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10 Lessons from 10 Years of OGP

10 lecciones de los 10 años de OGP

10 leçons à tirer de 10 années du PGO

Joe Powell|

This week the Open Government Partnership (OGP) officially turns 10 years old. It was at the United Nations in September of 2011 that a founding group of heads of state, ministers and civil society leaders came together after months of hard work behind the scenes. President Obama’s opening remarks set out the aims for OGP member countries and civil society

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We pledge to be more transparent at every level — because more information on government activity should be open, timely, and freely available to the people. We pledge to engage more of our citizens in decision-making — because it makes government more effective and responsive. We pledge to implement the highest standards of integrity — because those in power must serve the people, not themselves. And we pledge to increase access to technology — because in this digital century, access to information is a right that is universal.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama

Ten years later OGP has grown to 78 national members, 76 local members, and thousands of civil society organizations. More importantly, the global open government community has co-created over 4,500 concrete reforms in the first ten years, with many of those reforms having real impact in citizens’ lives. Research has shown that the OGP model can be a powerful accelerator for reformers, when it is grounded in genuine government-civil society co-creation, high level political commitment, independent accountability and international peer learning.

Over the coming four months, in the run up to the OGP Global Summit on December 15-17th, hosted by our current co-chairs the Republic of Korea and Maria Baron, we’ll be inviting members of the OGP global community to share what they’ve learned. As someone who has been privileged to have had a front-row seat in the evolution of OGP from start-up to real impact, these are my reflections on how OGP’s experience can inform some of the most critical policy debates facing the world today:

1. Effective multilateralism is possible, with creativity 

The demise of effective multilateralism has been a major concern, particularly during the “America and China First” era of the past five years. It remains painfully difficult to secure meaningful United Nations action, with agreements such as this year’s UN special session communique on anti-corruption watered down to the lowest common denominator. OGP offers a different approach, with smaller groups of countries and local governments forming leadership coalitions and pushing for softer agreements based on policy and data standards, and mutual learning. I’ve seen this first hand in the advance of public registries of beneficial ownership, to combat the abuse of anonymous companies for money laundering, which was first announced as U.K. policy at the 2013 OGP London Summit after a major advocacy campaign, and has since spread to dozens of countries. The OGP approach is much lighter on communiques, but much heavier on action. It won’t work for all issues, and binding multilateral agreements have their place, but OGP has offered a window into a different type of cooperation that can result in real impact. 

2. The distinction between domestic and foreign policy is eroding

On democracy and open government issues, credibility is everything. Some of the strongest performers in OGP are countries who don’t regularly sit at the top table of other international fora. And yet, they are looked up to within the Partnership for their domestic leadership and willingness to share their learning with others. OGP Local members are also showcasing  a different model of how to bring government closer to citizens. Conversely, some of the traditional champions of democracy internationally have experienced significant backsliding in recent years. This includes the United States where I lived less than a mile from the January 6th 2021 insurrection that was inspired by the refusal of some political leaders to accept the will of the people. Political and diplomatic outreach and advocacy is hugely important, and high level summits can be action-forcing moments to move reforms forward, but without leading by example, it runs hollow.  

3. Good ideas come from everywhere

One of the founding OGP principles was that no one institution, government or organization has a monopoly on good ideas or innovation. The spirit being that all of us have something to share, and something to learn. The practice of the last ten years has strongly reinforced this belief, with for example some of the most radical citizen engagement platforms for improving public services coming from places as diverse as Nigeria, Spain and South Korea. I have seen how OGP is one of the few multilateral initiatives that breaks the power dynamics between the global north and south, where for example Canada and Senegal, or the U.K. and Nigeria, can have a dialogue about reforms without it being taken for granted that learning is only a one way street.

4. Shifting the power works

For many years, a group of international development practitioners have been pushing a localization agenda – essentially shifting power and resources within the aid and development sphere from big bilateral and multilateral players to the local actors who best understand their context, and how to change it. OGP has, in practice, been a major experiment in shifting power that gives some important pointers to how implementing a localization agenda might look. OGP has thrived when coalitions of civil society have been able to advocate for specific reforms, play their part in implementing them, and help to ensure accountability for action. In Nigeria, I saw how an “Open Alliance” of hundreds of civil society leaders came together in a powerful joint advocacy campaign for the government to join OGP, and then to commit to specific governance reforms. Those reforms themselves have in many cases served to further shift power by opening up closed decision-making, and encouraging everyday democracy beyond the ballot box. From our experience this applies to all countries and local regions, regardless of income level, with funding for civil society a universal challenge. Localization is alive and well in OGP, but resources are needed to maximize its potential.  

5. The power of unusual coalitions

One of the only hard rules on joining OGP is that governments must set up a space to meet regularly with civil society. This is designed to encourage co-creation of specific reforms, and to build trust between ministers, officials and activists. I remember being in Tunisia soon after the fall of Ben Ali, and the OGP forum was one of the first places that civil society, who had been part of the Arab Spring, met with civil servants to discuss reforms to try and build democracy in the country. Another recent example is the unusual coalitions of private sector leaders, government reformers and civil society who have come together to advance open contracting as a means to reform public procurement in many OGP countries. When these unusual coalitions come together they can be extremely powerful tools for change. Few places allow a blurring of lines between government and civil society in a positive way that taps into each other’s expertise and gets things done. OGP, at its best, offers that opportunity to change the culture of government.  

6. The potential for openness to tackle systemic inequalities

In the early years of OGP there were many circular discussions along the lines of “openness for what?” This tended to be between two artificially drawn poles of those who believed openness was an important principle in rights-based terms, and those that believed openness was a means to achieve better outcomes in sectors like health, education and infrastructure. This has always been a false choice. Openness can and should be both. I am hugely excited by recent progress in showing this to be the case in tackling systematic inequalities in our societies, such as racism, gender inequality, income inequality and class inequality. For example, transparency over gender pay gaps is accelerating towards what I hope will be a new governance norm in both the public and private sectors. There is also great potential to increase police transparency and accountability to reduce racial biases, by making arrest data more open and increasing democratic oversight.

7. Everything is now digital, but digital also needs to be open 

If you scan through a typical OGP action plan it will be clear that almost all reforms have a digital element, whether using digital participation tools to engage in co-creation, using technology to solicit citizen feedback on public services, or applying open governance principles to onlines spaces or public sector use of technology such as algorithmic decision-making. It no longer makes sense to treat digital as a separate sector or theme. Digital is now deeply embedded within the entire fabric of our democracies and in public services we all rely on. It is clear that open governance principles are needed throughout to ensure digital technologies can be safeguarded against misuse that harms democratic engagement and civic space. OGP is also becoming a key platform to forge coalitions of those promoting digital rights and governance principles, and policy action.

8. The authoritarian playbook is alive and kicking

After fifteen consecutive years of declining civic space and democratic backsliding in many countries, the open government community also needs support to tackle what has become known as the “authoritarian playbook”. Loosely defined, this includes clamping down on independent media, restricting funding and space for civil society, using state funds for political ends, eroding judicial independence, disinformation campaigns, arbitrary detention, and inflaming racial and religious differences. In a particularly egregious case a close friend in the open government community from civil society had his passport confiscated for several years, after publishing information the government did not want to see in public. Another classic example has been the proliferation of very similar NGO laws across many countries that are pitched as promoting accountability for civil society, but in actual fact make it incredibly difficult to operate in an independent manner. Open government has many of the tools to tackle this playbook, such as opening up procurement systems so the public can see who is winning state contracts, which makes it harder for corrupt politicians to use procurement as pay back for big business support as the Odebrecht scandal so vividly demonstrated in Latin America. When populist leaders with authoritarian instincts have come to power in OGP countries, I have also seen remarkable efforts to use open government to quietly mitigate the worst effects and keep a reform agenda alive under the radar. But this is an uphill battle and requires much stronger international cooperation and coalition building, epitomised by the type of incredible work that investigative reporters collaborated on around the Paradise and Panama Papers that exposed many authoritarian leaders’ money laundering. 

9. Accountability matters

OGP is overwhelmingly about positive incentives and inspiring a so-called “race to the top” between members, but it is also not a free ride. From the outset OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) has publicly monitored and assessed every commitment made through the Partnership, which provides an incredible database for learning and accountability purposes. However, we ourselves have had to adapt and evolve our rules to respond to the trend of closing civic space. It is now harder to join OGP if you meet the technical criteria, but have had civic space issues. There is also a response policy in place, which led to Viktor Orban withdrawing Hungary from OGP and the suspension of Azerbaijan. The same policy was used to try and forge a policy response to illegal surveillance of civil society in Mexico. Accountability is vital, and while OGP still has challenges of unfulfilled commitments and democratic backsliding within our membership, we have been able to draw a line beyond which being a full participating member is not possible. 

10. A healthy dose of humility and patience is always needed

I always remember Obama administration officials talking in OGP fora about the U.S.’s own challenges with access to justice in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, while also encouraging other countries to tackle their own justice issues. That type of humility feels even more essential today and is a key value for OGP. From my experience, less hubris, and more patience working together across boundaries and countries in a way that recognizes each other’s strengths and weaknesses, is how we can strengthen our movement for democracy and open government. 

The fragments of a democratic renewal are in place, but the work to bring them together remains. In many ways OGP represents the bright spots for democracy. Thousands of committed reformers in and outside of government working together to try and change the status quo, often against formidable odds. They are showing what an alternative vision for democracy might look like – more participatory, more diverse, less top-down and genuinely seeking to rebuild trust between citizens and government institutions. When citizens don’t feel heard, even if they don’t always agree with the decision, it erodes faith in democracy in a pernicious way. But so far the successes have been mainly isolated and certainly no country has been able to bring together all the elements of democratic reform to truly show what a different path might look like. To me, this is the challenge for OGP as we enter our second decade: to make the fragments of success add up to more than the sum of their parts, and show a vision for a new version of democracy that is more resilient to authoritarian threats, and more responsive to its citizens.

Comments (1)

Jacqueline Ogilvie Reply

Los felicito por estos 10 años de su Fundación, pero me gustaría recibir mas seguido de los avances de esta nueva forma de gobernar. Quizás dictarr cursoas para eneseñar mejor este nuevo de metodologia para aprender a gbernar. U orientarnos en busca de Información al respecto.
Atentamente
Jacqueline Ogilvie

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