How to Involve Civil Society in the OGP Initiative: Lessons from Ukraine

In Ukraine and throughout the nearby region, “facade democracy,” in which laws and governance appear to support and conform to universal democratic standards and reforms appear to take place yet repeatedly result in no real reform or change, is a common phenomenon. This was the political background in Ukraine when Ukraine joined the OGP initiative and committed to developing a quality national action plan. However, the Ukrainian delegation came to Brasilia with a national plan that received broad support from both civil society and the government, and more than 80 percent of which is based on the suggestions of civic experts. 

In the process of developing the national plan, Ukrainian civil society has learned several lessons, which may be useful to many of the OGP’s members.

Our first takeaway was the importance of compliance not only with the letter but the spirit of the OGP initiative. In Ukraine, every local and national government body also contains a civil council, and there are more than 600 of these councils in the country. Unfortunately, these councils are usually not very efficient and have limited expertise. When the Ukrainian government decided to hold national consultations on the OGP plan – to fulfill the requirement for civil society input – by means of these civic councils and scheduled the meetings for right around Christmas, we realized that the government wanted to conduct pseudo-consultations and avoid any serious critique. All of the 400 suggestions to the draft government plan from the civic councils were of a very general character, which allowed officials to choose the wordings that were most convenient for them. Based on these wordings, they would be able to develop a plan that would be both too general and at the same time favorable for the officials themselves. This action was opposed by a coalition of more than 60 active NGOs, which I headed and was supported by the Soros Foundation in Ukraine. We did everything possible to make the Ukrainian OGP plancomply with the spirit and standards of the OGP initiative.

This is where we learned our second lesson, about using the levers offered by the OGP as an international initiative. In the beginning of our negotiations with the government, we reminded ourselves of two mules facing each other on a bridge: simply unwilling to budge. The Ukrainian civic community could not support a draft national plan that did not reflect the real needs of the Ukrainian state, while the authorities did not want to take the civic community seriously, opining that it is always unsatisfied with something. Neither open letters to the President and Prime Minister signed by prominent civic activists, nor statements from international organizations on the necessity of open dialogue had an impact.  However, civil society can provide an alternative report on the development of the national action plan, and this report can greatly influence the final decision regarding the country’s plan. We made use of this. Our civic coalition, from a joint effort of the best Ukrainian experts developed an alternative national plan, which fully corresponds with the OGP requirements and began working to promote it. I will not get into details of all the difficulties of the four month-long advocacy campaign, but just note that the stronger the flame of public anger became, the faster the government revised its version of the national plan. The result is the current document signed by the Prime Minister of Ukraine, some 80 percent of which is comprised of the suggestions of our coalition.

Lastly, we found that developing a partnership with the government and providing useful resources made cooperation a win-win scenario. Establishing and maintaining an effective partnership with the government of Ukraine has always been important to us, and we kept the government informed about our work and did our best to assist with the implementation of the OGP initiative. Our civic coalition created a webpage, which we regularly updated with the information about our activities within the OGP framework at the national and local levels. We revised the civic version of the national plan three times. We created a network of regional consultants on the OGP initiative, and through the efforts of this network held consultations with more than 500 active organizations. The webpage of our coalition was more popular than the corresponding government resources. Moreover, local authorities learned how to hold consultations with citizens from members of the coalition. How did this help? In February of this past year, Ukrainian police shut down Ukraine’s most popular internet portal for music and movies for violating copyright laws. In retaliation, citizens launched attacks on government and police webpages over the course of a week, which disabled a number of sites, including the government webpage that served as the platform for discussing the draft national plan for the OGP. During this time, the civic coalition webpage served as the only accessible source of information on the OGP initiative. Moreover, when the government found itself running out of time to develop an action plan, it took the model produced by the civic coalition and used it as a basis. The present high-quality draft national plan was actually developed in only two weeks. It was adopted at a national round table moderated by the Prime Minister of Ukraine, which included the participation of around 150 prominent civic activists from throughout the country. The working group, which developed the draft national plan and was composed of representatives of both the government and the civic coalition, received the status of a permanent working group and will be responsible for the implementation of OGP initiative in Ukraine.

Our experiences working to develop Ukraine’s National Plan for the OGP, ultimately in cooperation with the government, demonstrate the benefits that such work can have for both parties. The government benefits substantively and financially from the work of civic experts, which is usually free, and boosts its international image and domestic reputation by collaborating with civil society. Civil society is able to make itself heard at the national level, and have direct input on policy. In Ukraine, our focus on openness and partnership as well as consistent advocacy was essential to the creation of our current National Action Plan.

Authors: Oleksii Khmara
Filed Under: Champions