I am extremely excited about the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and its potential impact on the quality of life of citizens around the world. We know that there are sufficient public resources available globally to eradicate extreme poverty and inequality. The problem is the distribution and management of these resources. Open government practices offer great promise for improving our management of public resources and, therefore, our potential impact on poverty and inequality.
An opportunity for civil society around the world
On Tuesday, 20 September, eight governments will each commit to an action plan to enhance open government in their respective countries. Approximately 37 other governments will signal their intention to submit similar action plans at a follow-up meeting in Brazil in March 2012. The launch of the OGP presents a major opportunity for civil society organizations to influence the content and process of these governments’ commitments. In each partner country, civil society organizations interested in any aspect of open government – including fiscal and extractive revenue transparency and service delivery –should start a conversation with their governments to suggest ambitious and meaningful commitments in these and other areas. Civil society will also have an important opportunity to influence the consultation process that the government will use to arrive at these commitments and monitor their implementation.
A growing global interest in government openness?
In many respects, the formation of the OGP reflects a unique convergence of global interests, most important a convergence in the interests of both governments and civil society in catalyzing greater openness and public engagement as a means to activate citizenship and improve the quality of life.
When it comes to governments, we have entered a period in which development problems and challenges are more equally dispersed around the world, and it is no longer true that northern countries have the exclusive claim on good governance practices or that countries in the global south are the only reservoirs of poor practices. The debt crisis raging in Europe and elsewhere undercuts the position that all countries in the north adhere to principles of transparency and accountability. And, a diverse range of southern countries are emerging as pioneers in good government practices. See, for example, the recent efforts in Brazil, India, and South Africa, as well as Colombia, Indonesia, and Peru to increase budget transparency.
At the same time as government interest in and capacity for openness is growing, there has been a massive increase in civil society capacity to take advantage of new spaces for engagement in policy processes. The growth and impact of the broad civil society movement working for freedom of information legislation and practices is well documented. Over the past 10 years, there has also been a similar, dramatic growth in civil society movements advocating for greater transparency in extractive industry revenue flows, government budgets, and foreign aid. Willing governments now have skilled and engaged counterparts in civil society to work with.
Where government and civil society interests converge, as they do in the Open Government Partnership, the growing evidence base shows clearly that citizens are the beneficiaries. This is the promise of the Open Government Partnership. Citizens, governments, oversight institutions, and the private sector working together can lead to an increase in the resources available for development and the more efficient and effective management of these resources. In other words, transparency, participation, and accountability are necessary conditions for development.
What could go wrong with the OGP?
The first challenge facing every country involved in the OGP will be to establish meaningful and rich consultation processes. This is not an easy task. The challenge is to ensure broad-based and effective citizen involvement in defining a substantive and ambitious set of commitments. To do so, countries will have to confront such challenges as inequality, urban-rural divides, language, and education, amongst others.
Participating countries will be limited necessarily to a small number of commitments over a one- or two-year period. But, the quality of the engagement process can endure. A strong OGP consultative process can establish a model that has the potential to guide open government practices far into the future. The real legacy of the OGP lies in establishing a new standard for consultation and active citizenship in all the participating countries.
A significant challenge facing the OGP Steering Committee will be to maintain the legitimacy of the process. The involvement of major southern and northern governments as champions of open systems, processes, and practices provides a great incentive for other governments to join the initiative. I am sure that most of these governments will have the best of intentions, but there will be some that have only shallow or ambivalent commitments to open government. The danger is that these countries can threaten the legitimacy of the entire initiative. Every government must be given a fair chance, but there will come a time when the OGP will have to make tough decisions. It must not shy away from these decisions. They may be tough, but the legitimacy of the entire process is at stake.
Finally, civil society participating in this process – at the international and country level – will have to keep up their end of the bargain. The lure of participating in international and country processes can be attractive, and this can lead to competition within civil society. This poses the danger that only the more globally connected, urbanized, and educated parts of civil society get to participate in the process. It is our responsibility as civil society advocates to make sure that this does not happen. It is up to us as much it is to governments to ensure that OGP processes are reflective of the full spectrum of citizens and civil society, not only those that are easiest to reach.
How will we know that the OGP is a success?
The ultimate test of the OGP is its impact on citizens on the ground in participating countries. We should not focus on the commitments or even the process outcomes, important as these yardsticks are to the OGP. Instead, we must focus on is whether a culture of active citizenship is taking root in the participating countries. So, what does an empowered, active, engaged citizen looks like? Perhaps the following short story will help to illustrate this.
On a long bus ride in rural Uganda last year, I was sitting next to Constance, a local resident. Suddenly, she turned to me and exclaimed, “Look at that school!” My head spun around as we whizzed past. “It has no windows and only half a roof,” she continued. “How can children concentrate in such a structure?” I asked her if she was a teacher. “No,” she answered. Several miles later, she again exclaimed, “Now, look at this bridge!” I looked tentatively as we squeezed and bumped our way over a narrow, dilapidated bridge. “The public contractors used an inferior concrete mix. After tonight’s rains, I might not be able to get home,” she worried out loud. I asked her if she was with the office of public works. “No,” she answered. “So how do you know all these technical details,” I asked. “I’ve been trained as a community budget monitor,” she answered proudly. “It has changed my life,” she continued. “Now I am a monitor! When I take my children to school, I monitor. When I ride the train, I monitor. At my village health clinic, I monitor. I am always looking, asking questions, reporting problems. I make sure the government does not waste my money.”
It’s hard to imagine having this conversation even a few years ago, but this is the rapidly changing world in which we work. This is the world in which open government partnerships are possible. Let’s keep citizens, like Constance, at the heart of our efforts.