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OGP Process in Sierra Leone: Engaging in mutually respectful manner and Finding a common ground to actualise the reforms we need

Marcella Samba-Sesay|

Successive Governments in Sierra Leone as part of its democratic renewals and post-conflict reform processes have made considerable efforts toward inclusive participation of Civil Society (CS) in governance. Additionally, the leadership of Ernest Bai Koroma instituted the Open Government Initiative (OGI) to close the feedback loop between government and citizens through timely ‘information free-flow’. Government has also made efforts for CS representation in committees, projects and commissions. Despite these collaborative efforts, relationships between CSOs and government have been clouded by mistrust and mostly centred on the ‘we against you’ syndrome. Within such circumstances there were limited avenues to actualise systemic changes and institutional reforms badly needed as a country. Rebuilding, nurturing and sustaining it reforms within such relationships and interactions become problematic.

Arguably, both civil society and government have common interests of reform and transformation; establishing a genuine platform to actualise ‘our common interest’ is the gap the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process has sought to fill. The piece critically examines the Establishment of the OGP, in Sierra Leone, the Process towards the development of the first ever National Action Plan  (NAP) and highlights a number of lessons for other countries wanting to go through such opaque but well-meaning partnership process.

Agenda Setting: Getting it right at the start

What today is an ambitious and well-deserving OGP Process in Sierra Leone started with doubts and intense pressure between CS and Government. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working on Governance reform were determined to push the age old reform agenda around extractive transparency, access to information and public integrity in governance among others. CS saw the OGP process as a welcoming opportunity for accelerating such reforms and making the government more responsive and accountable to citizens’ demands. CSOs were thus quick to proactively occupy the space.  A CGG team proceeded to engage the OGI Director and her team to be a part of the OGP process as CGG has been undertaking initial CSO engagement on understanding the OGP process and CS role through the AccessSL initiative in partnership with Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI).

Eventually, CGG and SDI were then invited to be part of the Steering Committee. During the first Steering Committee meeting only 10 CSOs were to be involved alongside with 10 MDAs As, CSOs knowing the ideals that the OGP espouses and the value of claiming the space at an early stage of the process, both CGG and SDI were quick to realise that a properly constituted Steering Committee is the starting point for actualising results. More importantly, the OGP membership criteria include fiscal transparency, income and asset disclosure, access to information and citizen’s engagement. Civil society organizations in Sierra Leone believe that the OGP membership process will become a tool in our fight against corruption, and will serve as a benchmark for opening governmental spaces for effective resource management and service delivery. CGG and SDI pushed for the broadening of the membership to include but not limited to organisations known and advocating on issues around the grand challenges which will form the basis of consultation and eventual development and design of the NAP. An additional 7 CSOs were incorporated taking the Steering Committee to 17 from CS and 17 from government to balance the representation.

Part of the agenda setting process was the willingness of government to reasonably relinquish the space the CS have claimed without eroding Government’s leadership. In the diction of Khadijah Sesay the director of OGI/OGP’ our role is not to micro manage the process’. In essence the question was around how government and civil society could leverage the OGP process as a platform to foster open governance was directly emphasized.

The Road to the OGP and Developing the First National Action Plan in Record Time

The OGP in Sierra Leone has thrived on a highly consultative process inclusive of religious and traditional leaders, Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAS), CS, media and community groups. Sierra Leone’s road to OGP membership started with President Ernest Koroma announcing in February 2014 that the Open Government Initiative (OGI) and the Millennium Challenge Coordinating Unit (MCCU) would be the twin coordinating agencies of the OGP process. A group of 17 government and 17 CSOs were to serve in the Steering Committee with the initial task of creating a NAP for Sierra Leone’s OGP process. The committee is headed by a civil society representative from the interreligious council in the person of Canon Adjai Nicol.

The process of creating the NAP has been intensive; the Steering Committee held weekly meetings since the beginning of March 2014 to April 2014. The process stated with sensitization before consultation, an approach which became an innovation in the OGP process. The Steering Committee agreed that the NAP should address three of the OGP’s grand challenges: increasing public integrity, more effective management of public resources, and improving corporate accountability. After a nationwide consultation held in all 14 districts, the challenge of improving service delivery was demanded for by citizens. Diaspora Consultations were also done in US, Belgium and UK taking cognisance of the migration nature of Sierra Leoneans and recognising their keen interests in the development of the country. The first NAP in Sierra Leone speaks to 11 bold commitments. Among the core commitments our NAP makes are: developing a public integrity policy; increasing visibility of performance contracts; performing subsequent assessments of key government institutions; and operationalizing the single treasury account by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development to improve accountability and management of government accounts. Instituting a culture of delivery and meeting stipulated timelines helped in producing a draft NAP in eight weeks. Sierra Leone endorsed a draft National Action Plan (NAP) for OGP in a ceremony led by President Ernest Bai Koroma having the political buy-in from the highest authority of the state. More than 300 government officials, paramount chiefs, civil society leaders, women and youth groups, and the general public attended the ceremony.

Building Trust and Confidence in CS/Government Partnership

In a situation where government and CSOs were critical of each other finding a common ground to genuinely engage was never smooth. Coming to the realisation that both government and CS were part of the solution and not the problem became a reassuring starting point. The problem was systemic decadence that fuel corruption which needed to be changed. Each party began to see the OGP process as the starting point of permanent consultation platform. It became clearer that CSOs now have a sit at the table and not a one off consultation.

Conflict resolution mechanisms were quickly instituted to quell the tensions building. In the words of a lead Government Official attached to the OGP Amadu Massally ‘let’s proceed for love of country’ he would implore this ultimately became the slogan during the action planning process and a way of resolving any contentious issue that warrants intense arguments. The OGP process is no longer about government improving communications with CSOs but CSOs and Government working together stimulating dialogue and instituting reforms. The engagement has now transformed CS view from a parochial to a participatory culture we now have the space to push for legal and institutional policies, demand accountability and help citizens’ access information using ICT friendly opportunities. The first ever Open Data Portal as a national registry was launched in May actualising commitment 11 of the NAP.

Engaging in a mutually respectful manner through clear Rules of Engagement

It was agreed that a Permanent consultation forum between Government and Civil Society be established taking the form of a hybrid approach. First, the general forum through Monthly Meetings held on the 26th of every month. This was instituted after the submission of the NAP to benchmark on progress. Next the smaller forum in which a government and CS focal point was to lead each cluster of the grand Challenge covering the commitments of the NAP. Through this model key actors keep the dialogue going and follow-ups made through sectoral interests in line with the commitments in the NAP. The media is also represented at each Steering Committee meeting to report on key outcomes and progress on the NAP. The OGI and MCCU give administrative and technical support, whilst the steering committee make and execute major decisions. The Sierra Leone model could best be described as a multi-stakeholders Consultation Platform for dialogue scrutiny and action.

In addition, appointed documentation as a critical mass of evidence in the process is a success story for the Sierra Leone OGP process. Reports photos presentations meeting agendas and minutes are available for quick reference and learning.

Accountability through an established Monitoring Framework

An established monitoring framework is in place in at the end of each quarter starting from 2015, the Performance Management and Service Delivery Unit in the Office of the President drafts an evaluation report on the implementation of the NAP. A 7 day Quarterly national consultation process is held on the implementation of the OGP NAP as a way of closing the feedback loop with citizens, thus legitimizing the process. The Steering Committee then takes the real status report to all 14 districts making sure citizens are aware of the progress on the NAP. This arrangement helps in addressing the question of discretional transparency.

It is important to point out that in striving to ensure genuine partnership CS did not forget its traditional role of checks and balances. The CS groups in the steering committee instituted a Parallel Monitoring and Evaluation Process of the NAP having a well-designed tool to collect and verify data emerging from MDAs. In essence the OGP process now gives CSOs the legitimacy to question from within. More importantly it is a way of addressing the misnomer that a permanent consultation forum of CSOs and government like the OGP is a tactic for government to manage difficult CSOs. 

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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