Civic Space: Erosion at the foundations of Open Government
Civic space is the fundamental underpinning for open government and OGP. Yet, as the report documents, civil liberties (the core of civic space) continue to experience a steady erosion, even in OGP countries. A 2018 OGP report found that nearly half of OGP countries had problems in each of the basic freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, as well as the fundamental rights that make transparency, participation, and accountability work. At the same time, very few of those countries were using their OGP action plans to address these issues.
The report takes a detailed look at three specific aspects of civic space: free association, free assembly, and defending activists and journalists.
- Freedom of association: While most OGP countries have strong legal and practical support for freedom of association, 40% experience noteworthy challenges. There has been a trend of restrictions placed on civil society organizations, including restrictive laws, regulations and practices, as well as barriers to access, funding, and funding cuts. Commitments in OGP countries address barriers to entry (El Salvador), operational ease (Canada), and access to funding (Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Latvia). Overall, however, only five countries with freedom of association challenges have adopted ambitious commitments as assessed by OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). The report outlines an agenda moving forward, including: laws and practices to limit or eliminate legal and de facto restrictions; facilitating operations; and promoting mechanisms and funding for sustainability.
- Freedom of assembly: Free assembly is a bedrock of democracy, allowing people to collaborate, bring attention to issues, and get answers. About half of OGP countries have challenges in this area, but lack any commitments in assembly. Independently produced data consistently shows that between a third and half of OGP countries experience notable interference with the right to peaceful assembly. At the same time, roughly a third to half of OGP countries perform consistently well. This area is, however, the area with the least commitments in all of OGP. This suggests that there is considerable room for leadership, political participation, and a healthy civil society ecosystem. OGP members could advance applicable policies and practices in five areas: (i) notification and permits, (ii) police force, (iii) criminalization and penalties, (iv) digital and online activities, and (v) non-state actors.
- Defending activists and journalists (freedom of expression): Without activists and journalists, the potential for transparency and participation to result in accountability is severely weakened. Activists around the world continue to face harassment, stigmatization, detention, and violence. In four out of five OGP countries, journalists report harassment. In 50 OGP countries, there is inadequate investigation and prosecution for crimes against activists and journalists. While most OGP countries are relatively strong on issues of free expression for civil society organizations and individuals, there remain notable constraints to freedom of expression in over 40% of OGP countries. Ninety percent of countries with problems in these areas lack relevant commitments in their action plans aimed at defending expression. OGP members can use their action plans to improve the operating environment for activists and journalists by abstaining from harmful practices, setting limits and accountability measures on officials that might abuse power, and strengthening investigative and prosecutorial bodies. Eleven countries have made commitments to strengthen human rights institutions, monitor and comply with recommendations from international human rights conventions, and protect activists, journalists, and human rights defenders from harassment. Seven of these have commitments that are considered “ambitious” as assessed by the IRM (e.g., Colombia, Norway, Croatia). The report outlines an action agenda ahead in this area.
Fighting Corruption: Emerging Global Norms
The report focuses specifically on two emerging areas for tackling grand corruption and improving government efficiency: open contracting and beneficial ownership transparency. OGP members were the earliest adoptees of beneficial ownership policies and open contracting standards, helping to begin an early wave of innovation. While these two practices are not yet global norms, they are reflected in a growing number of OGP action plans and promise transformative impact.
In analyzing reforms and interviewing reformers working in this area, there are a number of cross-cutting issues. First, implementers do better when they: involve users from the start, identify means by which people can register complaints or raise suspicious activity, improve data quality (including regularity and recency), and implement open data standards and ensure interoperability with other datasets.
- Open contracting: Corruption in public procurement can reduce the value of contracts by up to 15% (depending on estimates). Open contracting–combining disclosure of contracts with participation, monitoring, and oversight–has been shown to yield fiscal savings, reduce corruption, and increase participation of businesses, including small and medium-enterprises (e.g., Ukraine). Forty-six OGP governments have made commitments in open contracting. However, to achieve impact and results, open contracting requires adopting a problem-driven sectoral approach, engaging citizens for impact, improving data quality (open, accessible, timely, machine-readable, gender disaggregating data and using open contracting data standards), and empowering women through open contracting.
- Beneficial ownership transparency: Beneficial ownership transparency has emerged as an essential means for combating corruption, stemming illicit financial flows, and fighting tax evasion. In response, governments as diverse as Denmark, Kenya, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom have committed to publish beneficial ownership information. Sixteen OGP governments have committed to beneficial ownership transparency. To heighten impact, the report outlines four key issues to be addressed: (i) strengthening the collection of beneficial ownership information, including on trusts; (ii) improving the interoperability of the information; (iii) verifying registered information; and (iv) engaging citizens in monitoring and accountability.
Public Service Delivery: Accountability and Engagement Matter
Open government can improve people’s lives on a daily basis. To this important end, the report examines three key sectors: water and sanitation, health, and education, and uses available data to identify potential areas of work for future action plans. The areas examined include: availability of sufficiently disaggregated data for decision making, disclosure of decision-making plans and policies to the public, and priorities for participation and accountability, including inclusion of vulnerable or historically excluded groups. The report further looks at how citizen feedback can greatly improve public services, but also how a lack of data, which is practically useful for decisions, may hinder future progress.
- Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: The dividends from investing in open government in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are significant. WASH is one of the less explored areas in OGP action plans with only nine countries currently implementing relevant commitments. Based on OGP analysis of third-party data, OGP members can continue to advance this work through commitments focused on improving four areas:
- Data for governance: Most OGP members collect and publish point-of-service and household data. However, this data is not available at lower administrative levels, is not interoperable, and often has restrictive licensing, creating a mosaic of data that can be difficult to integrate and act upon.
- Data on governance: While most OGP countries have reporting plans in place for sanitation and drinking water, financial expenditure data and monitoring systems are not in place.
- Participation and accountability: While most OGP countries have participation and accountability efforts in place across WASH subsectors, very few have robust participation and less than half report having accessible complaint mechanisms for the sub-sectors.
- Spending on vulnerable populations: Most OGP countries have plans to address access for vulnerable populations, but very little money is spent or tracked to reach these populations relative to their size.
- Health: Addressing health issues is key to driving development outcomes, including more inclusive, sustainable growth across all economies. Opening government provides an important means of tackling the complexity of today’s global health challenges. The report provides critical data points to support an agenda for action:
- Data for governance: Health outcomes data and data on reproductive health lag far behind data on inputs.
- Data on governance: Only a minority of OGP countries regularly publish data on progress toward universal healthcare; and while most OGP countries had program-level budgeting, fewer reported on expenditures and outcome indicators.
- Public participation and accountability: OGP members, while they do address improving participation and accountability in health, have largely focused on citizen input into policy and strategy. A smaller group has focused on budget and supply tracking. Four governments have focused on accountability for patient outcomes.
- Education: While a broad range of tools can improve access and quality of learning, open government approaches of access to information, civic participation, and public accountability can be equally as important. Education systems can work better when the public has: access to information, the opportunity to participate and influence decision-making, and the ability to seek answers from government. Achieving more inclusive, sustainable outcomes requires efforts beyond transparency alone. It requires sustained investment in institutions that can enhance participation and accountability and help education systems become more responsive to public needs (e.g., parent-educator accountability). The report outlines an open government agenda for education consisting of moving from inputs to outcomes and from tools to institutions.