One of the first letters the Open Government Partnership (OGP) received upon its creation was from a mayor in Colombia, requesting that his city be able to participate in the initiative. But we had to turn him down. At the time, this was understandable: OGP was growing at break neck pace from zero, to 8, to 64 country members and our entire focus was on national governments.
Should we have done differently?
We see profound innovation and energy in advancing more accountable and participatory leadership and service provision at the local level. Cities are where most people are increasingly located and where innovation lies. Under Mayor Patricia De Lille’s leadership, Cape Town recently became the first African city to launch an open data portal, which makes city budget and tendering data readily available to the public for the first time. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently opened up €75m to participatory budgeting and attracted 77 crowd-sourced projects. In Medellin, Mayor Anibal Gaviria has helped revitalize a city wracked by violence and corruption through a unique approach to “people led” governance, embodied by efforts like the World Urban Forum and Mi Medellin.
Going local offers enormous opportunities to take on specific open government challenges that national governments are unable to address. For example, open, accountable policing—this is an enormous challenge for the United States and many other countries at present, and one that can only seriously be addressed at the local level. Recent work by the Southern coalition for Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina used open data to identify patterns in police discrimination that led the city to adopt a comprehensive package of reforms aimed at addressing racial profiling. This kind of innovation deserves a global profile and opportunities to replicate at scale (in the U.S. and internationally) that only a sub-national OGP effort can provide.
The demand is there: hundreds of governors, mayors and other local officials are knocking down OGP’s door to sign up and begin sharing their experiences and accessing new international peers and ideas.
The dilemma for Open Government Partnership is how to respond to this demand: should it advance cautiously and pilot a few city-level OGP action plans? Should it embrace this demand in a centralized fashion by increasing its staff, operations and budget to help support these new members? Or should OGP create a more distributed architecture to support these reformers and innovators at city level.
We would propose the latter approach - what we call the OGPx model, in in the spirit of the TEDx franchise – for two reasons. First, because it represents a fantastic opportunity for OGP to scale fast without compromising excessively on quality. Second, because it taps into our growing knowledge of what OGP and other governance-focused multi-stakeholder initiatives do best and – we hope – will set OGP up for future success.
The genius of TEDx is that TED recognized up front that its tightly controlled central model for quality control was ill-suited to its larger ambition of seeking to grow the platform exponentially among whoever could productively use it. By creating the franchise of TEDx, it has been able to empower hundreds of communities to make productive use of the tool locally, at a relatively comparable standard of performance, with all the benefits that come from being connected to the TED brand, but also an important measure of distance from the core enterprise. OGP’s move to the subnational level is a chance to hack the TEDx model and move from strength to strength as a global platform.
If we are looking to generate new norms of urban governance, limiting ourselves to a small number of cities at the peak of OGP’s political and social capital seems like a huge missed opportunity. Using OGP’s current momentum to springboard a “contagion of openness” at the local level is exactly the kind of norm generation that OGP is best positioned to do at this stage, and what OGPx could help accomplish.
The lesson we’ve learned with OGP
Multilateral platforms like OGP are best at generating new norms and spurring new political commitments at scale, but struggle to deliver on implementation. This has been a central lesson from our experience founding and helping build OGP since 2010, and working with many other governance-related multi-stakeholder initiatives including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Open Contracting Partnership, and the Open Data Charter since. If one accepts this as a fact of life, it changes the way we calibrate expectations about what OGP can deliver, and how, at various levels of government.
OGP has completely transformed global dialogue and momentum on open, accountable, participatory governance—Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals would arguably not have been possible without the ground work that OGP built, and the network of reformers willing to fight for it within the UN. Norm generation: check. OGP has stimulated well over 2000 commitments in almost 70 countries over the past 5 years. Stimulating political commitments at scale: check.
OGP is now mature enough to help cities pursue the same norm generation, political commitments, exchange of experiences and race to the top that we have helped seed at the national level in recent years.
How would OGPx work?
States, cities and other local entities could compete for a finite (but substantial) number of “licenses” to implement OGPx. An application and screening process would assess the relevant locale’s track record on open governance based on an agreed standard that draws on relevant qualitative/quantitative data; locales would receive an invitation to join OGPx along with an “OGPx in a box” package that provides clear guidance and tools to begin the process of co-creating an OGPx action plan with citizens and; participants would be asked to submit self-organized self-assessment reports that involve some measure of independent feedback, with the ability of local citizens to publicly comment on the findings (to ensure some measure of integrity, absent a fully-fledged independent reporting mechanism).
OGPx at its heart is about supporting leaders who have excellent ideas, but may not always agree or have reason to cooperate with their counterparts in the capital. For OGPx accepted participants, they should be able to develop and implement their plans within the mandates of their local authority unencumbered by requirements for national level approval.
This lighter touch, “franchised” OGPx for subnational governments would enable them to leverage OGP to drive forward ambitious open government reforms that directly improve the lives of citizens in OGP countries, in concert with international peers, and with some minimal measure of quality control and oversight—taking full advantage of the global political capital and momentum that OGP currently provides—while not overburdening OGP central, or creating unrealistic expectations about what a lean, mean OGP secretariat is capable of supporting.
OGP needs to evolve to survive. Producing new rounds of national action plans year on year, and continuing to consolidate and institutionalize the effort without paying attention to new sources of innovation and dynamism are a recipe for decreased political engagement, over-bureaucratization and eventual irrelevance. OGPx offers a chance for the initiative to reinvent itself anew for a whole new constituency of reformers and activists, who can bring fresh energy and experience to the table.
Here’s hoping that the next executive director of OGP will have the mandate to respond to fervent letters from Mayors and Governors around the world with invitations, rather than regrets.
Julie McCarthy is the Director of the Open Society Foundation’s Fiscal Governance Initiative, and was previously OGP’s founding director. Martin Tisne is Director, Policy at Omidyar Network, and a founding Steering Committee member of OGP. Together, they co-chair the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaborative that currently holds a seat on the OGP Steering Committee.