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From Mexico City with Love: Civil Society, Open Government and James Bond

Paul Maassen|

The opening scene of James Bond’s Spectre is one beautiful invitation to visit Mexico City – especially during the Dia de los Muertos. In the first scene it takes you back to the square in front of the Palacio de Mineria that hosted this year’s OGP Summit and Civil Society Day. A bit later James destroys the Fru Fru theatre – indeed, that mescal infused place where the OGP community let its hair down at the end of the summit. That party showed the spirit of OGP and underlined that there are reformers (and great dancers) both within government and civil society.

This year’s summit was kicked off with a civil society day that was attended by about 1000 civil society actors from close to 100 countries. Many new and familiar faces within the civil society community came together and made tremendous progress through constructive exchange of knowledge and experience on open government. A blog post cannot do justice to the rich debates, speeches, research launched and casual conversations that happened throughout the day. Let me pick up three important points that resonated with me.

●The big challenges Mexico – and other countries in the region – face when it comes to addressing the most critical governance and political issues they are confronted with. OGP is one of the platforms to push for change, but in itself it won’t be enough. I have come to know Mexican Civil Society as articulate, strategic, yet respectful. They use OGP as one of their tools – not more than that. Their artistic protest in front of Mineria was a demonstration of creative and powerful advocacy – an example for all of us.

●Erisa Lame (IDM Albania) emphasized the need to not only bring in more civil society but explicitly also widen the political spectrum. Not just bringing in parliament and additional ministries. What she said was that “working only with the governments is not enough. One approach would be to work with the opposition parties in parallel. If they absorb OGP principles in their political discourse when in opposition and when preparing their competing electoral programs, it will be much more natural for them to  continue with this approach when in government.“

●Aidan Eyakuze (Twaweza Tanzania) made the point that “OGP must move from the abstract to the concrete if it is to gain traction beyond the hallowed halls of central government and into the streets, boroughs and neighbourhoods where the people live and experience ‘government on the ground.’” Making OGP concrete and tangible in citizens’ everyday life came back in many of the conversations. For civil society organisations to stay engaged it needs to be a platform that works and delivers, not become a tick-the-box exercise. Erisa gave the example of Western Balkan governments recently embracing the idea – pitched by civil society (Zoran Ivancic) – to use OGP as a platform to address the refugee crisis. That fits as natural with OGP’s mission as fiscal transparency.

Together, we have achieved a lot in a short amount of time. In the past four years, we have been able to broaden the scope of OGP with more civil society actors getting involved every year. We’ve been able to put new issues like access to justice and sustainable development on the open government agenda while also deepening our impact by connecting strategically across issues and borders, for example on aid transparency or open data standards.

To learn more about how OGP is delivering for civil society, watch our video.

Despite such impressive progress, many challenges remain. Political corruption, the refugee crisis, attacks on civic space, and breaches of privacy are just some of the challenges that OGP civil society actors discussed at the summit. In a recent OGP survey, the vast majority of respondents reported that progress is needed on collaboration and trust-building between governments and civil society. All of these challenges transcend borders and bond us as a community. The great thing about a platform like OGP is that every country has something to learn and improve on and each one of us can be a leader and offer inspiration to others.

Collectively, we need to continue to strengthen the foundation of open government by broadening the base of actors, institutions and topics, especially to those that are currently underrepresented in OGP. We also need to continue our work in deepening engagement between government and civil society and create regular, institutionalized structures for civic engagement and open dialogue. And finally, as a community, we need to put more pressure  on government to create and improve enabling environments for civil society and push for new spaces for public participation.

At a recent OGP conference in Albania, panelists were asked if they ‘speak Open Government’. As members of civil society, we must all ask ourselves this question. Much like learning a new language, you need to understand more than its semantics and structure. To be truly fluent in a language, you need to understand the informal rules and finesse of a language. These rules also apply to our work in promoting open government. OGP is about changing the culture of government not merely passing laws and policies and ticking boxes. A truly open government creates a culture where both civil society and government actors speak the language of open government fluently and are able to engage in meaningful dialogue. A real ongoing dialogue between governments and civil society is key to making the P in OGP a reality.

Changing societies is hard work. It requires challenging government at both the political and personal level. This is our job as civil society members. To do so, we need to teach more people to speak the language of open government with such a fluency that it resonates with the priorities of society at large. I recognize that this is a daily struggle for civil society and I praise your efforts and commitment.

Coming back to James Bond. Like me, one of your strongest memories must be of the farewell party, mezcal infused, at the Fru Fru theatre. You got lucky there – the Fru Fru I hear is the building that get’s destroyed in the opening scene.

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