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.




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?”


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.




Follow the Money, Follow the Data

Some thoughts which I hope may be helpful in advance of the ‘follow the data’ hack day this week-end:
The open data sector has quite successfully focused on socially-relevant information: fixing potholes a la http://www.fixmystreet.com/, adopting fire hydrants a la http://adoptahydrant.org/. My sense is that the next frontier will be to free the data that can enable citizens, NGOs and journalists to hold their governments to account. What this will likely mean is engaging in issues such as data on extractives’ transparency, government contracting, political finance, budgeting etc. So far, these are not the bread and butter of the open data movement (which isn’t to say there aren’t great initiatives like http://openspending.org/). But they should be:
At its heart, this agenda revolves around ‘following the money’. Without knowing the ‘total resource flow’:
  • Parents’ associations cannot question the lack of textbooks in their schools by interrogating the school’s budget
  • Healthcare groups cannot access data related to local spending on doctors, nurses
  • Great orgs such as Open Knowledge Foundation or BudgIT cannot get the data they need for their interpretative tools (e.g. budget tracking tool)
  • Investigative journalists cannot access the data they need to pursue a story

Our field has sought to ‘follow the money’ for over two decades, but in practice we still lack the fundamental ability to trace funding flows from A to Z, across the revenue chain. We should be able to get to what aid transparency experts call ‘traceability’ (the ability to trace aid funds from the donor down the project level) for all, or at least most fiscal flows.

Open data enables this to happen. This is exciting: it’s about enabling follow the money to happen at scale. Up until now, instances of ‘following the money’ have been the fruit of the hard work of investigative journalists, in isolated instances.

If we can ensure that data on revenues (extractives, aid, tax etc), expenditures (from planning to allocation to spending to auditing), and results (service delivery data) is timely, accessible, comparable and comprehensive, we will have gone a long way to helping ‘follow the money’ efforts reach the scale they deserve.

Follow the Money  is a pretty tangible concept (if you disagree, please let me know!) – it helps demonstrate how government funds buy specific outcomes, and how/whether resources are siphoned away. We need to now make it a reality.