During the last week of February, the civil society members of the OGP Steering Committee, met in Washington DC for our annual planning retreat with the presence and support of key staff from the Support Unit. Some of the sessions were also joined by the OGP Support Unit’s incoming CEO, Sanjay Pradhan, and my fellow OGP Co-Chair, the Government of South Africa. It was an invaluable opportunity to get qualitative face-to-face time to reflect, analyze and strategize on the present and future of OGP from a civil society perspective.
Somehow, we all joined the meeting room for the first session with a clear and shared certainty as departing point: after almost five years, the OGP honeymoon is over and this is no time for big innovations but for real consolidation. Delivering the OGP promise should be the name of the game for the coming years: an affective government-civil society co-creation platform capable of catalyzing meaningful, lasting reforms to the relationship between the citizen and the state and, therefore, making a definitive contribution to changing the culture of government. We had an open and very direct conversation on the barriers OGP is facing that block it from realizing its full potential - and the best ways to dismantle them. While the minutes of the meeting are available on the OGP website, here some key takeaways of our rich conversation:
- We need to get the OGP basics right at country level. This year, more than 50 countries are developing national Action Plans. A top priority is to make sure they are truly co-created, and implemented and monitored in a timely manner. Robust guidelines and meaningful support for both, government and civil society, are key to achieving this goal. We agreed to push for a revision of the guidelines for civil society consultation, with the idea to raise the bar from “consultation” to “co-creation” in order to synergize meaningful civil society engagement in the OGP process. The revised guidelines will be presented to the broader OGP civil society community for input before they are tabled for Steering Committee approval. We also discussed options on how to better support the national OGP processes. We revisited the “buddy system” in which individual Steering Committee members commit to support particular countries during the development of their respective Action Plans and had initial discussions about a more explicit quick intervention mechanism when things get stuck during Action Plan development. Finally, we revisited progress on the OGP Trust Fund, which aims to provide financial support for OGP civil society actors on the ground (among other objectives).
- We need OGP addressing material policy concerns at country level. Meaningful civil society engagement and co-creation of Action Plans is instrumental for this goal, but it has to be complemented with additional provisions. We discussed the possibility of limiting the number of commitments in each plan, in order to have less but more material and ambitious commitments. We also agreed on supporting the creation of a new working group that tackles one of the thorniest open government issues, the Anticorruption Working Group. We discussed ways in which Action Plans could be strategically used to address key 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as access to justice (and broader human rights), basic social public services provision (such as clean water, sanitation, health and nutrition), or catalyzing climate action. It will take focused effort for a longer period of time to get real traction on this, but the potential rewards for a real change of doing government and delivering services makes it worth it.
- We need to enhance and preserve the integrity and credibility of OGP. OGP’s theory of change highlights the importance of having an engaged civil society with the space to participate and influence Action Plans. Therefore, a country is unable to perform in OGP if fails to protect basic liberties (such as freedom of expression and association). Hence, we have in place a Response Policy that makes possible to deal with countries that do not uphold these fundamental values and principles of open government. During the meeting, we analyzed the progress made by the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee on the current application of this response policy to Azerbaijan and Hungary, addressing the concerns raised by civil society colleagues on civic space shrinking. The policy has been thoroughly implemented and a resolution has been made in the case of Azerbaijan, recommending that the OGP Steering Committee, at its May meeting, considers for the country to be listed as inactive in OGP. Reaching a full Steering Committee resolution supporting this decision is one of our top priorities for the following weeks.
A different, but somehow related discussion in our meeting was the inability of current OGP eligibility criteria to capture and assess whether a country upholds the values and principles of OGP in order to provide the needed space for civil society to act and engage. We agreed on the need to revise and tighten the eligibility criteria, but also acknowledging this is an endeavor with huge technical and political implications for current and potential participating countries. After a vibrant discussion, we agreed to take advantage the midterm review of the OGP strategy that will take place next year in order to include the eligibility criteria assessment as one of its top priority areas of evaluation. Additionally, we discussed options of short-term impact such as the possibility of adding an additional step to accepting a country into OGP in which the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee should revise and approve after making sure that no legitimate concerns of reputational risks for OGP exists.
- We need a more open, responsive and accountable Steering Committee. The OGP broader community has expressed in different forums the urgent need to improve the ways of working of the Steering Committee to make it more transparent, accessible and responsive to the aspirations and concerns of the broader community. South Africa and myself had already taken the initiative at the beginning of the year to table some concrete proposals. During the meeting, we asked ourselves whether we should explore tweaks in current ways of working or whether we should be fundamentally revising the nature of the relationship between the Steering Committee with the larger OGP community as well as the relationship between the civil society cohort and the broader civil society community. We agreed that our strategy should go both ways: in the short run, taking a number of provisions to improve openness and responsiveness (e.g. involving the wider community in the current selection process for selecting the new civil society Steering Committee members); and in the long run, taking advantage of the midterm review to assess our fundamental governance premises. The letter that is circulating on the OGP mailing list has some excellent suggestions and we look forward to discuss the final version with the community.
- We need to look ahead of our current challenges. Effectively addressing our current challenges should not limit our ability of looking outward and forward to what OGP should be and accomplish in the next five years. We have decided to take the opportunity of the incoming new leadership of the Support Unit and the OGP fifth anniversary to open a conversation to draw the contours of what the future OGP should look like. Following the OGP principle of good ideas come from everywhere, I am confident that we are going to find effective and practical mechanisms to receive input from the broader OGP for shaping the future of OGP.
I hope this brief account of our OGP civil society retreat gives you a flavor of what our thinking, aspirations and plans are for OGP, and I truly hope they resonate with yours. Either way, I would be more than happy to receive your feedback and comments.
Alejandro Gonzalez Arreola
Executive Director of GESOC and OGP Civil Society Co-Chair