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.





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?’