Beyond the Basics: From compliance to accomplishment in the Open Government Partnership

The push for open government is turning into a global movement. By nature of its size and reach, the Open Government Partnership has become a central part of the movement, a place where reformers can make commitments and learn about one another’s innovations. My team, the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) is responsible for evaluating those commitments (IRM basics here for those who need it).

In my opinion, one of the best things about OGP is that it is “open source” policy development. Governments and civil society try things out in public. Sometimes they succeed wildly. Other times they fail spectacularly. Most of the time, the story is somewhere in between.
It’s not just the governments, though, that come under that “open source” scrutiny. Within the OGP Support Unit and IRM, we make it a habit to publicly review our own performance. Being part of an organization that looks at what it is doing well and corrects course is one of the reasons I enjoy working here. This year, as we prepare for the Paris Summit, we get another moment to reflect and redouble our efforts to improve how we open government.

Every two years, OGP gets a huge report card when dozens of new IRM reports come in. These reports give us a sense of how many OGP commitments are being completed, what difference they might make, and whether the process to develop them was participatory. We are able to synthesize the findings from the nearly 2000 commitments in what we call “technical papers.”

This time around, we had 25 countries who were on their second action plan and  were able to make some comparisons about where OGP countries improved between action plans. So when we look over time, what do we learn?

Process: Action plan creation has improved overall, but many countries lag and consultation is often shallow

When they join OGP, countries commit to a set of formal requirements to consult with civil society. Our findings show that, over time, most countries have improved in the formal requirements of consultation from action plan to action plan. In fact, nearly all countries now have in-person consultations in the development of the action plan. In 2012, there were a number of countries that had no such consultation.

But before we celebrate too much, we still have a ways to go. The procedural improvements we see do not speak to the quality of dialogue or collaboration of action plans. Two things are troubling. First, a small—but not insignificant—minority of countries control who can participate and only a minority publish reasons for when and why public inputs made a difference in the final action plan. These are not currently requirements of OGP, but not following them can result in real problems. This situation clearly needs improvement. Fortunately, the OGP Steering Committee is in the process of strengthening guidance on both of these fronts.

Commitments: Action plans are more measurable, relevant, and implemented than ever before, but ambition is still lacking

The heart of OGP action plans is putting forward and completing measurable, ambitious action plan commitments that really open government. The IRM gives “stars” for those commitments that change the way a government does business, whether by making KGB records public in Ukraine, improving fiscal transparency in Guatemala, or moving forward on beneficial ownership in the United Kingdom.

After five years, we can now look at how the first 1800 commitments have fared. What the data shows us is that five percent of OGP commitments get stars.

The good news is that this means that around 100 significant reforms have happened through OGP.

The bad news is that only 100 big reforms have happened through OGP.

The question is why?

In the first period of OGP, we saw that commitments were vague and often had nothing to do with opening government. That has changed.

Rather than problems of poor form, today we see two big obstacles to significant reform--completion of commitments and ambition of commitments.

The first major obstacle is completion. A preliminary analysis of commitments (to be published in 2017), found that lack of finance accounted for nearly half of commitments that were delayed or unstarted. But we need to dig a bit further before we come to the conclusion that this means open government is expensive or that we need a large-scale international financing program. We need to ask whether that financial difficulty is really the cause or whether it is something more to do with political priorities. Is it due to misalignment with national policy documents, budget cycles, political difficulties, or something else? This is a challenge for the community to answer in the coming year.

The second big obstacle is that OGP commitments are less ambitious. Is this a problem? On the one hand, this reflects greater realism on the parts of government. Feasibility is a good thing. On the other, this means that maybe we haven’t been doing enough as an organization to encourage big risk-taking on the part of governments. A third possibility is that action plans haven’t been “calling the pocket,” or really explaining what their big ambitions are. We may be suffering from too much bureaucratic language, and not enough compelling storytelling. My guess is that it’s a combination of all three.

So how do we improve ambition? I think the Paris Declaration is a good start , but ultimately, this really does require risk-taking on the part of governments. It also requires a continued push from civil society, including acknowledging the hard working risk-takers in government.

As far as storytelling goes, I cannot stress enough that this entire community can do better to explain why its work is important, to avoid burying the lead on big reforms in a pile of official language.

My guess is that most everyone who will be in Paris this/next week is coming because they want to learn about solutions to others’ problems, share their successes, and champion the cause of openness. Shouldn’t our public commitments reflect that?

Authors: Joe Foti
Filed Under: Research