An open letter to Scottish Ministers re Covid19 crisis

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

with the

OGP Criteria and Standards Subcommittee Resolution issue for the

COVID19 Pandemic

. 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

unilateral actions.

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

data resource


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

UK wide

Coronavirus Act 2020

and the

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

Scottish Human

Rights Commission

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

(the last

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

Wellbeing Fund

, the

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

under the

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

Information Scotland


. 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

data routinely


, 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

under pressure.

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.

Elric Honoré

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!/vizho




Czech Republic:


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


Dear All,

Here is the link to the CFoIS website which includes briefings on the impact of Scotland’s emergency legislation on enforceable FoI rights

Best wishes for a safe lockdown.



Campaign for
Freedom of Information in Scotland @CFoIScot

1 Like

Hi all. Just to also mention here that I’ve been pushing the need for opendata as @Watty62 and others have been calling for directly on the Scottish Government’s Data Delivery Group which directly oversees some of these agenda for Scotgov, and other group members and officials have been receptive.

Thanks Ruchir the SG stats team ave published a blog this morning on the changes (helpfully discussed with OGP steering group members - including of course @Watty62 you can find it here


1 Like

Thanks Doreen, a breath of fresh air compared to what we are seeing in some other parts of the UK at the moment.

Hello Doireen,
Thank you for alerting us to the Blog. We have included a link to it on our website

Best wishes

Thanks Carol

Dear colleagues,

Please see attached the reply to the Open Letter. There are still many questions we would like to follow up on as network representatives, but meanwhile we definetely welcome this open reply at a time when there is unfortunately a tendency to curtail civic space. Link below:>

Letter from Graeme Dey 280520.pdf (166.0 KB)