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Lessons We Are Still Learning: Discussion Points for Ottawa

Nathaniel Heller|

To say that the past several months have been an interesting period in open government, in particular OGP, is an understatement. I’ve been intending to put pen to paper to share updates with the OGP civil society community but every time I try, a new mini-crisis or major development has forced me to pause. I’m glad I did. I’m beginning to appreciate that we’re in the midst of a fascinating period of learning that sheds important light on where and how civil society can and should drive open government reforms in countries.

By pure coincidence, many of these lessons are playing out in real time in North America, specifically Canada, the US, and Mexico. Closely interrogating our assumptions in all three cases offers up important insights moving forward, at both tactical and strategic levels.  These lessons must be discussed openly within the Steering Committee and within the larger community at the Ottawa Summit.

One:  “Shrinking” civic space is neither permanent, predictable…or easily affected by civil society actors alone.  At the last Steering Committee meeting (full minutes from these meetings can be found here) we participated in a fascinating interactive discussion with leading democracy scholar Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thomas’s primary message to the Steering Committee: yes, there are concerns about civic space shrinking in countries, but if you step back and look at the actual numbers and trends, things are actually no worse than they were several years ago. What’s changed, however, is that authoritarian regimes now feel more emboldened to publicly boast of their disdain for democratic governance rather than hide it away.  

In that vein, we issued a statement of concern over the government of Tanzania confiscating the passport of our Steering Committee colleague Aidan Eyakuze and refusing to let him travel outside of the country, including to our meetings.

For better or for worse, it’s government that can undermine or rescue civic space more quickly than any other actor in a governance ecosystem. Things are increasingly a mess on that front in the US, but that will eventually change when another president sits in the White House. In Mexico, despite massive scandal and both domestic and international outrage, a change in administration and elections has finally prompted a shift. Recently, civil society and government leaders in Mexico announced the formal renewal of the OGP co-creation process in this statement.  While civil society champions can and should defend civic space as much as possible in any context, we need to calibrate our expectations appropriately. Without some degree of partnership and willingness from government, it’s challenging to simply shout or pressure our way to expanding civic space. When there isn’t meaningful partnership from government (and/or outright hostility towards civil society), playing defense and simply minimizing the damage may be our least-bad approach, as frustrating as that can be.

Two:  Is a terrible OGP National Action Plan (NAP) better than no NAP?  It’s a thorny question with no easy answers. I’ve been in the “no NAP” camp since 2017 and remain there, but this is an important topic as OGP moves forward with asking key questions as the Trump administration released a long-delayed 4th OGP National Action Plan. As predicted by domestic observers in the US, the plan was largely an embarrassment from a substantive perspective, including little more than a number of preexisting digital government programs and remaining entirely silent on the truly pressing open government challenges in the US: the erosion of democratic norms, significant conflicts of interest and ethics violations in the executive branch, and outright hostility towards the media. There was also no meaningful co-creation that went into developing the plan, and OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism will undoubtedly render a severe judgment on both the quality of the plan as well as the non-existent process that went into publishing it. For a full autopsy of the plan, check out Alex Howard’s excellent summary and critique of the 4th US NAP.

Conversely, there was cheerleading and celebration of the plan’s publication by former Obama-era open government boosters. Those friends prioritize maintaining political space for mid-level reformers in the bureaucracy to quietly continue their open government work, something that potentially could have been threatened had the US continued to violate OGP’s requirements for publishing a new NAP. Former White House officials Cori Zarek and Mary Beth Goodman offer that alternative perspective here on Medium.

Three:  The short and long-term game.   If you’ve been missing the political drama and intrigue in Ottawa, I recommend The Guardian’s recap of events.  An outcome of this has been the resignation of my most recent ministerial counterpart at the Treasury Board, Jane Philpott (and welcome, Minister Joyce, to the circus!).  She resigned out of solidarity with the former Attorney General, citing her belief that the Trudeau administration had in fact gone too far in pressuring her Cabinet colleague to drop an anti-corruption investigation into a Quebecoise firm, the potential fallout from which (cynics allege) could have cost Labor at the polls this fall.

This sounds like a truism, but like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown time and again, it’s a hard lesson that civil society leaders (including myself!) need to take more seriously – it’s really hard to trust politicians of any ideology to carry the torch of open government for an extended period.  Presidents and ministers come and go; open government reforms and norm changes take many years (if not generations) to fully implement and cement into place. Our strategies and tactics need to reflect that reality and not be limited solely to short-term sprints around summits or OGP NAPs. If we’re serious about “thinking and working politically” and problem-driven approaches to opening up government, we need to be thinking in five to ten-year chunks of time, not 12-month projects and advocacy goals. That doesn’t mean there aren’t important short-term battles to win or opportunities to seize, but those need to be complemented by a longer-term and more flexible approach to building and maintaining momentum over the medium- and long-term.

Four:  The OGP Local Program is really, really important. At the Steering Committee meeting in December, we debated and failed to reach consensus on expanding the OGP Local Program as it is currently structured. We’ve tasked the OGP Support Unit to explore alternative models that could potentially scale more easily.  If nothing else, these past few months of political whipsawing in Mexico City, Washington, and Ottawa have reinforced the central importance of OGP deepening its roots at the subnational level. Despite the mess on open government associated with the Trump administration in the US on a national level, there’s amazing work going on in Austin, Texas, a founding “Pioneer” of the OGP Local Program. The same goes for the state of Jalisco in Mexico. While it’s challenging and expensive at times to continue investing in local participants in OGP (there are coordination challenges with national governments and a justified anxiety around the potential cost of continuing the scale the OGP Local Program indefinitely), I take solace in knowing that we are helping to support reformers in these countries, even if their national counterparts are going a bit sideways on open government. These strategic hedges are well worth the investment, in my view. I’m looking forward to celebrating their successes in Ottawa while we simultaneously tee up decisions before the Steering Committee regarding how quickly and ambitiously to take the OGP Local Program forward in 2019 and 2020.

Five: “Citizens” still matter.  There might be no worse intellectual crutch in open government than the banal invocation of a homogeneous blob of “citizens” being the answer to all of our ills. We’re going to spend lots of time in Ottawa as a community unpacking how gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and sexual orientation matter massively for designing and implementing more inclusive and equitable open government reforms that truly meet communities and people where they are. That critique aside, it remains true that open government has always been about empowering citizen voice and creating space in government systems for individuals and communities to have a say in both the design and execution of public service programs. So even when our leaders fail us, we shouldn’t despair: it’s always been up to us to make open government work. Now more than ever, we need to fill those political vacuums with renewed energy and creativity from youth leaders, strong and courageous women, indigenous communities, and LGBTQ+ champions. The new photo-op for OGP moving forward may no longer be an array of (usually male) political leaders dressed in suits standing in front of national flags, but instead a far richer and more diverse constellation of youth activists, mayors, women’s rights champions, and traditional leaders. I can’t wait to see that photo in Ottawa in May!

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