate for the publication of government data proactively and in an
accessible format. Open data is not solely about ‘access’, it is also about creation of
information for use and re-use by citizens, designed to be accessible to everyone
and made available not just different formats but in the equivalent of plain English. It
is an act of inclusion.
For example, as it stands, we know that COVID-19 is a threat to people with
‘underlying conditions’ and frontline workers, labels which when translated in the
reality of our local communities reveal that those more likely to be at risk are of any
likely combination of:
women, who make up nearly 70% of the health workforce, 85% of the care
workforce as well, as main providers of unpaid care
minority ethnic communities, who make up an unknown but high proportion of
the care home workforce
families on low income, who live in cramped housing conditions with little
recourse for self-isolation or luxury of outdoor exercise, who rely on
foodbanks and are in precarious employment
elderly and disabled people, who not only rely heavily on caring services and
care homes, but are also likely to be most left out due to digital exclusion from
mainstream public health messages or major law and public policy changes
such as the Coronavirus Bill
or the introduction of the Care Act easements
which concern them the most.
It is crucial that we are clear on who has been impacted and who is most
at risk, in order for members of the public to make informed decisions
and for civil society to respond accordingly. We have early noticed gaps
in the publication of data and asked for them to be addressed further.
In response, Ian Watt (civil society lead for commitment 3) manually created an open
which has been picked up for re-use by the Roslin Institute
Epidemiology, Economics and Risk Assessment Committee
, the Ferret
features on the OGP Government Approaches to Covid19 website
. This has been
done to address the gap in publication of government data, and to address a clear
need by the data community.
A recurring issue is that the Scottish Government continues to publish
data in a format which suits its current organisational needs but is still
not listening to the Open Data community. The right thing to do is for the
Scottish Government to publish the basic data as open data in an
accessible format. It would dispel early and systemically fears around
confirmed or presumed deaths which have caused confusion and
reduced trust and confidence.
We recognise the pressure felt by government colleagues and the challenge and
complexity of producing statistics with accuracy and responsiveness when
information gathering systems and processes are adjusting. We thank the statistics
team at the Scottish Government for their arduous work and welcome that as of 16
April 2020, historical data is provided in addition to daily snapshots, and that a shift
of perspective we have long pursued has received validation.
Beyond technicalities, we see this as a question of setting the policy, commitment,
standards and protocols right at the very start, so that at times of pressure,
generating data and practical applications for citizen use is not burdensome for civil
servants or civil society.
Emergency legislation and human rights: Coronavirus Act 2020 and
Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill 2020
In times of crisis, we understand that government may need to enact legislation that
outlines a proportionate response to keep people safe. In response to COVID-19, the
Coronavirus Act 2020
Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020
We recognise that the government needs to take steps to minimise risk to the public
at this time, but we are also conscious that emergency legislation has human rights
implications in a number of areas, including (but not limited to) the right to private
and family life, freedom of assembly and the right to liberty. The
have compiled a briefing on this matter.
We want Scotland to maintain its standing and best practice in human rights
(including rights to information), the empowerment of civic spaces, and commitment
to strengthening participatory democracy.
The impact on civic freedoms of COVID-19 measures are monitored openly across
the world (e.g. International Center for Non-for-profit Law
) and Scotland’s response
will be noticed.
As the Human Rights Consortium Scotland
describes, there can be derogation of
human rights in times of national crises. Therefore, it is important that Scotland
adheres to the following principles that any decisions and actions taken at this time:
Must be lawful and that law must be accessible and transparent
Must be necessary: closely related to the desired outcome
Must be proportionate: solely what is required and no more
Must contain non-discrimination throughout
Must be time limited.
We ask that a commitment to these principles is stated openly and
repeatedly, and that the Scottish Government approach matters that may
temporarily restrict human rights in order to prevent loss of life as a
result of COVID-19 with full openness and transparency. We also request
that civil society are involved in discussion prior to decisions that
impact communities being taken, including those related to the
extension of timelines or scope of emergency legislation.
Already, examples have are surfaced in which operating behind closed doors have
led to disproportionate measures or detrimental decision making, such as
discrepancies in reporting cases and deaths from COVID-19, the lack of
transparency in procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the
potential early opportunities missed by the UK Government
With the restrictions on freedom of assembly, many planned opportunities for
community engagement and participatory democracy have had to be postponed.
Whilst it is possible to move some of these interactions online and to continue
processes by other means, there are many challenges, including digital exclusion
Scottish Household Survey
found that 13% of households have no internet
access and a significant number more do not have basic digital skills).
We are encouraged by collaborative efforts to get people connected and supported
at this time, including the establishment of a
No One Left
Behind digital programme
, and community-led mutual aid.
We are interested in reading a comprehensive overview of the impact of
COVID-19 on community empowerment and public involvement in
decision making, including the status of Democracy Matters, initiatives
Community Empowerment Act (2015)
and digital engagement
statistics. We hope to see public involvement in decision making
continue where possible during this time, enabled by digital options,
and a commitment that other activities will resume as planned when
restrictions are lifted.
We hope that the Scottish Government maintains the commitment to open policy
making and participation, with thought given to the active role that the people of
Scotland can play in shaping our effort to ‘Build Back Better’. It’s important that there
is space to discuss the big issues and that existing processes continue, including the
Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland
and plans for the upcoming climate assembly.
Freedom of Information (FOI) restrictions
Information rights are vital and the restriction of scrutiny and transparency during a
national emergency is deeply troubling. The changes to Freedom of Information (FoI)
are not consistent with the commitment to open government and present challenges
for citizens, including the most vulnerable, that are most in need of protection
through the right to scrutiny.
We understand that balancing public interest and practicability for government will be
challenging at this time, but we do not agree with the basis by which this decision
was taken and do not believe that it is taken in the spirit of open government.
Ultimately, it does a disservice to our communities.
Time restrictions on FoI requests in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 have been
highlighted in the press and discussed in detail by the Campaign for Freedom of
. Concerns are also shared by the Scottish Information
, particularly around proposals of extending the response timescale
from 60 to 100 working days. We agree that this will have done little to rebuild trust in
the communities we serve.
We welcome the commitment from the Care Inspectorate to publish its COVID-19
, rather than as a result of FoI requests. They have demonstrated the
feasibility of working to a new default and standard of openness and the proactive
publication of data.
We ask that, as we rebuild, that this approach becomes the new normal,
based on an understanding that government and public body data has
intrinsic value for its citizens. This would systematically avoid time and
human efforts spent in validating the merit of requests or responding
Similarly, we heard early concerns from the National Union of Journalists about
freedom of movement of journalists in Scotland and welcome that Police Scotland is
adopting the NPCC media guidance and that Fiona Hyslop MSP, on behalf of the
Scottish government is expecting public authorities to allow journalists reporting on
the current crisis to have the freedom of movement.
We ask that citizen’s interests and views are put at the heart of policy
decisions which involve interpretation of what constitutes ‘meaningful
information’ and ‘key working’.
Openness, leadership and the benefits of scrutiny
We need ongoing scrutiny of government even while Parliament must operate
differently. It ought to be self-evident why scrutiny should be strengthened and not
weakened in a time of crisis. We commend examples of politicians putting divisions
aside, such as Anas Sarwar’s and Murdo Fraser’s proposals for an emergency
Scottish Parliament committee overseeing the response to the coronavirus
, which were supported by the Scottish Government
We hope to see constructive cross-party work continue and have been enthused by
examples from elsewhere, such as in Wales where opposition parties have been
invited into the government’s core group for the duration
, and in New Zealand,
where Parliament has set up a select committee
with an opposition majority that is
tasked with scrutinising the government’s COVID-19 response.
On a side note, we could not help but notice there a different class of political
leadership, with the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her ministers and
public service chief executives taking a 20% pay cut
for the next six months in
solidarity with their citizens. Meanwhile, UK MPs have been offered an additional
£10,000 each by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), to the
distaste of many
. It is in times like this that satirists find themselves having a tough
job and our task of rebuilding trust in institutions becoming even tougher.
In Scotland, we have witnessed in civil society considerable leadership by Dr Donald
Macaskill, CEO of Scottish Care, who early in the pandemic opened up the debate
and access to webinars discussing access to PPE equipment and mortality in care
home settings and scrutinised the ramifications of the
‘COVID-19 Guidance: Ethical
Advice and Support Framework’
in care settings. We commend such approaches, as
it is through frank and open debate that we can truly learn from the results of our
actions and decisions.
Open Government in Scotland, after the crisis
We reiterate our position that the open government movement and civil society can
help circumvent and pre-empt many issues which we know are more often than not
the result of an historical or ingrained top-down culture. We know this creates
silence, distrust and disengagement from communities, which we seek to empower.
At the start of this letter, we noted that the current situation has compelled us to
reflect on everything that has come to be accepted as the norm. This crisis has
further exposed inequalities, but also demonstrated how our communities can step
up and be a part of finding solutions. We hope that people across Scotland will be
invited to share their experiences and wisdom to shape what it means for Scotland to
‘Build Back Better’ and that the Scottish government will make available the
necessary space and resources to involve people in a collective endeavour, through
existing participatory initiatives and through a renewed agenda.
We ask that the open government civil society network is involved in
any conversations about openness, transparency, accountability and
participation in Scotland, including how we involve our communities in
the effort to ‘Build Back Better’.
Despite the difficulty of the challenge, we all firmly believe it is a worthwhile
undertaking and will help in rebuilding our communities after weathering the worst
part of this pandemic. We look forward to being able to resume work on these
We are going through a stern test and we hope that government and public bodies in
Scotland will continue to work constructively with civil society to demonstrate that the
value and commitments to open government hold true even times of crisis.
We would welcome a direct response to the questions and proposals
raised in this letter. This includes further written detail about the
proposals to delay the national action plan.
We remain open and available for any questions that arise after reading this letter.
Stay safe and please stay connected.
Chair, Open Government Civil Society Network
*Civil Society Steering Group Representatives 2020
Shaben Begum, Director, Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance
Catherine Gee, Keep Scotland Beautiful
Sally Kerr, Independent Expert
Kelly McBride, Director of The Democratic Society in Scotland
Ben McElwee, See Me Scotland
Lucy McTernan, Independent Expert
Graham Meikle, University of Westminster
Alex Stobart, Mydex CIC
Ian Watt, CodeTheCity
Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, International Center for Non-for-profit Law
Impact on local communities
Local Authority guidance for Care Act easements:
From Covid-19 information to Open Data – Scotland Civil Society
Examples of Open Data Reuse in Scotland – Dashboards/Visualisations
Open Data Dashboards – International Examples (provided in correct formats)
Rapid Covid-19 Surveillance, Public Health Wales
Interactive Visualization for the Analysis of Bed Capacities for
Covid-19 Patients, University of Konstanz
(in 9 languages)
Other / Community-developed / Open Resources and Tools