More than 3000 government and civil society representatives from 70 countries will gather in Paris from Dec. 7-9 for the Open Government Partnership Global Summit.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a high-level platform for governments and their citizens to work together around national and global problems neither can solve alone. On the 2016 agenda: transparency and anti-corruption, climate action and sustainable development, digital commons and civic tech, and ways to improve how governments serve their citizens.
Many of our grantees, funded through our transparency, participation and accountability work, will be there. Hewlett program officers David Sasaki, Pat Scheid and Alfonsina Peñaloza will be there, too. Below they share their thoughts on topics such as how the partnership is transforming government and citizen engagement, how it might do more in Francophone West Africa, and that there’s more to learn about gender in open government.
Why is the Open Government Partnership important?
Alfonsina Peñaloza: The Open Government Partnership has created a unique platform for civil society to work with government, and has grown rapidly from eight to more than 70 countries since its launch in 2011. OGP has demonstrated that it’s politically profitable to join the partnership and has begun to develop space for dialogue and negotiation at the national level.
David Sasaki: It’s a new way to structure initiatives that bring together governments and citizens. Participating countries must meet eligibility requirements that include basic protections for civil liberties and the disclosure of assets of elected and senior public officials. Each participating government must work together with a civil society organization to co-create an action plan that makes measurable goals to become more transparent, participatory and accountable. And they agree to be audited by an Independent Reporting Mechanism of researchers and experts that evaluate each country’s progress. If member countries fail to uphold their eligibility requirements or if they don’t work toward their commitments, then they can be suspended as recently happened to Turkey.
What impact has the Open Government Partnership made?
Alfonsina Peñaloza: Results are mixed, and highly dependent on national context. The partnership has potential to transform how dialogue civil society and civil servants interact. And already it serves as a global platform to spread new norms related to governance on open data, fiscal transparency and extractives so that national advocacy organizations can pressure their governments to become more transparent.
David Sasaki: It’s a difficult question to answer comprehensively for any one participating country, much less for all 70. John Jingu and William John of the University of Dar es Salaam published an interesting case study of Tanzania’s experience and the difficulty of fulfilling the high expectations generated by the buzz of the partnership. And earlier this year, Global Integrity, a grantee of the Hewlett Foundation, synthesized five of these country case studies and made recommendation’s for OGP’s future, including the need to focus more on country-level reform and less on international events. Like so much of the work in global development, we seem to repeatedly draw the same conclusion: “We’ve made progress, but there’s still much to be done.”
We must recognize that not everything has been progress. Over the past five years we’ve also seen democratic backsliding and an increase in what is now called “openwashing” — a celebration of politically neutral open data like transportation information while governments crack down on journalists, watchdog groups and civil liberties.
Many of the founding leaders of the partnership — Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, David Cameron in the U.K., Jakaya Kikwete in Tanzania, Barack Obama in the U.S. — have been replaced by heads of state that haven’t prioritized open government as an issue and are generally less enthusiastic about engaging in global partnerships. This year’s host, France, faces elections next year where the leading candidates are more isolationist than President François Hollande. Over the next five years, the OGP will need to both deepen its impact and identify new member countries to assert their leadership and celebrate the partnership’s principles.
What do you hope to see at this year’s summit?
Pat Scheid:I hope the summit hosted by the French government will be an opportunity to bring in in voices, experiences and possibly new commitments for open government in Francophone West Africa. Despite the lack of formal participation from the region, there are positive trends and opportunities in Senegal and Burkina Faso. A session organized by Burkina Open Data Initiative will provide ideas and an open forum to discuss strategies for OGP success in Francophone West Africa. There is also an opportunity to leverage regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) that can help promote regional norms and standards.
Finally, I look forward to more peer learning and exchange between government officials and civil society organizations in Anglophone and Francophone countries in the region. Language barriers can be overcome where people and institutions are ready and motivated to learn from each other. During the Civil Society Forum, I hope to learn about civil society experiences co-creating country action plans, strategies for monitoring progress, and emergent opportunities for connecting and learning across borders.
Alfonsina Peñaloza: I look forward to learning more about the latest developments from the Subnational Pilot, including whether there are new approaches to citizen participation that address service delivery challenges. How do the partnership and its members approach gender in open government? Are they fully committed to the inclusion of women from both civil society and government? I’m looking forward to the session “Open gender monologues: Unheard voices from the OGP community” hosted by the Open Heroines group.
Finally, this is the first OGP summit since we released our transparency, participation and accountability grantmaking strategy, which focuses on learning. I’ll be exploring new research and learning initiatives that are aligned with our strategy.
David Sasaki: I’m especially interested in the subnational session on Friday, Dec. 9, hosted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, which will bring together the 15 cities and local governments of the subnational pilot to present the action plans they’ve developed over the past year. There is a macro-trend, described eloquently by Benjamin Barber in his book “If Mayors Ruled the World,” where cities are becoming borderless laboratories of innovation and inclusion while federal governments are increasingly tied up in dysfunctional gridlock.
Similarly, I think we’re going to see a lot of exciting innovations come from these subnational governments that we haven’t seen yet from federal governments. Finally, I’m excited to learn more about some of the initiatives of the Paris city government, one of the participants of the subnational pilot. More than any other city government, Paris is truly committed to participatory budgeting, and to learning from each successive experience.
What are the biggest challenges ahead?
Alfonsina Peñaloza: OGP’s biggest challenge is to prove its impact. It has yet to demonstrate that it can help countries achieve truly transformational actions. And there’s a concern that it allows governments to get away with openwashing by focusing on politically neutral, technocratic advances while restricting civic space. We still need to define open government in a way that is easily understandable for most people. True open government could be framed as a challenge to the power balance, one where civil society is truly a partner to tackle the way resources are managed and services are delivered.
The partnership will need to identify new leadership among its members as founding countries rotate off the steering committee. This coincides with a strategic refresh in which the partnership seeks to deepen the co-creation process and increase political ownership in participating governments. While the subnational pilot has the potential to bring the partnership closer to real needs of actual citizens, it could face similar challenges at the local level.
Pat Scheid: Some countries are still stuck negotiating for the basics. Ghana’s 2013 action plan stresses the importance of passing a Right to Information Bill, which remains stalled in parliament nearly four years later. It’s not clear that the partnership can adequately support continued country expansion, though it seems like there is an opportunity to work more closely with regional bodies that could promote norms, monitoring and peer learning at the regional level.
David Sasaki: In short, I’m concerned about the planet. One of the main goals for this year’s summit is to “build a movement on open government for climate action.” The role of the Open Government Partnership in addressing climate change is revealing of a larger truth: the principles of openness and co-creation between governments and civil society organizations are most effective when there is already a strong level of support from within government.
If a government is committed to curbing global warming, then it makes sense to push for greater transparency about the amount of money budgeted and spent on climate financing, and the results of those investments. If a government is committed to reforms, then the partnership can help hold it accountable to those commitments. But if a government isn’t interested in a particular reform in the first place, then the partnership isn’t well positioned to exert pressure.
U.S. commitment to climate action, for example, seems much more in question following the election of Donald Trump. That doesn’t take away from the partnership’s utility, but it’s a reminder to focus our energies where there is the most alignment and opportunity. And for a foundation like ours, it’s a reminder that flexible, core support can help civil society organizations pursue those opportunities as they arise.