#OGPArgentina: Translating People’s Rights into Actions
Do citizens need to understand what open government is to benefit from it?
#OGPArgentina has just ended, which means that civil society representatives, government officials, and activists in-between from the Americas have returned home with fresh ideas and possibly, partnerships. For most the participants, the event was an opportunity to meet, discuss, exchange ideas, and share the best practices from different countries. While the professional learning is certainly a part of the agenda, do the experts also share ways to promote OGP in their countries?
As it turns out, not that much. “There is not a lot of OGP public awareness in the US, and it has been a challenge to broaden it,” says Jesse Franzblau, policy analyst at OpenTheGovernment, a coalition of organizations working on open government. “While the awareness increases on the federal level in the capital, where civil society groups know what it is, there is not much public awareness across the country,” he continues. His colleague Daniel Schuman agrees: “Americans are almost entirely unaware of the OGP. Although they understand the idea of the transparency as good, when it gets to the specifics of how open government works, they have no idea”. Schuman is a policy director at Demand Progress, which aims to protect human rights and bolster democracy in the US. Although it has around 2.5 million members around the country, it is still a very small amount of the population. “I would not expect more than a small fraction of Americans to have any idea of what OGP is,” Schuman continues, “But they do not need to because all civil society organizations involved in the process can help mobilize citizens to protect their underlying rights.”
Jesse Franzblau, OpenTheGovernment, USA
Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress, USA
While Schuman refers to the situation in the US, other American countries have similar challenges with open government understanding. Barbara Paes from Article19 in Brazil refers to the lack of knowledge of people’s rights among the country’s population. “Now, I am working on the way to connect access to information and women’s rights in Brazil, but we lack good data for making a relevant public policy,” she says. “The challenge is that women often do not know their sexual reproductive rights or how they can access the government and get out of violent situations.” Paes, who deals with access to information and transparency from a human rights perspective, says it is important to involve citizens in the decision-making process. This, however, remains a difficult task when there is such limited knowledge of OGP among ordinary citizens.
One of the major challenges to making open government understood is reluctancy among some officials to implement innovations at the local level. This, in turn, prevents city halls and other institutions from modernizing, opening their data, and applying digital tools for citizens to use. “I work for a city hall, and because of the very unconventional mayor, everything we do there is very old-fashioned,” says Mailen Garcia of Mar del Plata, Argentina. She hopes to use the #OGPArgentina experience to convince her superiors in city hall to use more open data and open government tools. This may be challenging as local governments are not required to follow the same commitments that national governments laid out in their OGP action plans.
There are some success stories in which cities implemented open government suggestions at the local level. A good example is Buenos Aires, this year’s host of Americas’ Regional Meeting: the city is moving toward more open data, digital tools, and better communication with the residents, giving locals of Buenos Aires more opportunities to decide on the city’s developments and benefit from the government’s openness. Similar cases have spread across the region, where officials are trying to apply the open government agenda in everyday work and involve experts to train staff.
The biggest change, however, can come from the civil society organizations, who run local meetups and spread the word to ordinary residents through hackathons, workshops, and trainings. “We should try to organize smaller events in our communities, like day-long gatherings with a certain focus,” says Andres Snitcofsky, a freelance graphic designer. Snitcofsky organizes data bootcamps, which connect journalists, activists, and authorities. They work together on open data projects; and some of those lead to investigative pieces, which shed light on corruption and go to the national news.
Snitcofsky suggests choosing a specific theme for the local gatherings in addition to bigger events like OGP’s international meetings. “During the elections, for example, we can work together on a single project,” Snitcofsky continues, “This could be more dynamic than the big events.” During the bootcamps he runs, the team of professionals selects the best projects and supports them with mentorship.
Different open government events could serve different purposes. While large OGP gatherings bring together experts already working in the field, local meetings can build small-scale promotion and involve active citizens, who can then benefit from the implemented commitments and push for more.