What can OGP do for me?

We know that the Open Government Partnership is a powerful tool to implement national-level change. Brazil enacted its Freedom of Information Law thanks to OGP, the UK committed to public registries of beneficial owners of companies, the United States signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and many more.

But I think we are still missing a substantial trick here.

With 64 countries part of the OGP, how can we ensure that these reforms reach a truly global scale? It seems like a missed opportunity for example to focus on reforms in one country when these may well be equally applicable to 64 countries. How can we ensure that OGP is more than the sum of its parts?

There are two ways to scale open government reforms thanks to OGP:

OGP as a multiplier

If you are an NGO pushing for transparency about the real, beneficial owners of companies (to name but a few: Global Witness, Transparency International, Global Financial Integrity, Tax Justice Network), how are you using OGP to scale? We now have commitment from the UK, but how are you using OGP to achieve your goal across not one but 12, 24 or even 64 countries? From a campaigners’ perspective, OGP offers ‘action forcing events’ every two years (the country action plans) that can help galvanize political support behind key open government issues. If those issues are replicable, or need in fact to be replicated across countries to succeed (e.g. beneficial ownership), OGP can provide this multiplier effect.

 OGP as a caucus

If you are an NGO pushing for transparency reforms within international processes (e.g. World Resources Institute working on the Rio Summit and access to information, Transparency International working on the G20, Save the Children working on the post-2015 development framework) how are you using OGP to help create dialogue with governments already engaged in ambitious open government reforms?

If you want to engage an international forum on transparency matters (be it the Earth Summit, the post-2015 development framework or a G20/G7 meeting), OGP can help you in at least two ways: (1) identify OGP countries that are key decision-makers at the summit in question, (2) seek to bring together or caucus both governments and civil society to back the issue and help identify a common position. The Access Initiative successfully used this approach in 2012 in the run up to and during the Rio+20 Earth summit, getting governments behind Principle 10 and access to environmental information.

OGP is a platform – a vehicle to scale open government reforms – so ask not ‘what can I do for OGP?’ Use it to further your own goals and ask: ‘what can OGP do for me?’



OGP as a platform

Being within the Open Government Partnership (OGP), or even at the head of OGP, does not turn your country into a paragon of openness. On the contrary, it opens your country up to a process where you are criticised and supported. What it does mean is that you are open to debate.

The OGP is not a club. It is a platform, or a process.

What do I mean by this?

If OGP were a club, it would mean that ‘members’ are recognised for being ‘good actors’ in the open government movement having succeeded in passing a tough entrance exam. The main thrust of the initiative would be on crafting these ‘tough’ entrance requirements, and once in countries need to abide by certain rules of good behaviour but not attempt to stretch or compete against other members. Once you are ‘in’ a club, what else is there left to do?

But it is not. OGP is a platform.

The bar for entrance is purposefully fairly low (though not that low – there are around 87/88 eligible countries out of 196 worldwide). The focus of OGP is not on the entrance criteria but – as I have written elsewhere – on the ‘race to the top’: setting incentives for countries to stretch themselves further all the while knowing that each country starts from a different position. For more details on ‘stretch commitments’ relevant for countries at different stages on the journey to open government, please see the excellent Open Government Guide by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative.

Members of the steering committee may take positions to further the open government movement (e.g. embracing a governance goal in the post-2015 framework). But the bread and butter of the committee’s role is ensuring that the OGP lives up to its promise and catalyses a race to the top towards open government. To do so, it seeks to set common positions on issues such as restrictions on civic space, the Independent Reporting Mechanism, how to adapt innovations from one country to another etc.

OGP is as strong as what we make of it. It is up to us to take advantage of the process (the action plans, the reporting mechanism, the parity between government and civil society) to implement ambitious open government reforms. The question is: “what can OGP do for me?”


Finding Mr. Smith or why anti-corruption needs open data

Anti-corruption groups have been rightly advocating for the release of information on the beneficial or real owners of companies and trust. The idea is to crack down on tax evasion and corruption by identifying the actual individuals hiding behind several layers of shell companies.

But knowing that “Mr. Smith” is the owner of company X is of no interest, unless you know who Mr. Smith is.

The real interest lies in figuring out that Mr. Smith is linked to company Y, that has been illegally exporting timber from country Z, and that Mr. Smith is the son-in-law of the mining minister of yet another country, who has been accused of embezzling mining industry revenues.

For that, investigative journalists, prosecution authorities, civil society groups like Global Witness and Transparency International will need access not just to public registries of beneficial ownership but also contract data, political exposed persons databases (“PEPs” databases), project by project extractive industry data, and trade export/import data.

Unless those datasets are accessible, comparable, linked, it won’t be possible. We are talking about millions of datasets – no problem for computers to crunch, but impossible to go through manually.

This is what is different in the anti-corruption landscape today, compared to 10 years ago. Technology makes it possible. Don’t get me wrong – there are still huge, thorny political obstacles to getting the data even publicly available in the first place. But unless it is open data, I fear those battles will have been in vain.

That’s why we need open data as a topic on the G20 anti-corruption working group.

The Ambition of Open Government Partnership


Coming back from two weeks on the road for OGP events, I’ve been struck by a few important developments within the global platform that OGP has now clearly become that I wanted to share:

(1) This seems obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing the degree to which OGP is a truly global platform. I was fortunate to attend the Paris Conference “from Open Data to Open Gov” where France announced it would join OGP. Then on to Bali, Indonesia where the Indonesian government hosted over 600 representatives  from all over the Asia Pacific region (incl. 20 representatives from Burma) for two days in an event presided by President Yudhoyono,  Minister Kuntoro and civil society co-chair Rakesh Rajani. And finally to Dublin, Ireland where the Irish government hosted what was likely the most important peer learning event to date where 29 European OGP country members discussed and debated lessons learned from their first OGP action plans as they prepare or finalise their second action plans. The level of government/civil society exchange taking place is symbolically and practically helping us re-imagine government.

(2) The Independent Reporting Mechanism – the independent body that monitors progress of OGP national action plans – has “starred” those government commitments that have significant social impact, are substantially or fully completed, and relevant to OGP values. 24.7% of OGP commitments from the most recent 35 OGP countries to have completed their action plans are starred. This means that out of the 783 government commitments that were recently assessed (those 35 countries from OGP’s ‘second cohort’), 194 commitments were ambitious, in line with OGP values and mostly or fully completed. From a funder’s perspective, I think this makes OGP one of the best returns on investment we’ve had. I can’t think of any other program I’ve been involved in that has led to almost 200 instances of change in 35 countries around the world in less than 3 years.

There are three other areas I’ve also been struck by in recent weeks and that point to OGP’s transformation and maturation as a global platform:

(3) OGP was created as a form of ‘solidarity network’ to bring reformers together, and it seems to be working. OGP has become a platform where senior politicians from both the left and right of the political spectrum come together, work together and relate to one another as ‘open government reformers’. This will create fascinating dynamics over the years to come. One of these dynamics is already apparent – foreign ministries are becoming more involved in OGP. This is important – we need diplomatic presence (clearer linkages to open government reform opportunities at the G20 and post-2015 development framework are precious). But I suspect the long-term success of OGP may in part be predicated on how well we strike the balance between OGP as a platform for reformers vs. a diplomatic forum. Domestic open government reformers could help inform and improve these international negotiations.

(4) The importance of what we call ‘peer learning’, i.e. how countries can learn from one another and replicate innovations from one country to the other (but also learn from their failures). Countries are committed: success going forward is about supporting their capacity to fulfill their commitments. We are starting to see some instances of exchange, but we still far too episodic (i.e. they happen but we don’t know enough how or why they happen). We are experimenting with the creation of smaller networks of open government reformers to see how these forums could help boost learning and networking.

(5) How best to harness the potential of the private sector: we are still missing investors at the table. If ‘open government is good for business’ as the OGP private sector council states, then where are the sovereign wealth funds, the pensions funds? These should benefit from better risk analysis and due diligence if they had both had (a) rigorous and extensive data on open government in a range of countries (see above), and (b) the ability of tools to quantify these.

I’ll be writing a few of these up in more detail and very happy to discuss if anyone would like more detail.

A prior version of this post stated that: “21% of 958 OGP commitments to date are starred.” In fact, according to the final versions of the reports, 24.7% of 783 the commitments were starred in the most recent 35 countries.




The Missing Link: How to Engage the Private Sector in OGP

Exciting Open Government Partnership (OGP) related development: a ‘private sector council’ has been created to develop recommendations for the OGP Steering Committee on engaging the private sector. This will not be an official OGP body but an external group that seeks to influence the OGP process, much like the Media Council did before the 2013 London Summit.

When we started Open Government Partnership, there were big ambitions about the extent to which the private sector might/could become involved. This hasn’t quite happened yet, hence a few thoughts on my side regarding ways to think about the private sector in the context of the OGP process:

(1) Consider partnering with / encouraging the development of for-profit companies that have government transparency and civic engagement at the core of their business plan. For example, SeeClickFix connects citizens with city or country governments to report public service delivery issues.  Another example is Mindmixer, which provides a platform to crowdsource community improvement ideas for cities. (Disclosure: SeeClickFix is an Omidyar Network investee).

(2) Target and engage private sector companies that benefit directly from open data to drive their core business, for example Mastodon C which used open data to open up innovation cycle in heathcare to identify £200m saving, or Carbon Culture which uses real time open data about energy use to underpin behaviour change programmes giving  ~10% year on year savings, or Spend Network which takes open spending data and turning it into commercial insight for governments and companies.

(3) Engage financial institutions, ratings agencies and provide evidence on the link between open governance and better investment climates. Consider inviting ratings agencies to OGP summit meetings. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the link between transparency of budgets (and budgetary planning) and stability could and should be made much clearer (e.g. engage with the IMF and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency to report on this at the Bali OGP meeting in May 2014).

(4) Provide incentives (via the OGP ) for the private sector itself to become more transparent. E.g. the extractive industries transparency movement which encourages oil, gas and mining companies to ‘publish what they pay’ to governments rich in natural resources.

(5) Consider how private sector platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, but also NationBuilder, Change.org) can be of direct benefit to open government and engage with them via the OGP’s peer learning and support function. (Disclosure: NationBuilder and Change.org are Omidyar Network investees).

I welcome other perspectives on how we can encourage private-sector involvement in the OGP process and the role it should play.

Privacy – the Open Government Party Crasher

The NSA leaks crashed the global open government party. Don’t get me wrong – I do not think this undermines the “whole idea of open government” as someone recently claimed to me. But the open government community cannot sit on the sidelines. It forces us to think hard about two related issues that we have avoided talking about up until now.

These are:

(1) The privacy implications of open government: I feel the community has  underemphasized privacy concerns. For example, I can’t think of any open government event I’ve been to that has put a serious spotlight on the issue. Now, thanks to Snowden, we can no longer avoid it.

This applies to the privacy implications of open data, where we’ve seen the beginnings of an interesting debate just recently. See the work of the Web Foundation’s Open Data Research Network and the Open Knowledge Foundation which – rightly – suggest we should develop a set of privacy principles for open data.

This also applies to the broader open government movement. For example, campaigners pushing for greater transparency around financial flows (e.g. revenues from extractive industries, budget expenditures, tax transparency) might benefit from explaining how these data/information releases will adequately take account of privacy concerns where relevant. A privacy ‘check list’ might help to sharpen discussions about what information should be disclosed and how? (Incidentally, such a check list could also help funders when assessing grant applications.)

There is a tension here: we need to bring people together, work it over and see where we can join forces. This is another great opportunity to bust silos and join up the movement.

(2) The transparency of government surveillance efforts: for a long time, a small group of committed transparency advocates have been agitating on the issue. Back in 2011 (pre Snowden), the Opening Government publication included a section on ‘national security transparency and accountability’, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other groups (esp. in the US) have long campaigned on the issue. But the issue is not part of the mainstream open government community. It should be.

Here is an opportunity for the open government community to reach out to the groups that have developed expertise in the area (e.g. Privacy International), share what they have learned and see how we might work together. Open government groups and civil liberties campaigners sit on the same side of the fence in this case: this could be a powerful alliance. Groups campaigning for the transparency of government surveillance efforts are part of the global transparency movement. We should embrace that.

What’s the point of open data?

I’ve been puzzling for a while how the open data community can help the many great groups that have been fighting for transparency of key money flows for the past decade and more. I think one answer may be that open data helps us go beyond simply making information available. If done well, it can help us make it accessible and relevant to people, which has been the holy grail for transparency advocates for a long time.

The transparency community has focused too much on just getting information out there (making information available). But what’s the point of having information available if it’s not accessible? What’s the use of public reports that are only nominally ‘public’ because they languish in filing cabinets or ‘PDF deserts’ hidden within an obscure website?

If we can get this information more accessible, we can then work to increase participation and help people use it. This for me is what open data people are talking about when they talk about open formats. Machine readability and open formats matter because they are tools to increase access. I’ve seen too many techies talk about ‘open formats’ and activists’ eyes glaze over. But I think we’re both talking about the same thing we hold dear: improving access to vital data for all.

Likewise, it’s the connections between the datasets that are powerful and interesting. You may not care so much to know where most people under 15 years old live in your country, but if you’re told that those that live close to a nuclear waste disposal site happen to have the highest cancer rates, then it becomes seriously relevant. Same as above, techies often talk about technical data standards and get quizzical/skeptical – at best – looks in exchange. But technical data standards are the fuel that allows policy wonks to compare datasets, which creates relevant data. Connecting the dots makes it policy relevant – without data, you can’t make policy.

[availability of data] => [accessibility of data] => [comparability of data]

[availability of data] => [open formats] => [data standards]

Follow the Money groups do amazing work: extractives’ transparency advocates campaigning for vital releases of information on oil, gas, mining revenues into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Groups looking at curbing illicit flows of funds out of desperately poor countries via shell companies and phantom firms. Activists who scrutinize budgets, everything from big ticket national budget allocations, all the way down to very local issues like your local school spending on basic reading materials. And many more.

Together, these groups share one big thing in common – they are all seeking to follow the money. In other words, they are all trying to understand how money either gets in to government coffers, or how it fails to get there, and then how and whether it is spent for the good of the many, rather than the few lining their pockets.

To succeed, we all need data that’s not only public (e.g. public registries of beneficial ownership) but also accessible (in open formats) and comparable to other money flows.

Let’s work together to make it happen.