Making the Case for OGP's Subnational Push

At the recent Open Government Partnership summit in Mexico City, the OGP steering committee endorsed a new pilot program to bring subnational governments into the Partnership via an experimental two-year pilot program. As OGP steering committee members Manish Bapna, the government of Mexico, Martin Tisne, and I have written and discussed in multiple fora during the past several months, the rationale for OGP “going local” seems obvious and exciting to us: it will help to surface new open government innovations, it offers an opportunity to build in more subnational commitments to OGP National Action Plans (NAPs) on issues that affect people’s lives (something that is already happening in several countries), and it provides a global platform on which local reformers in and outside of subnational governments can showcase their work and network with each other. We’re also excited by the potential to identify up and coming open government champions in many countries, some of whom could serve as future leaders for OGP itself.

At one of our summit sessions seeking input to the pilot program, Steven Adler of IBM, a leading thinker and do-er on open data, voiced some constructive critiques of our desire to “go local” and pushed us to rethink OGP’s value proposition vis a vis local and subnational governments. Following some Twitter debates and an attempt by Steve and I to co-draft a single blog post arguing both sides of the debate, Steve penned a long critique of the subnational pilot (and OGP generally) which is worth a read. In (partial) response, I wanted to share my initial arguments and encourage others to chime in. My thoughts below are limited largely to the debates around the subnational pilot program; acting OGP Executive Director Joe Powell has offered some compelling retorts to the other structural issues Steve has raised.

OGP’s Value Proposition to Subnational Governments

Steve has raised excellent points about the need to sharpen OGP’s value proposition vis a vis subnational governments. I agree that we can’t assume that working towards more subnational open government commitments in NAPs is a sufficient “carrot” to entice subnational leaders to engage in OGP. What we know from experience, however, is that the “club” effect of OGP can be very real and very powerful (despite the existence of other “clubs” for subnational political and civil society leaders, discussed separately below). Open government as a way of reimagining public service and the social compact is part of the zeitgeist, I would argue, and taps into something visceral in many reformers’ hearts and minds in a way that smart cities and open data often don’t. It’s part of the reason why OGP has benefited from such consistent political engagement and support from ministers and heads of state and government from its earliest days – we’ve been able to tap into a real thirst for connecting with other reformers who are pushing similarly difficult transformation agenda, and we’re betting that we can do it again at the subnational level.

The Worry of the Distraction Effect

Steve has argued that OGP “going local” will be a distraction to an initiative that is (correctly) focused on how to support governments and civil society in improving the rate of implementation of open government reforms committed to at the national level. “Fix the national first” is how I’d paraphrase Steve’s critique, and it certainly holds some water. We on the steering committee are also concerned with not overstretching ourselves or allowing the “shiny new thing” of the OGP subnational pilot program to distract governments from fulfilling their commitments at the national level.

My counter argument is that the reason OGP countries often struggle to gain more permanent traction at the national level is precisely because we have historically ignored the local (with a few exceptions). People don’t care about “open government;” they care about their kids being able to walk to school safely, accessing clean water, enjoying economic opportunity, and benefiting from health services that don’t discriminate based on your income level or class. The only way to tap into that broader public support – support that would drive sharper, more useful NAP commitments that stand a better chance of being implemented in real-life – is to layer in more local and subnational commitments to National Action Plans. To take a hypothetical example: NAP commitments around open data at a national level are fine and good, but unless we begin to demonstrate how those commitments drive local job creation or improved public transport in places where people actually live and work, don’t expect OGP national governments to suddenly jump in their rate of implementation. I believe that the only way we’ll achieve that jump is to replenish NAPs over time with more actionable commitments that are relevant to people’s lives, and that means “going subnational.”

On whether the world needs another club for cities

Steve correctly flags that there currently exist many other clubs and networks of subnational governments and cities on adjacent topics such as “smart cities,” “urban innovation,” and “resilient cities” just to name a few. He’s absolutely right. But why did national governments, for whom there are literally thousands of possible international clubs to join on issues adjacent to open government, gravitate so quickly to OGP despite the crowded landscape? I believe it’s because: a) OGP is, on average, less of a talk shop and more practically useful to individual reformers in and outside of government; b) no network had yet focused on open government as the primary theme, and c) OGP’s unique co-governance structure between civil society and government offered a refreshing change of pace and set of operational opportunities relative to the typical donor- or government-driven global networks. I’m comfortable making a bet that the same thing will happen when OGP opens its doors to subnational governments, despite the vibrant marketplace of clubs.

Authors: Nathaniel Heller