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OGP as a Framework for Change: The Experience of Buenos Aires

OGP: Un Marco ara el Cambio: La Experiencia de Buenos Aires

Alvaro Herrero|

The launching of the Subnational Pioneer Pilot Program within OGP in early 2016 was a significant step forward in the global open government agenda. While born within countries, cities and local governments are especially well positioned to make open government values real, to bring governments closer to their citizens in relationships of transparency, trust and accountability.

For Buenos Aires, it was a great opportunity to highlight what we had been doing before then. We were a pioneer city in terms of freedom of information frameworks within Argentina, and the first to launch a comprehensive open data policy back in 2012. However, when we applied we also knew that getting in was going to be a powerful tool for change within the city.

As the reader probably knows – whether through personal experience, academic study or civil society engagement – change within complex organizations is inherently, well, complex. A change as fundamental as the one proposed by OGP is difficult to achieve. As freedom of information advocates know all too well, the changing of a bureaucratic culture takes time, effort, requires patience and a certain wit to push reform forward in a politically feasible manner.

This complexity requires providing agents of change within governments with certain tools.   Proximity to the head of government, for instance, is one of those resources which absence expresses itself in half-hearted measures and policies with limited reach and scope. Material resources – money, personnel – are also essential. Political savvy is harder to secure – but just as necessary. In this sense, being part of OGP Pilot Program serves to embody the political willingness of the Mayor to continue advancing towards an open and responsive government. At the same time, it provides a practical orientation to express reform initiatives in concrete commitments, while the co – governance structure proposes a new dynamic of collaboration with civil society.

Agents of change also need a story to tell. They need a framework in which to leverage the different things they want to achieve, bringing them together in a cohesive narrative. I am talking of symbolic resources. And OGP provides that, as the Buenos Aires experience which I am about to briefly share, shows.

Indeed, Buenos Aires had a story to tell in terms of open government, but being part of OGP brought many of those initiatives together. In that sense, it was in the OGP spirit that we were able to bring together the open data efforts with the citizen participation initiatives which were growing within the city government. OGP provided the excuse to engage areas of government previously untouched by open government values. They were able to think on new solutions to old problems from a new perspective.

Take, for instance, the engagement with the Health and Education Ministries. These are service providers, managing huge structures and resources. Open government is not an a priori priority: to deliver good health care services and an adequate education for 3 million citizens is the goal. However, open government can help solve public policy problems. In the case of education, the current state of infrastructure of schools is problematic. While there is an ambitious program of reform and maintenance, the public perception is that the government is not doing enough, and parents do not have an easy way to communicate concerns and needs to public officials. Hence, to map every single maintenance task being completed, and to establish a swift reporting mechanism for parents, is an open government initiative which provides a solution to a public policy problem.

Something similar happened in the case of the Health department. Women’s organizations, concerned about access to sexual and reproductive services, needed information to map out all the services the government provides in the city, and the government did not have set a complaint mechanism to report problems in delivering these particular services. The joining together of civil society organizations and public officials allowed the creation of a platform which receives government data, gathers service delivery quality reports, and feeds it back to public officials so they can take measures to improve responses.

Furthermore, when we looked at what we were doing from an open government standpoint, we realized that lots of agencies were doing open government without knowing so. They were practitioners without a framework. But frameworks are useful: they provide inspiration, they help to leverage reform efforts, and they help to build cross-agency bridges, without which change does not happen (or happens slowly and with less impact). Frameworks also help to boost change: they encourage hesitant agencies to join reform efforts, they help in creating trust across agencies in obvious, yet non-trivial ways (“everybody is doing it!”), and they usually provide stages where success can be shown.

The Buenos Aires experience is, we believe, a great case for showing how OGP can work as a framework for change. We are sure other cities can tell similar stories. It is a promising avenue for research, sharing of experiences, and deep reflection. Change is hard: it is easier when you are not alone.

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