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Charting a Bolder Path Forward on Inclusion, Participation and Impact

Brendan Halloran|

A few months ago, for the fourth time in five years, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) hosted a global summit, gathering together individuals representing government and civic institutions, this time in Ottawa, Canada. Going back to the 2015 summit in Mexico City, the discourse in the OGP has been marked by a striking set of parallel conversations: on the one hand, optimism about the innovation and energy of those gathered together; on the other hand, pessimism at the threat of forces that are visibly working against this agenda. In other words, OGP leaders consistently called out shrinking civic space and other threats to openness, but beyond that (and pleas to make more OGP commitments to protect civic space) most of the rhetoric and practice in OGP continued to be focused on specific technical innovations and commitments. Were many OGP stakeholders missing the forest for the trees? Other observers have commented on the disjuncture between open government and closing space as well, pointing to instances of open washing and reducing openness to narrow government sponsored and defined channels. 

The Ottawa summit was able to bring these two conversations together into a more coherent dialogue than previous years. A more holistic reflection on inclusion, participation and impact in a meaningful way is a discussion that had been missing. These are key questions OGP stakeholders must answer if the initiative is to shift from narrowly-defined openness to strengthening the accountability that citizens around the world are demanding of their governments. The Ottawa summit raised these issues more clearly, but we must go much further if these ideas are to translate from rhetoric to reality. Indeed, even before we started worrying about populism, closing civic space, and democratic recession more broadly, OGP was grappling with tough questions about how it can contribute to real change – particularly whether the initiatives’ mechanisms and incentives could shift the power dynamics that shape policy processes and outcomes. Seeking to promote democracy beyond the ballot box does not evade the realities of politics.      

Going forward, OGP stakeholders must (continue to) grapple with fundamental questions about who shapes the openness agenda, what spaces there are for engagement, and what difference it makes.  Many of these questions were raised more explicitly in Ottawa, through a focus on inclusion, participation and impact. But the answers are more elusive. 

Inclusion.  We’ve known for a long time that OGP has generally attracted a fairly narrow group of stakeholders in both government and civil society. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised that the work being done through the initiative is not having a wider impact and is threatened by broader social and political waves. Solutions are not straightforward, even if the leadership in OGP continues to acknowledge and seek to address the problem.

The Feminist OGP initiative is welcome, but many other groups must engaged to shape an openness agenda that is meaningful to them. Openness can only be brought about through a contest of ideas, and indeed political struggle, so those promoting openness need to build a bigger coalition inside and outside of government. Reaching out and engaging those citizen mobilizations demanding accountability of the state could help leverage openings created by civic action while grounding open government in the lived experiences of citizens taking a stand. More broadly, OGP must still consider to what extent it focuses on a wide set of stakeholders or helping create a platform explicitly oriented to change efforts. More commitments to ‘open’ parliament, justice systems, etc. may be less important than engaging allies from these institutions in a coalition around a core openness reform project.

Participation. OGP is based on the premise of civil society co-creation with government. This has been increasingly formalized in the form of a “multi-stakeholder forum” (MSF). Most civil society MSF participants report that their participation in the MSF (and the broader action plan co-creation process) results in commitments that align with their priorities even though only a minority of co-creation is really collaborative. We know less about the extent to which CSO priorities get completed and meaningfully implemented, thus we still need to ask the question of whether this investment is worth it. Are civil society organizations tempted by the prospect of direct influence on government policy engaging OGP processes that are not leading to meaningful outcomes? This may diminish efforts aimed at the longer route of building relationships, coalitions, and spaces essential for meaningful change. How can these approaches come together more effectively?

Inclusion and participation must go hand in hand, in that participation must engage broader and deeper constituencies to be effective, and conversely participation must be seen as meaningful for new groups to invest their effort. This likely involves continuing to push for openness that more directly connects to the problems faced by citizens and civic actors, and that could generate positive incentives for the right government actors.

In addition to being a mechanism of participation, one of the core values of OGP commitments is that of enhancing civic engagement. Here again questions must be raised, and the results are still mixed. Participatory budgeting may be a good example of a potentially important participatory instrument that can easily become a box ticking exercise that undermines democratic practices, as the session my organization the International Budget Partnership (IBP) hosted at the Ottawa summit made clear. OGP must do a better job ensuring that commitments to strengthen citizen engagement entail processes and spaces that are inclusive and meaningful, both in the design of participation and its enabling environment. The Philippines Bottom up Budgeting example demonstrates design decisions matter and can limit real impact. The IRM could apply the participation spectrum of OGP processes to OGP participation commitments. But good design isn’t enough and OGP stakeholders need to invest as much in building political will for participation as the technical aspects of formal mechanisms. 

Impact. OGP formal processes- and open governance efforts more generally- have focused on getting the policies right for openness. But they have generally engaged less in the politics of openness (except by lamenting the shifts in the opposite direction). In other words, OGP’s theory of change suggests a direct route to openness (and democracy) by supporting government reformers and civil society advocates to take concrete actions to shift the practices of the state. However, because this process has seldom enabled meaningful coalitions in government, or outside it, there is often a lack of a powerful or sustainable constituency for reform. Indeed, OGP’s bread and butter of two-year action plans has actually produced relatively few meaningful reforms from its thousands of commitments, as the Independent Reporting Mechanism’s data reveals

If national OGP processes continue to principally involve a narrow set of bureaucrats and NGOs – punctuated by a few appearances by elected officials- it may insulate the initiative’s processes from actual citizen demand for reform. At the same time, this set of actors and rigid two-year timelines might not reflect the realities of reform processes. The danger is that OGP is stuck between a rock and a hard place if it fails to connect the politics of openness to the processes of openness. 

At the Ottawa summit, a relatively more mature and measured conversation about the inclusion, participation and impact of openness emerged (for example, the excellent remarks by civil society Co-Chair Nathaniel Heller). However, this still contrasts with the realities of OGP processes in many national and local levels, which are still not sufficiently inclusive, participatory or impactful. Raising expectations around inclusiveness, participation and impact may prove to be the catalyst for more meaningful processes and outcomes in OGP countries. Or it may signal a deeper gap between OGP rhetoric and OGP reality. OGP needs more than just an increasingly mature global conversation – it needs to change the reality of practice on the ground.  

The rhetoric of OGP leadership and key stakeholders still has not been fully backed up by the reality of change being enabled through OGP processes. In terms of what OGP measures – ambition, relevance, completion, changed government practice – IRM data shows significant drop-offs from commitment to completion to meaningful openness. Maybe that is inevitable, and we should only expect a couple modest reforms – and an occasional significant one – from each action plan, amidst a sea of mediocre commitments, many of which are not completed or do not change government practice meaningfully.  But if that is the case, it becomes harder to argue that OGP is adding real value in country reform processes, since those reforms may have happened anyway – potentially with less risk of open-washing from membership in high-profile international initiative. Or indeed, in the worst-case scenario, OGP processes take resources and attention away from the messier and longer-term – but perhaps ultimately more fruitful – dynamics of reform.

OGP must do better. We are in a pivotal time for both OGP as an initiative and for those of us committed to inclusive and accountable governance more broadly. Existing institutions that once sustained democracy seem to be increasingly fragile (or in many cases, were never strong to begin with), bringing a crop of autocratic leaders to power in recent years. Digital spaces that seemed to hold so much promise as new spaces for dialogue and mobilization have now been revealed as a double-edged sword. If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds that continue to gather overhead, it is that these challenging times may force us out of our comfort zones and challenge us to new thinking and new approaches. This has been the case for IBP, in convening a dialogue on the future of fiscal governance efforts, and the Ottawa summit suggested it could be for the OGP community as well.

OGP was born in what now seems like a different era. It’s worth asking whether the initiative is still fit for purpose in the current context. I’m hopeful that it can be, but for that to be the case OGP must not just have a different conversation, it must be a different initiative. What can OGP do differently? Some ideas are already on the table that should be taken forward.  The significant resources from the Open Society Foundation can be an opportunity to imagine meaningful changes going forward, such as:

  •  OGP’s ways of working need more alignment with political reality. Maybe OGP’s official rhetoric will continue to steer around this topic, but OGP processes and the initiative’s engagement cannot. OGP leadership does much good work behind the scenes, but this needs to be more mainstreamed into OGP’s formal practices. OGP resources (especially the Multi-Donor Trust Fund) and allies need to help country stakeholders to understand and navigate the politics of openness reforms. This may mean helping key actors analyze the political dynamics of OGP processes, convening reform actors (beyond the usual suspects), and supporting iterative learning within reform processes (such as this example from the Philippines).  
  • Participants: Feminist open government is a great first step but OGP stakeholders must invest much more in bringing diverse groups and influential actors to the table. Coalition building, inside and outside government, should be as core to OGP as action plans (or more so, see below). And as hard (and perhaps as risky) as this is, OGP stakeholders (particularly national civil society organizations) need to connect to the kinds of citizen mobilization that can incentivize real reform. This could be both organized groups like the movement of women-headed households in Indonesia to digital spaces like Kenyans on Twitter
  • Commitments: OGP has talked about starting with citizen problems but quite frankly that has not really taken hold. Action plans are still full of tools and processes that are much more like solutions looking for problems. This leads to the sea of relatively unambitious commitments that dominates action plans. Maybe OGP should embrace the struggle for reform rather than try to bypass it. What would a Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) version of OGP look like? Maybe an OGP with no commitments, but priority problems instead? IBP’s experience of focusing on concrete problems like sanitation in low-income urban areas or women farmers’ access to agricultural inputs as a lever to tackle systemic fiscal governance issues may provide lessons. This may be the direction of the broader transparency agenda more broadly, and it would be a welcome shift.
  • Action plans: Relatedly, more flexible and ambitious national action plan timelines are needed, both in length and timing – as most reforms do not happen on two-year timelines. Action plans need to reflect this reality. Building political will for reform is messy and nonlinear, and our approaches to supporting this process need to reflect that. Maybe OGP shifts to five-year formal peer review processes, with annual updates on progress.    
  • Monitoring and learning: IRM reports provide relatively robust information about OGP action plans and allow us to look across the initiative. Indeed, it is because of the investment in the IRM that we know that relatively few meaningful reforms are coming out of OGP processes.  But the reports are long and dense, and they don’t produce information that helps stakeholders in a timely fashion. We know that most of the challenges of OGP’s processes are not necessarily about a lack of information but the IRM could produce more focused, real-time information and that could provide more actionable intelligence for navigating reform processes to relevant stakeholders who chose to act on that basis. In other words, provide analysis that goes beyond the ‘what’ of action plans to the ‘how’ of reform. 
  • Domestic accountability: OGP has no accountability mechanism, outside the narrow response policy (which has been put in effect in several cases). The IRM is not an accountability instrument, it only provides information that some OGP actors in government use but few others. Accountability, if it is to be meaningful, has to be local. The communications efforts of the OGP Support Unit and allies in-country could focus on getting domestic media to pay attention to OGP processes and their results – or lack thereof – and thus actually influence the incentives of decision makers to make more meaningful reforms. Indeed, OGP could think about how to leverage the broader accountability ‘ecosystem’ around national processes, including media, legislatures, auditors, etc. What if national auditors did a special audit of action plans – past and present- to promote further government action on commitments that had not been completed, or completed by not achieved their objective?    
  • Research and learning: OGP’s upcoming evaluation may well speak to many of the points I’ve raised throughout, and that will give us a much better basis on which to judge how OGP processes are intersecting with political realities at the country level. There may well be more evidence out there (for example) that would speak to the issues I raise but OGP could use more of its knowledge resources, potentially including the next iteration of the Global Report, to do more case study and cross-national research that digs deeper into the change dynamics around OGP processes and outcomes.   

In sum, I’ve raised a lot of questions, made a lot of claims, and proposed a few ideas in this blog. OGP experiences are diverse from country to country, and there are certainly many examples that run counter to my arguments. I’ve not cited country experiences in this piece, but rather tried to see the forest for the trees at this important juncture. I hope this adds to the OGP (and open government more broadly) conversation and I welcome further discussion on these issues, none of which are simple or straight forward.


Thanks to Joe Powell, Warren Krafchik, Alan Hudson, Claire Schouten, and Samir Khan for helpful comments on various versions of this blog. Any errors are my own.

Filed Under: Perspective

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