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Advancing OGP in Asia Pacific

Shreya Basu|

Even as the membership base of the Open Government Partnership continues to grow year on year, with 65 countries having joined since its inception in 2011, Asia Pacific as a region continues to remain underrepresented. For a region with more than 60% of the world’s population, increasing membership and ensuring that the OGP platform delivers on its reform potential in member countries is in many ways fundamental to success of the initiative overall. Meeting these objectives will need concerted efforts in four key areas.

Broadening the base

There are several countries in the region that meet the eligibility criteria but are yet to join. This includes Bhutan, India, Japan, Nepal, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand. Although there is bottom-up demand from domestic civil society coalitions and some outreach efforts by existing members, these efforts will need to be further strengthened and accelerated to bring these countries into the OGP fold. In a range of non-eligible countries too, local and international actors are working to push for governments to meet the eligibility criteria and join OGP. Building on the interest generated amongst the 650 government and civil society delegates attending the OGP Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Bali in May 2014, outreach workshops have been held in the past year in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea on the values and principles of OGP and the opportunities it presents. Vietnam – where there is a strong civil society interest – plans to hold a similar workshop later this year. Led by key Indonesian OGP actors, with support from the Philippines and funders in the region like Ford and OSF, these outreach efforts have been met with enthusiasm but now the more challenging work on preparing these countries in meeting the eligibility criteria or joining the partnership remains to be completed. Donors and other partners in the region such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asia Foundation have a key role to play in supporting government and civil society efforts toward this end. Current member countries too have more to do in terms of broadening the base – in bringing more topics, more government agencies and civil society organizations to dialogues and debates on pushing the frontiers of open government. Identifying key government reform champions – those that are powerful, inspiring and connected will be a crucial part of this. It would be great if at least 2 additional Asian countries join OGP at the upcoming Global Summit in Mexico.

Deepening engagement between governments and civil society

As in other regions, there is a worrying trend towards the restriction of civic space in much of Asia. In countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Indonesia and India, laws and regulations are being adopted or amended in an attempt to muzzle civil society and making it difficult for them to function. In March 2015, three civil society organizations in Azerbaijan submitted a letter of concern to OGP regarding the environment for civil society to operate in the country. Under the Response Policy, the Criteria and Standards sub-committee of the OGP Steering Committee found the concerns to be relevant and valid, and the Steering Committee is now working on follow-up actions.

In such an environment, OGP offers an important platform for ongoing dialogue between governments and civil society on civic participation and policy decisions that affect the everyday lives of citizens. In Indonesia and the Philippines, both founding members of OGP, civil society and governments are now working toward finding improved models for co-creating and monitoring their OGP National Action Plans (NAPs). New Zealand is in the process of setting up a Stakeholder Advisory Group to assist with developing, implementing and evaluating their plans. The important thing now is to sustain the positive momentum generated by OGP and create permanent dialogue mechanisms, with clear terms of reference, representation drawn from groups that go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and regular meetings to strengthen the impact of the OGP process on government-civil society engagement and to mitigate against risks posed by changes in leadership. With elections coming up in the next 12 months for example in Mongolia and the Philippines, this will be an issue of particular salience in the Asia Pacific region for ensuring the sustainability of the reforms undertaken till date.

Securing more ambitious commitments and increasing accountability

Australia, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines are due to develop new National Actions Plans in 2015, and others will do so over the course of the next 18 months. The commitments made in these NAPs form the core of OGP participation and present a real opportunity for reformers in government and civil society advocates to include solid, ambitious commitments. For example in Georgia, civil society successfully pushed for the inclusion of a commitment on the expansion of the list of public officials obliged to disclose their income and assets. The list of officials now also include for instance heads of state owned enterprises and non-commercial legal entities founded by the state. The NAP development process can be used strategically elsewhere in the region too. In the Philippines for example, the development of the third NAP provides an opportunity to secure more concrete commitments and timelines on the passage of the Freedom of Information bill. Across the board, it is time to up the ante on committing to politically difficult and more complex reforms in areas such as campaign finance, judicial and legislative reform, for open government to truly take hold.  OGP’s international peer network and tools such as the Open Gov Guide, the OGP Explorer and case studies can be used to identify innovative and stretching commitments made by others and replicate these where they fit the local context and needs.  

But making ambitious commitments will not be enough; translating these commitments to action is equally important. Governments will need to allocate sufficient resources for implementing meaningful reforms and ensuring their sustainability. OGP’s multilateral partners are well positioned to help governments where external support might be needed. Similarly the OGP Working Groups can be used to identify best practices in areas related to open parliaments, access to information, open data, natural resources and fiscal transparency. National level accountability for the commitments made in the National Action Plans also needs to be strengthened. Civil society organizations need to step up on their monitoring role and maintain pressure on their governments to deliver on their commitments. Some good examples can be found here and here. The IRM progress reports can be used to stimulate dialogue and promote accountability between governments and citizens. Progress reports are due for Indonesia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Korea in the next six to eight month period. The timelines for the individual reports can be obtained from the OGP activity calendars.

Creating more platforms for lesson-sharing

There is a lot of exciting work going on in the region on open government reforms, both at national and sub-national levels, judging from the applications received for the Open Government Awards.

The 2015 Global Summit in Mexico will offer an opportunity to showcase some of these best practices and others, and connect people working in different countries and on different issues, but facing similar realities. However, there’s still more thinking to be done around how such dialogue and networking can be turned into an on-going and regular process, particularly on creating and effectively using virtual platforms, and using existing national, regional and global fora/events to share lessons, push for change and connect to other important agendas including the Post-2015 Development Agenda and Financing for Development.

Clearly there’s a lot to do and much to look forward to in the coming months. We’re looking forward to seeing some bold, new targets in the action plans. Indonesia has submitted an application to be on Steering Committee, demonstrating its commitment to continue playing a leading role in the region. Word has it that Papua New Guinea is keen to join OGP soon and the Mexico Summit will hopefully reinvigorate interest amongst others that participated in the Bali conference last year.  

Asia has much to contribute to the global open government movement. Much of the innovative transparency and accountability work is being pioneered here. In the Philippines, social audits are being piloted for important public works and service delivery projects such as flood control, public waste management, and school infrastructure programs. In Mongolia, the government has established 24-hour communications channels for citizens to gain immediate and direct access to policy makers. And in India, crowdsourcing is being used to deal with bribery complaints via the site, a model that has now been replicated across several countries. Most importantly, there’s broad range of inspiring organizations and individuals across participating, eligible and non-eligible countries that are continually pushing the boundaries of openness and playing a vital role in promoting greater government accountability. I look forward to working with this vibrant community in helping realize the potential of open government for the 4.4 billion citizens of Asia. 

Photo credit: BlankMap-World.png

Open Government Partnership