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Civic engagement is at the heart of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). In signing the Open Government Declaration, OGP members commit to engaging citizens in the development, implementation, and monitoring of their National Action Plans. As OGP is nascent, we are still learning about how governments and civil society interact within its framework and how the interaction can be strengthened.

Last month, the report ‘From Informing to Empowering: Improving Government-Civil Society Interactions within OGP’ was published (Full report) (Policy brief). The report, commissioned by Hivos and carried out with a grant of the IDRC in Canada, looked at government-civil society interactions within 9 OGP member countries: Peru, Honduras, Chile, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Croatia, Romania, and Armenia. The central questions guiding the report are: How have governments in OGP participating countries interacted with civil society on matters related to OGP? And, what factors have been critical for success or failure?

Ultimately, the report found that there are several opportunities for improved citizen engagement within OGP countries. One of the mechanisms that works well and helps to empower civil society is the existence of a regular structure for OGP dialogue within a country. Croatia, which has an OGP Council that oversees the development and monitoring of its NAP serves as a good example. The key for success seems to have been the transparent selection of members; as well as the involvement of enthusiastic and proactive public servants, and expert CSO representatives working toward the same goals.

The report also shows that the NAP process also constitutes an effective mechanism for consultation, involvement, and empowerment. OGP helps to provide a framework for discussion between government and civil society, and standards are particularly clear around the development of NAPs. Standards are less clear, however, during the implementation of NAPs and some countries have struggled to determine how to continue the momentum of engagement established during NAP development.

While there are certainly opportunities for the empowerment of civil society, some significant challenges remain. The NAPs are a valuable tool; however, it is not uncommon for citizens generally, outside of formally constituted civil society organizations, to remain excluded from the NAP development and implementation. Moreover, open government commitments are often not readily accessible for laypersons; they tend to be too complex and technical.

Organized groups can also be left out of OGP related discussions at times, or are perhaps only engaged selectively. The case studies in Eurasia show that one of the main challenges is to broaden the participation beyond the narrow circle of CSOs that are currently involved in the OGP process, particularly to include locally based and smaller CSOs. Some of the problems related to the engagement of CSOs, and individual citizens more generally, point to a need to build capacity among civil servants to carry out effective and responsive consultations, both in face-to-face and in online settings. The types of capacities needed are communication, discussion, and analytical skills. It is especially important to build institutional memory in this area given the rather high staff turnover in government.

In addition, capacity building remains a challenge within civil society when it comes to specific OGP areas or processes. For example, in Croatia the government lacks discussion partners on commitments related to fiscal transparency and public procurement given that only a few organizations are working in these fields. The situation is similar in Tanzania where government has noted that only one CSO, Twaweza, has participated regularly when it comes to OGP.

Overall, the report indicates that OGP has been important for improving the dialogue between governments and civil society, both within and across the OGP countries. The OGP consultation requirements have brought civic engagement to the attention of the highest levels of government. At the same time, the number of CSOs involved in OGP is growing. Moreover, the dialogue between governments and civil society seems to be reinforced over time. A number of civil society actors interviewed believe that their governments have become more open and more willing to cooperate with civil society (specially because in all countries investigated the previous status quo of mechanism of participation for civil society and government interaction were very limited).

OGP has helped civil society to promote public policies in the field of transparency and access to information, and has proven especially useful as
 an advocacy instrument. The fact that OGP is an international instrument with many member countries puts pressure on governments to respect their commitments. That said, there are a number of steps that could be taken to maintain and enhance the momentum of improved citizen engagement within OGP countries.

On the basis of these findings, the report makes ten recommendations for improving government-civil society interactions around OGP:

  1. OGP should require its members to establish regular and institutionalized structures for civic engagement and dialogue
  2. OGP should strengthen its monitoring mechanisms for the engagement of civil society
  3. OGP should develop guidelines to ensure that suggestions from CSOs are considered in the OGP processes
  4. OGP should develop basic guidelines for OGP-related record keeping for governments
  5. OGP should provide support to encourage the translation of its guidelines into the official national languages in its member countries
  6. OGP should continue to grow its network of international partners as a means of enhancing awareness about OGP, and to continue to help building capacity in OGP countries
  7. OGP should strengthen connections between working groups and civil society in its member countries
  8. OGP should work to develop additional awareness raising material that can be used by governments and civil society actors to enhance participation in OGP within member countries
  9. OGP should maintain, or increase its regional and international forums for government and CSOs
  10. OGP should expand its website, particularly in the areas of ‘Resources’ and ‘How to Get Involved’ 

Photo credit: Courtesy Reuters

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