Getting out of the comfort zone to co-create: Lessons from Buenos Aires
During last month’s Americas Regional Meeting, the civil society organizations that make up the open government board, both at the national level in Argentina and at the subnational level in Buenos Aires, showed their ability to challenge, inconvenience, and put pressure on the government. At the opening of the event, Dalile Antunez, co-director of Asociacion Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), stated that designating the people’s advocate “behind the citizenry’s back” was a violation of the principles of open government – while he was on the stage with Argentina’s vice president, Gabriela Michetti. On that same note, representatives from Mexican civil society organizations distributed cards that simulated a system error as a way to represent the challenge of making progress in open government reforms when civic space is shrunk. Co-creating means to get out of the comfort zone: both for governments, and for civil society organizations. However, once that has been achieved, better opportunities will arise for achieving ambitious, yet feasible commitments, implementing legitimate reforms, and strengthening accountability processes.
Methodology and definition of co-creation standards as an investment
The City of Buenos Aires is currently completing the implementation of its first open government action plan. Following a nearly three-month process – “too much!” according to certain representatives from the government and civil society organizations – both parties reached an agreement in terms of the governance methodology and process to create and consult on the action plan. As a result, they established a task force where representatives from the government and from civil society organization had equal decision making-power for the development and implementation of the action plan. This equality, the definition of a clear and precise methodology, and the fact that the government created a virtual repository to save the meeting minutes and working documents was an investment, rather than a waste of time. The action plan made progress beyond open data, and fostered reporting mechanisms that address specific issues that affect the citizens of Buenos Aires, such as lack of information about public works in schools and equal access to public services in terms of sexual and reproductive health.
From co-creation to co-implementation
Three of the five commitments put forward by the City of Buenos Aires have potentially transformative impact, meaning that they have the ability to bring about real change in the lives of citizens and make progress in opening up the government practice. Interestingly, these commitments are those that included civil society organizations as implementing agents. Here, the government was not the only body responsible for the commitments’ implementation – civil society organizations were invited to participate in their implementation and monitoring as well. In one case, the Buenos Aires government worked in collaboration with Fundacion Huesped, a civil society organization, in the design and implementation of a virtual platform. This platform allows citizens to locate health centers to get condoms, identify infection centers, know where to take HIV tests, and pinpoints the location of nearby health centers where one can get support in terms of reproductive and sexual health. The platform also allows citizens to rate the services of each center, so the government can take action in case of low stocks or in the event of discrimination practices, which were among the issues that sparked the need to establish this commitment.
Remaining (and regional!) challenges
Including civil society organizations in the co-creation and co-implementation of commitments leads to both challenges and opportunities. Having government representatives debate with civil society organizations is not always easy, and requires coordinating skills and political will from the points of contact. Particularly in Buenos Aires, the ability of civil society organizations to insist, challenge, build and collaborate from their expertise and knowledge contributed to the creation of a comprehensive and ambitious action plan. However, there still are challenges to address: not only with regards to the commitments, and the aggravated lack of information in some branches of the government (such as the legislature and judiciary), but with the need to include additional stakeholders, beyond the usual suspects: non-organized civil society, unions, minorities, academia, and the private sector. To widen the support base of open government reformers requires going beyond the minimum set by the co-creation standards – to specify an approach for joint decision-making and equal distribution of duties, taking into account the feasibility of commitments, and the capacity and resources of stakeholders. Getting out of the comfort zone means taking a leap, and for civil society and government stakeholders to take on the challenges to come.