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The Opportunities and Challenges of the Open Government Partnership



Last week the Open Government Partnership (OGP) met in Brasilia. Roughly 1200 registered participants from 60 countries, including 200 from civil society groups, met to share the work they are doing to make their systems more open.

The OGP is an interesting beast. Launched in September 2011 with forceful leadership by the Obama administration, it is, essentially, an effort by governments and civil society to create a new incentive structure to promote transparency, fight corruption and empower citizens. The initiative’s goal is to create a system of incentives that might induce governments to be more aggressive in tackling these issues.

For example, in order to participate in the OGP there are a modest set of hurdles a country must clear relating to four areas: access to information, budget transparency, disclosure of politicians' salaries, and citizen engagement. So far, as a “brand,” the OGP has been quite attractive. What government wouldn’t want to be part of an Open Government Partnership? Thus, the carrot of belonging to the OGP is likely significant enough that it will prompt some governments to improve their record in some of these four areas.

More complicated is what happens after a country joins. What is clear is that a government must create an “action plan” in consultation with civil society and citizens that “stretches the country beyond its current practices.” What is less clear are the benefits for adhering to, or the consequences for failing to act on those commitments.

The lone positive incentive in this regard is likely peer pressure. With the OGP slated to start publishing annual reports (which will hopefully include league tables) in 2013, governments may end up competing with one another for progress. This type of peer pressure should not be underestimated. Having helped advise around the UN e-government survey I learned how powerful league tables can be as an incentive — especially, as in the case of the e-government survey where they are used by foreign businesses to assess investment decisions. Since the OGP annual reports would bring together issues of service delivery, public sector ethics, technology and anti-corruption, it is likely they would also matter a great deal to decisions around foreign investment and so might incent follow through, particularly in developing economies.

For civil society members the main benefit at the moment is that the OGP provides an international platform — which would hopefully foster greater domestic coverage media on OGP issues — by which to critique government inaction or reward improvements. This is not a trivial stick but it may have to be used carefully, as it may become less effective with each use.

Already, during the country report sessions in Brasilia, you could see civil society members trying to use the conference's format to be strategic in setting themselves up to leverage the OGP most effectively. For example, Philippine Government civil society responders pressed the government on its failure to enact the access to information law that is currently languishing in its parliament. Filipinos I talked to were glad to see a draft law proposed, but felt their president had not put his full weight behind getting the law passed. Given the importance the OGP assigns to access to information laws and that the Philippines is on the OGP steering committee (and so potentially more open to pressure to perform at home and internationally) it will be interesting to see if this international venue helps Filipino civil society actors get more traction.

What remains unclear is if the ultimate sanction — expulsion — can be applied to a country for failing to make progress. Presently the OGP’s Governance rules — which were released during the conference — are a little hazy on this issue but the ultimately, the answer appears to be no. Indeed, the only clear circumstances by which a country can be removed is if it falls below the eligibility criteria.

What is most fascinating is that everything described above, the question of incentives, participation and expulsion are all likely to get tested very shortly.

This is because South Africa, an OGP steering committee member, has just passed (but not enacted) the "Protection of Information Bill," which effectively makes the publication of leaked government documents illegal. This despite serious opposition from civil society and many members of the former anti-apartheid coalition. What makes the situation so interesting is that this bill clearly violates the spirit of the OGP and yet, does not appear to trigger any of the sanctions outlined in the governance rules. It is easy to imagine that many South African civil society members will demand that South Africa be removed from, or at least sanctioned by, the OGP should the law be enacted. If the OGP is unable to respond credibly it will likely make civil society actors from other countries nervous that OGP membership will not provide an effective check on the very issues it is supposed to address.

The OGP is still in a formative stage — just learning how to walk. But it will be tested early by a number of issues and how the steering committee reacts over the next few months are likely to determine the fate of the initiative — whether it becomes a transformative body that fosters and supports strong new expectations for what qualifies a country as open and democratic or if it becomes more of a talking shop, like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which shepherds along more incremental progress. 


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