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Faces of Open Government – Svitlana Zalishchuk, MP, Ukrainian Parliament

Rostros del Gobierno Abierto - Svitlana Zalishchuk, Parlamento de Ucrania

Svitlana Zalishchuk |

How did you get involved in open government – what is your personal story about why you joined the movement?

I first learned about the Open Government Partnership from my friends at the Omidyar Network. I really liked the idea of such an initiative, as I was involved in civil activism at the time and one of our main goals back then was bringing good governance practices to Ukraine. I was elected into the Parliament of Ukraine in November of 2014, in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity, and in 2015 I was invited to represent the Verkhovna Rada at the Open Parliament forum in Georgia. Since then, my colleagues from the Parliament of Ukraine and I, as well as civil society, have managed to push many reforms through into the institutional buildup of our parliament. It’s a much more open and transparent place today.

What are your priorities for getting parliaments more involved in open government initiatives? How can parliament and the government work more closely together to accomplish ambitious open government goals?

The world in 2017 can be described with the rise of hyperconnectivity, and simultaneously, with the fatigue that many ordinary citizens feel towards governmental institutions. There are new ways to get people connected and involved in decision-making invented almost every day, and yet governments and parliaments across the globe appear to be viewed more and more as outdated, distanced, and inaccessible. I think it is our shared duty to connect the solution with the problem. By applying the modern technology of communication to the interaction between government and the voters, we have to change this unattractive image. The decision makers in parliaments across the globe have to understand that making their institutions more open and accessible actually strengthens them. The primary goal is to change the mentality of the decision-makers. That is the precondition for real reform.

What are the key opportunities and challenges in the open parliament initiative (which including the Open Parliament Plan) that you are leading on, along with colleagues from civil society?

I subscribe to the point of view that any crisis is first of all an opportunity for a positive change. The Ukrainian Parliament is in a permanent crisis of trust. The public support for the institution as well as for the MPs themselves is critically low. By letting civil society groups, as well as ordinary citizens, see the work of the parliament from the inside, we can restore the trust in what parliament is and what it does. Furthermore, by letting people collaborate with the legislators, we can establish a sense of ownership, something that is very important for any governmental institution yet something that has been missing for many years. On the other hand, the implementation of the Open Parliament Plan faces certain challenges. Oftentimes, people who have been employed in the parliament for many years resist change. That is most often expressed in the fear that opening data that used to be closed can be harmful and disarrange the work of the institution. Conversely, ordinary citizens are not necessarily ready to use the new services and technologies simply because they are not used to having control, or to contributing to the work of governmental institutions. So the reform must be accompanied by an advocacy campaign both inside and outside of the parliament.

What is it like to be a woman in the open government movement? Have you found it open and inclusive? Do you think there’s more work to be done?

I have the privilege to say that my gender does not seriously complicate my activism in the open government movement. In fact, it must appear harmonious to the outsiders that women are supporting the reform. In the beginning of Ukraine’s independence, the parliament was a rather isolated institution and there were very few female MPs in the first convocation. Now both trends are changing and this change is supported by Ukrainian society.

A Ukrainian initiative, ProZorro, won the Open Government Awards this year. Why do you think ProZorro has been so successful in Ukraine – and do you think its success can be replicated elsewhere?

ProZorro has been a major success indeed. I believe there are several reasons for why it has succeeded. First of all, the very concept of ProZorro has been very well thought through. It is simple, and yet is completely changing the process of public procurement. By enforcing transparency in the process of public procurement, ProZorro leaves no space for possible corruption, for every step of the procurement can now be monitored online by anybody. The other reason it has been a success is that, with the pressure from civil society and our international partners, the political leadership of Ukraine consolidated enough political will to make sure ProZorro gets nation-wide application.

Ukraine is currently on its third OGP National Action Plan. What are some notable successes of previous action plans, and where do you hope to see more progress in the future?

The implementation of the first and second OGP national action plans allowed improvement of the procedures of public hearings, to establish the institute of public supervisory boards of executive bodies. It has also enabled the mechanism of public audit of governmental bodies. We have opened the archives of the law enforcement agencies of the totalitarian USSR that were responsible for crimes against humanity between 1917 and 1991. Our first open data platforms were launched as well.

One of the key achievements so far has been the launch of electronic declarations of civil servants. This has been justly seen as a milestone in tackling the top-level corruption problem in Ukraine. The single online portal of administrative services has also been launched. E-petitions have also been enabled. Online portal of monitoring of the budget spending was unveiled.

According to the action plan for 2016-2018,  there are five major initiatives to focus on: improvement of state services, raising the level of integrity in governance, more effective allocation of state resources, establishing of safe communities and improvement of corporate accountability. These initiatives among other things will require the launch of a number of e-democracy tools, creation of the system “Community policing”, introduction of more transparency into the database of beneficiaries of companies, etc.

Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, have been praised for their open government platforms and initiatives. What do you think the future looks like for open government in transition states – particularly in those that do not participate in OGP?

I believe that just like other countries of the world, the countries that are still in the process of building democratic institutions face the growing demand for more transparency in governance practices. The technological advancement and the rising level of cooperation between countries and organizations allow for the emerging democracies to catch-up with the mature ones, and sometimes even to pass them by. Lack of institutional memory in countries like Ukraine and Georgia is oftentimes compensated by readiness to accept innovation. People get used to good things quickly, so all that we have to do is to make sure the newly introduced tools and applications are easy to use and practical. Of course, participating in OGP is very useful for emerging democracies that aspire to improve their governance practices. OGP offers an incredible source of experience and knowledge as well as cooperation opportunities for its participants.

Ukraine is part of the European community and seeks to join institutions like the European Union. How do you think open government can help achieve this goal?

I strongly believe that full implementation of the OGP action plans can serve as a strong signal to our friends in the EU that Ukraine shares the common European values when it comes to openness and accountability of government. Even more important than that is that by getting used to these good governance practices in their interaction with Ukrainian governmental institutions, Ukrainians will be ready to be active and responsible citizens of EU too.

One of the main drivers for the Revolution of Dignity was rampant corruption in the government. How has the environment changed in the past three years?

Ukraine hasn’t got rid of corruption. But nowadays it is becoming much harder for corrupt politicians to avoid being caught and thus to avoid public scrutiny. We have eliminated censorship from the national TV broadcasters and now journalists’ investigations of top-level corruption are becoming one of the most popular genres to watch. We have established a number of new anti-corruption institutions and agencies which started to actively investigate the cases of potential corruption. When judicial reform is implemented, I believe it will be even harder to avoid legal consequences for corruption.

Another driver of the Revolution was a disagreement over trade with the European Union. Do you think open government initiatives can impact policymaking on issues of defense, trade, and national security?

Open government initiatives, first of all, enable the channels of information. When people learn about the possibilities that increased trade with the EU brings they express support for it through voting and civil activism. Same goes for defense or security issues. People can influence the policy when they are well-informed and can monitor the actions of the government. Transparency, openness and accountability of government are a great immunity package against propaganda of any kind.

Almost three years after the Russian invasion of Crimea, the Donbass is still a conflict zone. Do you think open government has a place in the peacemaking process?

The illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine in Donbass are, of course, military actions. But besides bringing in the Russian Army, the Kremlin has flooded the occupied territories with its media that is well known to be a megaphone of state propaganda. It would be very important for the Ukrainians who live under occupation to learn that, once they are liberated, they can enjoy the democratic mechanisms of control and involvement that were not available prior to 2014. After the occupied territories are liberated, there will be a massive amount of problems that Ukrainian authorities will need to solve for the citizens who lived under occupation. The well-established system of online databases and tools will be of enormous help to deal with such a stream of requests for administrative services.