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.


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