Empowering Citizens, Opening Government

Exactly 20 years ago, in the early months of 1998, I was a student living in Indonesia, witnessing in person my first and only revolution. What started as a small student protest turned in a couple of weeks into a nation-wide protest against corruption, collusion and nepotism, toppling a president and starting a process of reformation.

From the outside, it looked like a country on fire. To me it was foremost a celebration of citizenship. It was amazing to watch people’s bravery, dedication and energy, hear the analyses and lively discussions about how to change things and how to hold the leaders accountable.

One of the things that impressed me most was the enormous amount of information that suddenly became available in those weeks. Street sellers had fresh newspapers and magazines everyday, filled with new scandals and details on fraud and corruption. These were Beneficial Ownership Transparency and Panama Papers before they even existed.

The rest is history as they say. New laws were passed that improved civic space, access to information and the media landscape.  Since then, Indonesia has made more progress. Today, it is a reformed country with a rich and diverse civil society, and a strong anti-corruption commission.  One that has even prosecuted some of powerful ones the streets protested against in 1998.

And it all started with individuals standing up and demanding a change.

Challenging times for the OGP values and principles

The story of Indonesia is not that different from what we have seen more recently in countries from Armenia to  South Korea - and give us reason for hope. At the same time, the current tensions in Georgia and Sri Lanka show us that fundamentally changing the culture of government, changing the power dynamics, is not a one time effort but a life-long one.

If you believe in what OGP stands for - these are confusing and challenging times.  

The world is faced with challenges that are feeding anxiety and discontent. Migration and inequality, trade wars and real wars, populism and the decline of trust in public institutions.

Leaders are coming to power riding the wave of these anxieties. Brazil is the latest example. Democratic checks and balances, strong institutions, independent media are seen as a nuisance more than a necessity.

To address these challenges, to bring better government - better society - we need political leadership and strong institutions, but above all, we need actively engage citizens. We need our collective minds and muscles and a reimagination of the roles we can play.

Civic space

Civil Society has had some good decades with friends and supporters in high places. Delivering reforms across the world bringing down corruption, putting in place over a 100 Access to Information laws and the Paris Climate Agreement, starting the trend of Beneficial Ownership Registries, helping improve health and education.

Years where you could feel good about perhaps not getting all you wanted, but at least knowing you were on the right side of history. But the last few years the tide is turning. You ask governments for more transparency, participation, and accountability - but governments are turning it around and challenging you on our own credibility, representativeness, and legitimacy.

Even though these accusations might be, at times, politically motivated, there probably is some truth to them.

Don’t get me wrong, civil society continues to have a role to play in providing checks and balances - in being disruptive and supportive. Lending a hand, and holding feet to the fire.

But the ask to examine your own role and legitimacy is here to stay. You should charge ahead and counter the attacks that take you away from your real work. You should reinvent and recharge yourselves to be fit-for-purpose for the future.

That type of self reflection doesn’t hurt anyone by the way, including governments. How can you be better in who you are and what you do?

Stepping up the OGP game

Let me share some things coming out of OGP’s own self-reflection, things we want to do better and differently in the years ahead.

  • First, we will make OGP less technocratic, more political, more relevant for people. This means we will

    • Increase focus on commitments on access to education, better health, clean water as a way of showing how open government can directly improve lives;

    • We will engage new governments early in their administrations to show how open government can help deliver on their election promises and priorities;

    • We will make the OGP process requirements lighter where we can without undermining the delivery of ambitious reforms.

  • Second, we will protect  the values and principles of OGP.

  • Through the the Response Policy, and the new rapid response mechanism, values check, and our more ambitious participation and co-creation standards we will try to ensure OGP members do what they sign up for.

  • Where we can, we will use our  global platform to push on safeguarding and improving civic space, and combating emerging threats to democracy like misinformation and manipulation of social media.

  • Related to that, we will invest in more advanced co-creation, like deliberative decision-making approaches, as ways of bringing together people and forging consensus on difficult issues.

  • Third, we will ensure that OGP helps governments turn global promises made at the G20, the High Level Political Forum and the IACC into bold domestic action through OGP.  And through the IRM we will hold these governments accountable for delivering.

  • Fourth, we will continue to be better at sharing new and diverse stories through our CitizEngage platform so we can inspire others to reach their full potential .

  • And finally, we will  make a real push on inclusion and diversity. Think gender, think indigenous groups. Think vulnerable communities. But also think of bringing in new ministries, parliaments, local government into the conversation. And directly engaging citizens.

The importance of the individual

The road ahead is difficult. And we will be faced with significant challenges as we try to push against powerful forces that will resist the changes that we want to see. But let’s remember that history is not only made by the powerful men and women at the top - perhaps even more it is made by adding up the individual actions of millions of people that collectively move us in a better direction. Working hard to build and protect both the body and soul of democracy. Like the transitions that were brought about by ordinary people in Indonesia, or Armenia or South Korea.

OGP’s unsung heroes

People like Marianne Fabian, the OGP Point of Contact from the Philippines, who very deftly managed a difficult political transition taking help from civil society, leaders in bureaucracy, and OGP Support Unit, to secure continued support to and leadership from her ministry on OGP and open government reforms.

The OGP Points of Contact are the unsung heroes of OGP. Politicians can say they want to open government, civil society can advocate for reforms OGP should deliver, but it’s you, the hard working points of contact, that need to turn these asks and aspirations into action.

There are also many heroes on civil society side. Take Shushan and Liana at FOICA, who smartly brought together and worked with several actors -  the Armenian POC Lilya Afrikyan, and Jose Marin from the TI Secretariat and others to get the Ministry of Justice in Armenia on board with making a commitment to Beneficial Ownership in the forthcoming Action Plan.

Individual commitments can make a big difference. This room is filled with 100s of stories like the two I shared.

Close

I have often said that when OGP was created there were two trends in the world, one for more closed and one for more open government, with OGP’s ambition to tip the balance in favour of openness. Team Open has achieved a lot in the first 7 years, but so has Team Closed. And while the core ideas of OGP are as powerful as they were in 2011, the balance has yet to be tipped.

Perhaps the most important one of our original ambitions is the importance of creating space for reformers like you. More than ever, we need to leverage your strengths, enable you to work together, domestically, regionally and globally.

Let’s use today for that conversation. How can you create space for other reformers, bring in new voices, forge coalitions, challenge power balances. And how can we help you with it.

Together we need to step up to make OGP more than a nice-to-have, it needs to become the need-to-have default approach for people at all levels of government, for all types of civil society. For parliamentarians, politicians and judges. For the youth and the elderly. For the most vulnerable and the most marginalized.

In the end, it all starts with individuals standing up,demanding and delivering change.

Authors: Paul Maassen
Filed Under: OGP News
Tags: #OGPAsiaPac