OGP Rules of the Game

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.

14 thoughts on “OGP Rules of the Game

  1. Helpful as always Martin. A corallary issue/challenge worth addressing is the mixed message that has been given to OGP governments over the past few years: “Don’t worry, you can include existing commitments and initiatives into your Action Plans.” This was helpful in lowering barriers to entry and enticing participation but partly explains the stretch problem.

    Do we need to now change that message entirely and/or declare existing reforms off limits when it comes to action plans?

  2. Hi, yes I’d say that existing commitments can still be in, but only if/when there’s a very good reason for that because you need (1) specific assistance from x, (2) political support etc. So the default becomes they are out, and you need to justity/explain why they should be in. Am thinking say of an FOI law that could be an existing commitment by a political party in power but that hasn’t yet been implemented… hint hint

  3. Hi Martin, thank you for your well articulated points. I am keen on reading your future post on Civil society participation, specifically the practical platforms we could use in African countries to engage our governments throughout the process and not just during the initial phases.

    By the way; I am an intern at Twaweza Tanzania, a ten year citizen-centered initiative started by Rakesh Rajani to focus on large-scale changes in East Africa, and was wondering if I could link to this blog on our website http://www.twaweza.org as well as our social media pages. Hope that is okay with you. Keep up the good work.

  4. Pingback: OGP Rules of the Game (Martin Tisne) | Open Government Monitoring

  5. For me one of the most fundamental principles in regard to the Commitments was always meant to be to “stretch government practice beyond the current baseline”, which is why we used this as the base for assessing the “originality” of the SA commitments as a one of the most fundamental kinds of indicators. Its that “stretch” that needs to be emphasised…and I’d totally agree that the ideal forms of existing commitments that would be acceptable are those that require a high level of inter-sectoral collaboration that would benefit from political support (its also why OGP should be housed within significant high-level political departments such as in the Office of the Presidency…another bit of a fail in the SA context).
    We referenced your article here: http://opengovernmentafrica.com/2013/06/14/ogp-rules-of-the-game-martin-tisne/

  6. Pingback: transparency, civil society, ogp, cso, participation, collaboration, action plan, Ireland | Open Government Partnership Blog

  7. I’m also keen to read your future post on citizen participation. In particular, I’d love to learn more about existing opportunities for CSOs to get a seat at the table with government officials in the context of OGP commitments. For instance, which part of the OGP works to bring new civil society actors into the process? To ensure that government and civil society organisations are collaborating in an effective and timely way? Are sharing information about their respective work?

    As an example, one relatively institutionalized CSO that I’ve been working with just spent the past 6 months trying to build an open contracting website, only to find out that the government had already built the same website – but almost no one (in organized civil society let alone everyday citizens) knew about this opportunity to track and monitor infrastructure projects.

    It’d be interesting to learn about case studies of successful information exchange and collaboration between governments and CSOS around OGP commitments…

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  9. In many cases even when governments do include CSOs in the dialogue (by organizing a series of consultations, circulating draft work documents, etc.), at the end of the day recommendations coming from civil society will just not be taken seriously. It is obviously very difficult to come up with a good solution but when redesigning the OGP guidance on participation we should think about how we can strengthen civil society’s voice in a meaningful way. I think most of us believe in the very value of making CSOs and government officials sit at the same desk and (as a minimum requirement) make them have a dialogue, but participation could make much more sense if CSOs had real influence on the actual commitments. Plus in most cases governments only invite one segment of society to the conversation – mostly transparency or open data advocates and anti-corruption watchdogs – but never try to engage a broader circle of thought-leaders or the general public. OGP should encourage 21st century manner consultations such as the Reconstruction of the State initiative in the Czech Republic.

    I would strongly recommend to somehow better structure the commitments so that we can analyze and compare different action plans. It may sound too difficult to put the already elaborated commitments in some order but Global Integrity already embarked the process and I’m sure many of us would be happy to help. We could also come up with a solution for a way to categorize action plans.

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