State of Play: Open Government Partnership

This week, delegates from all over the world are arriving in London to attend the Open Government Partnership 2013 Annual Summit. With membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) having expanded from 8 countries to 60 in just 2 years, the event will bring together influential governments, civil society groups and private sector leaders to challenge presidents and prime ministers globally to commit to making government more transparent and engaging citizens in decision-making.

There is a growing consensus in the development community that good governance and transparency are cornerstones of long-term growth. As well as being fundamental rights, freedom from corruption and freedom to participate in government are instrumental in achieving crucial improvements in health, education and economic outcomes in the developing world. If a farmer in Tanzania or a small business owner in Ghana can easily find out what government is doing and how it affects them, they are much better placed to hold it to account. The disengaged and disenfranchised become citizens and previously unresponsive states take note.

This is the motivation behind the Open Government Partnership. Starting from a small group of countries in 2011 including both developed and developing nations, the organisation pushes to increase the availability of information about government activities and support civic participation. They do this by gaining commitments from governments and fostering the development of strong civil society groups who monitor government’s progress in-country.

Part of this strategy is a strong emphasis on innovation and technology, a priority it shares with the Indigo Trust. In a global age of social media and the explosion of mobile phone use across the world, IT and mobile technology offer opportunities for information sharing, collaboration, public participation and protest.

Even at only two years old, OGP has begun seeing positive results. Independent progress reports assessing the initial 8 countries have come out in recent weeks. In South Africa, service delivery and public integrity – key priorities identified in their Action Plan – have improved significantly through initiatives such as the Know Your Rights and Responsibilities Campaign and Service Delivery Improvement Forums. After joining the OGP, Tanzania created the post of Minister for Good Governance and Kenya has inaugurated an ambitious open data strategy.

Beyond Indigo’s target region, there have also been successes. In Mexico, a policy of ‘targeted transparency’ has led to the explosion of citizen-focused information available online. Intended to foster smarter and more informed choices regarding both public and private goods, government websites now publish information on things like the going price of a kilo of tortillas, credentials of lawyers and doctors and rates offered by credit card companies. In Ukraine, the OGP is seeking to strengthen over 40 civil society groups in attempt to overcome endemic problems of corruption and poor accountability in the country.

However, at the first ever OGP regional forum in Africa, concerns were expressed about the extent to which the technocratic language used by the OGP and the stress on abstract principles could ostracise normal citizens of African countries (and beyond). For the success of OGP to continue, there must be improved engagement at a local level; recognising that tools and strategies effective in the initial 8 countries may not translate successfully as the programme expands. This is particularly true of strategies depending on trust between government and civil society in contexts where clear tensions exists between governments and CSOs. For more on this, have a look at this blog post.

Another challenge facing the OGP in Africa is a lack of will to open up and democratise. Only 6 African countries are eligible for membership; the rest are deemed too corrupt or authoritarian. Of the 6 eligible (Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and South Africa), only have 5 joined. Uganda has chosen to opt out, while the rest of Africa has been excluded from the initiative altogether.

On the whole, however, the OGP represents a fantastic opportunity to push for a global, coordinated response to all-time low levels of public faith in government and a worldwide wave of calls for change in the relationship between citizen and state. At the Indigo Trust, we’re most certainly looking forward to attending this month’s conference and we’re  excited to see how this promising programme develops!