The Magic in the Room: How the Open Government Partnership can inspire and go to scale

My OGP story began in September 2010 when President Obama delivered a speech at the UN calling for countries to make bold commitments to open up government, fight corruption and boost transparency. We had been told to look out for a big announcement pertinent to open government in the President’s UN general assembly speech, but never dared hope for the type of impact that it had. The White House was interested in a partnership to set up what would become Open Government Partnership (OGP), and reached out to the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaborative bringing together leading opengov funders which I worked for.

Those were exhilarating times. We had no idea we were building a multi-stakeholder initiative, let alone one which five years later would have grown to 70 countries and be responsible for 1000s of opengov commitments around the world. My initial job was to put together a list of all the countries in the world with an ambitious opengov track record and for each country to identify both government reformers and civil society activists. I travelled the world by email and phone, relying on the kindness of NGOs, governments and funders worldwide, generous with their time and expertise. Within a few weeks, we had assembled a fascinating who’s who of innovators, thinkers, reformers in the public and private sectors. The information paved the way for a meeting of reformers, government officials and civil society in equal numbers, at the White House in late January 2011.

We walked into the meeting thinking we were exchanging ideas, learning about innovations from around the world, and walked out of it having constituted the founding steering committee of a major global initiative. The memory of that meeting will stay with me for a long time. From my perspective, it was the enthusiasm in that room, the deep sense that innovations really do come ‘from everywhere’ that laid the foundations for what would then become OGP. I remember vividly an exchange about India, where we learned of the social audits implemented under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act where details of payments from government contracts were etched on hundreds of thousands of walls for all to see and scrutinize. We learned of plans from the agency responsible for the reconstruction of Aceh for community monitoring of the building works, and many more. So many projects, and ideas for projects, that were enthusiastically exchanged by high level government officials and civil society alike. There was magic in that room.

It is that spirit which for me defines OGP, and which we sought to capture over the next few years.

We spent the following few years building the foundations of the Partnership. Stunned to have 46 heads of state and senior officials attend our launch event in September 2011 and 38 countries join, we needed to hurry and build an initiative to enable those commitments come to fruition.

A criticism of the process we built is that it is light on sticks, and heavy on carrots, meaning that there are many incentives for governments to do the right thing, yet few restrictions in place if they do not. This is a critical debate. When Azerbaijan was rendered inactive as a member country last Spring, this was a seminal moment in the life of the initiative.

Equally, we should better understand the attraction of OGP, what it can do for a country, for a reformer, to an idea. We need to understand the ‘carrot’ much better than we do at present. “Why do countries join OGP?” I have been asked the question many times but the truth is we don’t know the answer as well as we should. At its best, it is about inspiration, knowledge exchange and the spark that can ignite ideas and action when people passionate about the same cause are put in a room together.

We should be trying to recreate the ambiance of that early meeting in that room in DC, and do it more, do it better. The beauty of OGP is when we find the space to work together with a common purpose. The work undertaken by Open Contracting Partnership exemplifies this, leveraging the power of OGP and leading to 19 open contracting commitments in 15 member countries.

This is for me the challenge of the next five years – we have built architecture of the Partnership and in some ways have become the victims of our scale. Opengov reformers are dedicated to making 100s of National Action Plans a success: how best can we now support them? It is hard enough to help one idea come to life, how do you support thousands of them to their fullest potential? OGP needs to help bring those new reform ideas to life, at scale. Helping the mid-career civil servant committed to opengov and looking for good ideas, linking her or him with like-minded peers and civil society from geographies s/he may not even have thought of, and then co-creating exciting local reforms which will in turn be emulated and replicated the world over. Then do it again, 100-fold.

If innovation comes from everywhere, OGP should be its home. For the next five years, I look forward to an OGP rich with the stories of reformers sharing their enthusiasm and passion for open government.

No Place to Hide — Summit Ushers in Powerful New Anti-Corruption Measures

There are three big stories coming out of last week’s UK Anti-Corruption Summit in London.

One is the obvious and well recorded one, deservedly. Criminals, the corrupt and terrorists will no longer be able to hide under the cloak of anonymous companies to launder their ill-gotten wealth in France, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Kenya and the UK. All of these countries will now put in place public registers of the beneficial or real owners of companies, with France going one step beyond and including companies and trusts in its register. The UK register will come into force from next month. The UK also went further and made it a requirement for any foreign company either buying property in the country, or entering into a contract with the state to declare its beneficial owner. This is momentous as it applies potentially to any company in the world seeking to do business in the UK, it sets a precedent. Already Nigeria has committed to do the same.

Why do we need and want this? Anonymous companies are the getaway cars of the corrupt. As Mo Ibrahim said last week, “If you steal $100, you stash it under your mattress, if you steal $10m you register an anonymous company and buy a big house in Notting Hill.” Why do corruption fighters need the information? For two reasons. Firstly as a preventative measure, campaigners expect that the corrupt will be deterred from laundering their wealth through shell companies or the purchase of expensive properties. Secondly, to use this new data to detect and eventually prosecute the corrupt. It is with the latter that I think the summit really helped break new ground.

Strong commitments around open contracting, or the timely, accessible and comparable access to contracts between government and the private sector, are the untold story of the summit. Globally, a staggering 60% of the world’s bribes are connected to public contracts[i]. This matters for two important reasons. Firstly, it matters because shining a light on public contracting will lead to less dodgy deals being done using public resources which in turn means better schools, hospitals, roads or bridges. Secondly, open contracting is the enabler, the key really (though not the silver bullet, more on that below), for many of the outcomes we hope to see come out of beneficial ownership transparency.

Let’s take an example: knowing that James Smith owns company ‘X’ only takes you so far, unless you know who Mr. Smith is, what deals that company has been doing and with whom. That information will be vital to ensure that open data leads to corruption prosecutions. The illicit cash from dodgy contracts that may then have been laundered via the UK or other housing markets and offshore vehicles becomes visible and traceable. So for law enforcement to use this new data to bring about corruption prosecutions, the combination of beneficial ownership and open contracting is a powerful one indeed.

In total, an impressive 14 new countries committed to implementing the open contracting data standard last week (from Argentina to the United States via France and Georgia). The UK itself made a very strong commitment to open contracting, including all contracts related to High Speed 2, the governments’ mega-infrastructure rail project.

This bring me to the third and final story: to drive through those corruption prosecutions, we will need to have unusual and at times challenging collaborations between law enforcement agencies, investigative NGOs (such as Global Witness), investigative media, as well as data scientists and open data reformers. We needed to open up the right data, at the right time, in the right formats in order to empower those corruption fighters. To this end, the Anti-Corruption Innovation Hub was announced at the summit with 16 countries committing to develop new approaches to harness data and technology to lead to corruption prosecutions. Central to this is the People Powered Anti-Corruption programme jointly developed by Omidyar Network and the UK’s Department for International Development. Through this programme we will be supporting data scientists, investigative NGOs and media to work with law enforcement to ensure anti-corruption data leads to those found guilty of corruption being prosecuted.

We have witnessed a huge shift over the past five years. Tectonic plates are moving and the beginning of a new global norm is clearly forming. It will simply no longer be possible to hide behind the veil of anonymity that companies can provide for their real owners. It will — rightly — seem utterly strange in a few years from now that anyone could ever have registered a company without declaring their identity, much in the same way as it seems unbelievable that as recently as the 1990s bribes could be deducted as a business expense in many countries in the world including the UK. This is the beginning of an exciting journey and I for one am looking forward to being part of it.


Open Data: Casting a Digital Net to Catch the Corrupt

The Panama Papers leak, and exposure of potential corruption on a global scale, has helped reveal just how much more must be done to shine a light on the shadows where corrupt activity takes place. Data, and better use of it, has to be central to this effort.

The incredible work done on the Mossack Fonseca exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and others could not have come at a more opportune moment. Next week David Cameron will host world leaders at an Anti-Corruption Summit in London, which presents him with a huge opportunity to show leadership on this issue. As the Panama Papers have shown, corruption knows no borders. As with the game of Whack-A-Mole, closing a loophole in one place leads to the exploitation of another elsewhere. Working alone, the UK would achieve little, but working in collaboration with the global community it could make significant progress. At the Summit the assembled world leaders need to agree on how they can work together to prevent corruption and improve the lives of the victims across the world — citizens who suffer when public finances are diverted from the national purse to an individual’s pocket or hidden offshore structure.

Fundamental to this international collaboration will be getting agreement on the need for greater openness and more specifically, greater commitment to open up and use data more effectively. If we are to truly tackle endemic corruption on a global scale, we cannot afford to solely rely on the brave actions of a few whistleblowers. In addition, we need systematic, multilateral action to unleash the true potential of open data to power global efforts to tackle corruption.

Open data can become a powerful weapon in tackling all forms of corruption if the Summit delivers three things: it ensures the right information is reported and released; it ensures effective transmission of data to those who can use it to drive change; and it equips data users with capacity and space to act on that information.

However, if the global open data movement taught us anything over the past few years, it is not to trust the ‘invisible hand of data’. In other words, not to assume that the sole act of opening up data will magically lead to its better use by those who need it most. For open data to be of use, we must first reach out to users to understand their needs and act accordingly. One such example is the Open Contracting Partnership, which reached out to government reformers, lawyers, private sector companies, and media before developing its open contracting data standard that is already being supported in over ten countries.

We want to see a commitment from governments to engage with innovators who use open data to tackle corruption — such as law enforcement agencies, investigators, the media, and forensics teams — to bring them together, make efforts to understand their data needs, and ensure that they get access to what they need to uncover wrongdoing and prosecute where appropriate.

Once the data is released, we want to see the right groups alerted and working together to dissect and analyze it. This should involve investigative journalists, data scientists, local reformers, law enforcement specialists (in both forensic/prosecutorial capacity), independent forensic teams, financial institutions, and other key actors. Many of these actors have yet to work together to increase the uptake of open data, and the Anti-Corruption Summit presents a unique opportunity for them to do just that. This would be genuinely ground-breaking. There are very few or no open data initiatives that specifically identify data that helps corroborate and contextualise evidence leading to corruption prosecutions.

Finally, let’s not forget that the format for presenting data also matters. As we have seen from the Mossack Fonseca documents, the sheer quantity of data and its lack of inter-operability makes analysis and dissection extremely difficult. We cannot afford to remain stuck in the 1990s with investigators labouring through hundreds of thousands of documents manually. Much like Google changed the way we search for information, we need to change the way we search through data.

For open data to drive anti-corruption activity it needs to become accessible, timely, relevant, and comparable. As such, we hope to see the governments present at the Anti-Corruption Summit sign up to the Open Data Charter and implement its six core principles for opening up information.

The Panama Papers leak serves as a timely reminder that knowledge is power, and access to and the use of data is fundamental for tackling global corruption. If we are to transform open data into a powerful anti-corruption tool, the Prime Minister and the other world leaders need to recognise its critical importance. They must commit to work together to ensure the rightdata is made available to the right people in the right format, and then support its use to cast a digital net over corrupt individuals — leaving them with no place to hide their ill-gotten gains.

OGPx: Going Local for Global Impact

By Julie McCarthy & Martin Tisné

One of the first letters the Open Government Partnership (OGP) received upon its creation was from a mayor in Colombia, requesting that his city be able to participate in the initiative. But we had to turn him down. At the time, this was understandable: OGP was growing at break neck pace from zero, to 8, to 64 country members and our entire focus was on national governments.

Should we have done differently?

We see profound innovation and energy in advancing more accountable and participatory leadership and service provision at the local level.  Cities are where most people are increasingly located and where innovation lies. Under Mayor Patricia De Lille’s leadership, Cape Town recently became the first African city to launch an open data portal, which makes city budget and tendering data readily available to the public for the first time. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently opened up €75m to participatory budgeting and attracted 77 crowd-sourced projects. In Medellin, Mayor Anibal Gaviria has helped revitalize a city wracked by violence and corruption through a unique approach to “people led” governance, embodied by efforts like the World Urban Forum and Mi Medellin.

Going local offers enormous opportunities to take on specific open government challenges that national governments are unable to address.  For example, open, accountable policing—this is an enormous challenge for the United States and many other countries at present, and one that can only seriously be addressed at the local level. Recent work by the Southern coalition for Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina used open data to identify patterns in police discrimination that led the city to adopt a comprehensive package of reforms aimed at addressing racial profiling. This kind of innovation deserves a global profile and opportunities to replicate at scale (in the U.S. and internationally) that only a sub-national OGP effort can provide.

The demand is there:  hundreds of governors, mayors and other local officials are knocking down OGP’s door to sign up and begin sharing their experiences and accessing new international peers and ideas.

The dilemma for Open Government Partnership is how to respond to this demand: should it advance cautiously and pilot a few city-level OGP action plans? Should it embrace this demand in a centralized fashion by increasing its staff, operations and budget to help support these new members? Or should OGP create a more distributed architecture to support these reformers and innovators at city level.

We would propose the latter approach – what we call the OGPx model, in in the spirit of the TEDx franchise – for two reasons. First, because it represents a fantastic opportunity for OGP to scale fast without compromising excessively on quality. Second, because it taps into our growing knowledge of what OGP and other governance-focused multi-stakeholder initiatives do best and – we hope – will set OGP up for future success.

Scaling fast

The genius of TEDx is that TED recognized up front that its tightly controlled central model for quality control was ill-suited to its larger ambition of seeking to grow the platform exponentially among whoever could productively use it.  By creating the franchise of TEDx, it has been able to empower hundreds of communities to make productive use of the tool locally, at a relatively comparable standard of performance, with all the benefits that come from being connected to the TED brand, but also an important measure of distance from the core enterprise. OGP’s move to the subnational level is a chance to hack the TEDx model and move from strength to strength as a global platform.

If we are looking to generate new norms of urban governance, limiting ourselves to a small number of cities at the peak of OGP’s political and social capital seems like a huge missed opportunity.  Using OGP’s current momentum to springboard a “contagion of openness” at the local level is exactly the kind of norm generation that OGP is best positioned to do at this stage, and what OGPx could help accomplish.

The lesson we’ve learned with OGP

Multilateral platforms like OGP are best at generating new norms and spurring new political commitments at scale, but struggle to deliver on implementation. This has been a central lesson from our experience founding and helping build OGP since 2010, and working with many other governance-related multi-stakeholder initiatives including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Open Contracting Partnership, and the Open Data Charter since. If one accepts this as a fact of life, it changes the way we calibrate expectations about what OGP can deliver, and how, at various levels of government.

OGP has completely transformed global dialogue and momentum on open, accountable, participatory governance—Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals would arguably not have been possible without the ground work that OGP built, and the network of reformers willing to fight for it within the UN.  Norm generation: check.  OGP has stimulated well over 2000 commitments in almost 70 countries over the past 5 years. Stimulating political commitments at scale: check.

OGP is now mature enough to help cities pursue the same norm generation, political commitments, exchange of experiences and race to the top that we have helped seed at the national level in recent years.

How would OGPx work?

States, cities and other local entities could compete for a finite (but substantial) number of “licenses” to implement OGPx.  An application and screening process would assess the relevant locale’s track record on open governance based on an agreed standard that draws on relevant qualitative/quantitative data; locales would receive an invitation to join OGPx along with an “OGPx in a box” package that provides clear guidance and tools to begin the process of co-creating an OGPx action plan with citizens and;  participants would be asked to submit self-organized self-assessment reports that involve some measure of independent feedback, with the ability of local citizens to publicly comment on the findings (to ensure some measure of integrity, absent a fully-fledged independent reporting mechanism).

OGPx at its heart is about supporting leaders who have excellent ideas, but may not always agree or have reason to cooperate with their counterparts in the capital. For OGPx accepted participants, they should be able to develop and implement their plans within the mandates of their local authority unencumbered by requirements for national level approval.

This lighter touch, “franchised” OGPx for subnational governments would enable them to leverage OGP to drive forward ambitious open government reforms that directly improve the lives of citizens in OGP countries, in concert with international peers, and with some minimal measure of quality control and oversight—taking full advantage of the global political capital and momentum that OGP currently provides—while not overburdening OGP central, or creating unrealistic expectations about what a lean, mean OGP secretariat is capable of supporting.

OGP needs to evolve to survive. Producing new rounds of national action plans year on year, and continuing to consolidate and institutionalize the effort without paying attention to new sources of innovation and dynamism are a recipe for decreased political engagement, over-bureaucratization and eventual irrelevance. OGPx offers a chance for the initiative to reinvent itself anew for a whole new constituency of reformers and activists, who can bring fresh energy and experience to the table.

Here’s hoping that the next executive director of OGP will have the mandate to respond to fervent letters from Mayors and Governors around the world with invitations, rather than regrets.

Julie McCarthy is the Director of the Open Society Foundation’s Fiscal Governance Initiative, and was previously OGP’s founding director. Martin Tisné is Director, Policy at Omidyar Network, and a founding Steering Committee member of OGP. Together, they co-chair the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaborative that currently holds a seat on the OGP Steering Committee.

The Revolution will be Open

There is a huge amount of talk about a ‘data revolution’. The phrase emerged in the years preceding this September’s announcement of the Sustainable Development or Global Goals, caught on, and has recently been strongly reaffirmed by the launch of a Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data.

The importance of data in measuring, assessing, and verifying the new Global Goals has been powerfully made and usually includes a mention of the data needing to be ‘open’. However, the role of ‘open’ has not been clearly articulated. Fundamentally, the discussion focuses on the role of data (statistics for example) in decision-making, and not on the benefits of that data being open to the public. Until this case is made, difficult decisions to make data open will go by the wayside.

Much of the debate justly focuses on why data matters for decision-making. Knowing how many boys and girls are in primary and secondary schools, how good their education is, and the number of teachers in their schools, are examples of relevant data used in shaping education delivery, and perhaps policy. Likewise, new satellite and cell phone data can help us prevent and understand the causes of death by HIV AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

Proponents of the data revolution make powerful points, such as that 1 in 3 births go unregistered. If you are uncounted, you will be ignored. If you don’t have an identity, you do not exist.

Yet as important as this information is, I still can’t help but think: Do we change the course of history with the mere existence of more data or because people access it, mobilize, and press for change?

We need an equally eloquent narrative for why ‘open’ data matters and what it means.

To my thinking, we need the data to be open because we need to hold governments accountable for their promises under the Global Goals, in order to incentivize action. The data needs to be available, accessible and comparable to enable journalists and civil society to prod, push and test the validity of these promises. After all, what good are the Goals if governments do not deliver, beginning with the funding to implement? We will need to know what financial resources, both public and private, will be put to work and what budget allocations governments will make in their draft budgets. We need to have those debates in the open, not in smoke-filled rooms.

Second, the data needs to be open in order to be verified, quality-checked and improved. The most powerful argument for opening up data is simply that it will make it better – its quality will increase. I have been told countless times by government officials that they could not open the data because they were not sure it was correct or good enough. But that precisely is a very good reason to open it up, thus enabling the crowd to fact check it.

Furthermore, we need to open up not just the statistics, but also the information on how it was developed. We need access to the formula, the algorithms, the models underpinning decision making (e.g. climate models used by countries in planning policy positions for COP21) so we can check and improve them. Many more different eyes on data beyond policy makers means we will come up with better ideas on how to solve the problems that new data illustrates.

Open data is critical because data itself can be held hostage to politics. By opening data, you enable different perspectives on its interpretation and implications.

Lastly, we need the data to be open, because we want the beneficiaries of these services to actually have a voice in changing policies, inputting in to policies and being fully-fledged participants in the development process.

I hear a lot of conversation in the data revolution debates about filling data gaps by accessing new forms of private sector data (on water, sanitation, health etc.) but much less (or not at all) about ensuring that official bodies include citizen-generated data in their analyses (for example supreme audit institutions agreeing to take the results of social audits into account). People have a right to access the data and a right to engage in the debate.

A data revolution where only the powerful get privileged access to more and better data sounds like the opposite of a revolution to me. However, if open data can be shaped to hold governments to account, shared in a way that improves its veracity and utility, and embraced by those who stand the gain the most from it, then perhaps we are participating in a ‘revolution’. Not one defined by bits and bytes, but one where open data empowers individuals and fuels their ability to bring about the changes they wish to see.

One can reasonably argue that having more and better data alone has not changed the course of history. But people have changed history. Let’s empower them.

New Tool in the Fight Against Corruption: Open Data

New Tool in Fighting Corruption: Open Data

Why We Welcome the G20 Open Data Principles

Yesterday in Brisbane, the G20 threw its weight behind open data by featuring it prominently in the G20 Anti-Corruption working action plan. Specifically, the action plan calls for effort in three related areas:

  1. Prepare a G20 compendium of good practices and lessons learned on open data and its application in the fight against corruption.
  2. Prepare G20 Open Data Principles, including identifying areas or sectors where their application is particularly useful
  3. Complete self‑assessments of G20 country open data frameworks and initiatives

Open data describes information that is not simply public, but that has been published in a manner that makes it easy to access and easy to compare and connect with other information.

This matters for anti corruption – if you are a journalist or a civil society activist investigating bribery and corruption those connections are everything. They tell you that an anonymous person (e.g. ‘Mr Smith’) who owns an obscure company registered in a tax haven is linked to a another company that has been illegally exporting timber from a neighboring country. That the said Mr. Smith is also the son-in-law of the mining minister of yet another country, who herself has been accused of embezzling mining revenues. As we have written elsewhere on this blog, investigative journalists, prosecution authorities, and civil society groups all need access to this linked data for their work.

The action plan also links open data to the wider G20 agenda, citing its impact on the ability of businesses to make better investment decisions. You can find the full detail here.

In June, we published “Open for Business: How the open data can help achieve the G20 growth target” and argued that open data cut across a number of this year’s G20 priorities: attracting private infrastructure investment, creating jobs and lifting participation, strengthening tax systems and fighting corruption.

We are delighted to see the G20 take this important next step and that open data is now on the G20 agenda for the next two years. This builds on the G8 Open Data Charter, which was announced last year during the UK G8 presidency, and is a clear indication that open data has now come of age and to the attention of heads of state across the globe.

 

Testing the boundaries of OGP

Are governments most likely to reform before joining an international initiative or once they have joined it?

The answer to this question will go a long way towards explaining the impact of Open Government Partnership in the years to come. As I’ve discussed before, much of the premise of OGP is based on an incentive structure that encourages countries to race to the top once in the initiative.

But once in, how do you stop countries from sliding back down all the while helping others to stretch?

The EU is probably the most successful governance club in the world. The Copenhagen political criteria spell out how EU members should be democracies, abide by the rule of law, respect human rights and protect minorities. Even there (with many carrots at their disposal), the union has struggled to maintain the same level of ambition for new member states as it did in the heady early 2000s when countries were working hard to undertake the required steps to join.

The more countries want to get in, the more efforts they will make to join, the more difficult it is to keep the pressure on once in. On one hand, OGP has always sought to incentivize a ‘race to the top’ between members. On the other hand, there has also always been much discussion on the steering committee as to the pros and cons of a stricter approach towards OGP members that restrict space for civil society or violate human rights on a large scale (and a concern within civil society that countries could use OGP to ‘open wash’, much like ‘greenwashing’ in the environmental sector).

What are the implications for OGP? Three issues stand out:

The OGP has developed a draft ‘rapid response policy’ to deal with situations where OGP members violate human rights on a large scale and impose restrictions on civil society. It may seem bureaucratic, but whether that policy is approved in New York this September and subsequently implemented will be a significant test for the Partnership.

OGP should consider tightening its civil liberties eligibility criterion. OGP eligibility rests on four criteria – access to information, transparency of budgets, asset disclosure and civil liberties. The first three are based on specific indicators, but the latter is based on an aggregate indicator (the civil liberties sub-indicator of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index) and does not capture year on year trends. Changing this now with 64 members in the initiative will be challenging. However difficult, OGP should consider updating it.

Is there a need for an OGP index? Much like in the aid sector where the Aid Transparency Index ranks countries against each other and thus acts as a boost for the implementation of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), or the Open Budget Survey in the fiscal transparency sector, OGP might benefit from an independent, third party ranking system (which could either be an aggregate index, a dashboard bringing together existing indices etc.).

This should not obscure OGP’s central objective – how to ensure that open government reformers from all over the world meet, network, replicate successful reforms and scale their impact. But ensuring that high energy, low capacity countries progress upwards, whilst ensuring that low-performing countries do not dampen the energy of the rest of the group (e.g. using OGP to “open wash”) will likely be a significant test to OGP in the years to come.