I worry that civil society advocates working on Open Government Partnership are making a tactical mistake.
There has been a lot of activity – rightly – around which OGP countries should be ‘in or out’. There were discussions in the past year around South Africa’s media bill (the so called ‘secrecy bill’) and whether it might impact the country’s OGP eligibility. Most recently the discussion has centered on Russia’s decision to ‘postpone’ its entry into OGP. Many had informally questioned whether Russia should have been eligible in the first place.
Whilst important, such a strong focus on eligibility misunderstands the nature of the Partnership. The Open Government Partnership is not a ‘good performers’ club’. If it was, it would entail setting a high bar for entry and focusing civil society attention on getting new countries in to meet the entry standard and monitoring those that fall behind with a view to expelling them. OGP is different. It purposefully sets a low bar for entry and then seeks to encourage countries in a ‘race to the top’ by rewarding excellence and penalizing backsliding or inaction. Here is where as a community we could do a lot more to ensure OGP succeeds in these precious formative years.
There are currently three basic rules of the game for OGP – we should refine and strengthen these and I would suggest to also add a ‘relevance check’.
(1) Civil society participation: this is the defining factor of the Open Government Partnership. Civil society sit on the OGP steering committee, are represented at co-chair level, are involved in the drafting, co-creation and implementation of OGP national action plans. Yet the OGP guidance on participation of civil society (which the Independent Reporting Mechanism uses as the standard to measure countries against) is far too broad, weak and focuses only on the drafting of a country’s initial action plan.There are just five basic steps that focus on ‘consultation’: we could and should do better. There is so much more we could be doing here, from using platforms like OpenIdeo to co-create action plans, to setting up innovative civil society/government/private sector collaborations to make them happen. More on this in a future post.
(2) The OGP ‘stretch’: no country action plan should merely coast on past successes, or bottle prior commitments under the pretense of new. The only reason to be part of OGP is to ‘stretch’, to innovate and try something new, different, possibly uncomfortable at first. This idea was present from the very genesis of the Partnership – countries should make ‘stretch commitments’ in their action plans that take them beyond their comfort zone into new territory. It is then that OGP really starts to makes sense: countries then need support from their peers to make it happen, the networking mechanism matches idea/innovator/implementer etc. We need to be much much clearer on defining what ‘stretch’ means. More on this shortly.
(3) A ‘relevance check’: even if we get the above two right, there will always be countries where the finished product – the country action plan – may be completely off the mark and perhaps not even have much to do with open government at all (e.g. ‘faster marriages for pregnant women’, ‘cleaner beaches’, ‘tweets about drug traffickers‘) ! This could happen for a number of reasons (we failed to connect with open government reformers, civil society was not engaged etc.). At present, there is no safeguard: an action plan is finalised and is put into the system, no questions asked. We need a better relevance check.
(4) The Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM): this is where the heart of the action has taken place so far. OGP watchers will have a view on this, but regardless of how well we do on the IRM and how much it incentivises government and civil society to implement better open government commitments, it will always be post-hoc. By definition, the IRM comes after the action plans have been designed, implemented etc. So we need to worry about the totality of the process described above as well as engage with the reporting mechanism.
This won’t be enough – these are necessary but not sufficient rules. But if we can at least get these right, we will I hope have helped towards building and iterating towards an even better Open Government Partnership that delivers meaningful change.
Comments are valued, please let me know your views.