OGP Needs To Strengthen Citizen Engagement With Civil Groups and Governments

OGP lobbies for more inclusiveness on both the governmental and social level; yet how does an initiative this big ensures it stays inclusive itself?

The challenge begins with uniting various groups working on different themes, and ends with involving the least represented groups. Besides encouraging the most vulnerable to participate, OGP needs to bring them into its own decision-making processes.

“OGP has a great asset in terms of incorporating governments into the conversation; for many years, civil society organizations have been apart from the governments, and now we are together,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International, and a member of OGP Steering Committee. She continued, “Still, is this a space for civil society organizations or citizens?” OGP should focus more on involving new people who have not been active in OGP before, especially those who are most frequently silenced.

The transformation can be done only by involving underreported groups in OGP, while using the existing civil society tools for monitoring public policy delivery. “We should incorporate citizens, who are the ones receiving policy results, into the monitoring processes,” Ferreira Rubio said. “They can act as third parties monitoring not only how we design policies, but implement them and transform realities. We need to bridge the gap between commitment and compliance.”

When incorporating citizens, OGP groups often face pressure from governments, especially in societies with shrinking civic space. Pressure on NGOs varies from country to country, but there is a growing negative tendency around the globe. Instead of replying to the governments with equal criticism, activists can choose a different approach, believes Sandor Lederer, director at K-Monitor and an Obama Foundation Fellow. “We have to be always proactive and never reactive,” he said. “It is important to raise the issues we find important.” Based in Hungary, Lederer’s organization fights against corruption; it is a grassroots NGO that helps smaller groups get active and make an impact.

“In many countries, civil society follows what the government is doing; we are responding by protesting. In Hungary, the government always finds ways to talk about foreign NGOs and how they are not transparent instead of talking about the real problems the country is facing,” Lederer continued. This way, the officials distract citizens from issues related to education, equality, and so on. “Attacks on NGOs create artificial enemies, so we need to understand how to reverse this discussion and talk about real issues,” he concluded. An effective way is by constructing a civil society agenda and promoting it through different channels, so the government has to respond to the people’s demands.

Lobbying is another tool, believes Martin Tisne, Investment Partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm which supports groups based on their social impact. The organization makes a difference by funding, but also through advocating for different issues that shape civic space. “We help NGOs grow inside and support human capital, so organizations can develop over the years,” he said. Having external supporters – not dependent on governmental and private sector money – is an essential tool for many OGP-related initiatives struggling with resources.

OGP groups also face the challenge of communicating their objectives to officials. “Many governments believe that opengov is a synonym [for] open data, and it is enough to have websites with some information to fulfill these aims,” Ferreira Rubio said. Numbers alone, however, do little for citizens’ engagement, or society as a whole, because few people can read or make use of them. “OGP needs data for participation of real citizens in deciding public policies and monitoring their implementation; we need to transform formal commitments into real actions.”

Finally, despite the challenges, OGP provides activists and curious citizens with a platform to work together. “OGP is a big community; it’s not only about action plans, but about individuals committed to openness,” said Lederer. Ferreira Rubio agreed. “We have to work together and defend together the voice of civil society, activists, and journalists. The more successful we are in our work, the more prone the governments are to restrict the space for civil society and investigative journalists.” She pointed out the existing connection between corruption, shrinking civic space, and attacks on investigative journalists.

“The work for transparency is also the work for democracy, rule of law, respect of people’s freedoms, and access to information,” she concluded.

Authors: Anna Romandash