One of the most significant decisions taken by the OGP Steering Committee at their September 24th meeting in New York was to adopt a new policy to deal with concerns raised about civic space in participating countries. This has been debated for several months in the Steering Committee, and will now be implemented. The policy is titled “Upholding the Values and Principles of OGP, as articulated in the Open Government Declaration” and it has two tightly defined objectives:
a) Assist a country in question to overcome difficulties and to help re-establish an environment for government and civil society collaboration, and
b) Safeguard the Open Government Declaration and mitigate reputational risks to OGP.
The new policy acknowledges that there may be issues outside the scope of National Action Plans that have a major impact on successful participation in OGP, and creates an opportunity to address them. This may include restrictions on basic freedoms, access to information and the overall enabling environment for civil society. To maintain the OGP’s credibility – and safeguard its long-term future – it is important that participating countries uphold these values and principles, as expressed in the Open Government Declaration and in the Articles of Governance (all countries endorse the Open Government Declaration on joining OGP, albeit in a non-binding, voluntary manner). In addition, OGP’s theory of change in the 2015-18 strategy document highlights the importance of having an engaged civil society with the space to participate and influence National Action Plans.
What happens now?
The OGP Steering Committee and Support Unit will begin implementing this policy immediately. At the end of one year of implementation there will be a review of whether or not the policy is delivering on its objectives, including an opportunity for public comment.
There are three main ways in which an inquiry can be triggered in the Criteria and Standards subcommittee under this response policy:
1. A Steering Committee member – government or civil society – brings a concern to the attention of the chair of Criteria and Standards, including details on which country and why.
2. One of the official OGP multilateral partners or Working Group co-anchors brings a concern to the attention of the OGP Steering Committee or Support Unit, including details on which country and why.
3. The OGP Steering Committee or Support Unit receives a letter of concern from a civil society, not-for-profit organization, or media organization involved in OGP at the national or international level, including details on which country and why (the Civil Society Engagement team in the Support Unit can advise organizations on how to do this).
The types of issues that may form a relevant concern
The Criteria and Standards subcommittee will begin assembling a list of factors and measurements for which issues should be considered relevant to OGP. The Criteria and Standards subcommittee is to, in due time, publish this list of factors to indicate what types of concerns are deemed sufficiently relevant for consideration. In the initial implementation of this policy the subcommittee will adopt a flexible, case-by-case approach to the various concerns that may be raised. Some of the types of issues that have been previously raised in concerns to the Steering Committee as damaging to the OGP process in a country may include (but are not limited to):
●Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce access to information for citizens and civil society.
●Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce the space for non-governmental organizations to work independently, voice critiques, and/or receive funding from domestic or international sources (e.g. new NGO laws).
●Manipulation of the OGP process by governments in terms of civil society participation (e.g. only inviting Government Organized NGOs to participate in consultations).
●Introduction of new/revised policies, laws, or practices, or actions, that significantly reduce enjoyment of fundamental freedoms, notably freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and freedom to associate.
●Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce online or offline media freedom, or threaten media ownership and independence.
What will happen to concerns raised?
The OGP Articles of Governance ask the Criteria and Standards subcommittee to make a recommendation to the Steering Committee when a review of a country’s participation in OGP is necessary. This includes when countries are ‘taking actions that undermine the values and principles of OGP’. This is in addition to triggers relating to changes in a country’s eligibility score or when repeated issues are raised by the IRM in their reports.
If the concerns are found to be valid, then OGP will focus primarily on positive interventions that seek to help countries overcome challenges. This is the ethos on which OGP was founded. This could include technical and political support from other OGP countries, OGP’s multilateral partners, or an OGP working group. If these interventions fail to address the problem then other measures will be considered by the full OGP Steering Committee, including inviting the government concerned to a special session or listing a country as inactive until the concern is resolved.
The new policy is an important step in the evolution of OGP. It sends a message that while OGP is voluntary and tailored to each national context, there are critical freedoms and issues of enabling environment for civil society that cannot be ignored if the OGP process is to work in the 65 participating countries.
Photo credit: Flickr; Author: Etalab, Premier ministre