Bringing governments closer to citizens: What Can OGP Countries Do?

A theme that surfaced consistently at the Asia Pacific Leaders Forum, hosted by the Government of Indonesia, was decreasing trust in governments. For countries committed to the principles and praxis of openness, this trust deficit could severely undermine the transformative potential that the Open Government Partnership (OGP) offers. There are three things that OGP countries can do to bring governments closer to people and restore the fast-dwindling trust between the state and citizens: Legislate. Leverage. Localize.

 

 

There is enough evidence to prove how enabling legislation can result in impactful citizen empowerment, and bring about transformational changes in the way accountability is exercised. Laws that promote and protect a constitutional right to seek, secure and use information, and those which mandate access to institutional spaces and processes to inform and influence planning, budgeting and auditing of public services have clearly made substantive impacts on lives and livelihoods. In contexts marred by extreme power inequities, legislations can play a critical role in creating a level playing field for the disempowered. However, with rising fears of a shrinking space for independent civil society actions being voiced in many countries, the defining challenge would be to ensure an unfettered Right to Expression. The 2017 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report, while noting that civic space is being seriously constrained in 106 countries, has called the current state of affairs a ‘global civic space emergency’. Having access to information without having safe channels to use it - especially to hold states accountable - has no meaning. Openness has very little impact in an environment marked by fear and silence.

 

 

Leveraging the power of technology to improve efficiency and outreach - and, more importantly, to redraw accountability relations, is already proving to be game changer. Technology used strategically has transformative potential in terms of the way governments conduct business and in the way governments and citizens negotiate the social contract. Technology also offers a platform to convene multiple stakeholders, and to tap into the creativity and dynamism of youth. Technology is also proving to be a great enabler in helping governments understand priorities and experiences of citizens in designing and delivering public services. In many ways, ICT-led social media is radically transforming the way governments are interacting with citizens and the way in which democratic discourses are being shaped. What governments need to do is to acknowledge the influence of social media in shaping public discourse,s and instead of muffling it through restrictive legislations and controls, should appropriate the social media space to deepen and broaden citizen engagement practices.

 

 

Opportunities and capacities have to be localized to promote and practice open governments. Reforms designed and promoted by reformist leaders and champions seldom have lasting impact if the frontline staff fail to see themselves as part of the change, or resources are not transferred to local governments to help them improve service delivery. National governments need to put in place constitutional safeguards that guarantee genuine devolution of power to subnational governments, in order to bolster effective engagement between the state and the citizens in provinces, states, boroughs, counties, municipalities and villages.

 

 

Finally, we need to take a Leap – not just of faith, but of action. It is time to expand the repertoire of reforms from the transactional to the transformational. We need big, bold, progressive reforms that constitutionally empower citizens with entitlements and the capacity to demand and extract accountability.  We need policies and strategies that make technology accessible, usable, and impactful for citizens, especially those whose voices are seldom heard. We need the political will and leadership that embraces openness, and sees it as an opportunity to secure and build the trust of the people and strengthen the integrity of our institutions.