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Open Government: A Platform for Access to Justice

Paul Maassen|

When people think of open government, they frequently think of open data, transparency, and anti-corruption – not necessarily a fair and responsible justice system. However, open government approaches are increasingly being used around the world to improve access to justice mechanisms. Further, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Goal 16 commits countries ‘to promote peaceful, inclusive societies for sustainable development, to provide access to justice for all and to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Efforts to ensure that legal frameworks and systems work for all are becoming a key area for OGP countries, as part of the larger OGP movement of reformers in government and civil society who want to make institutions and processes of government more transparent, more accountable, and more accessible and responsive to all citizens.

As civil society is well aware, we need to use every tool we have at our disposal to get results. The three examples below are stories from OGP countries where government and civil society have used OGP to further their efforts to improve access to justice. These stories touch on the issue writ large: legal empowerment, ensuring a voice for marginal communities and delivery of legal rights for all, expanding access to institutional structures and systems, and streamlining law enforcement and public accountability.

Costa Rica: From isolation to access to channels of decision-making

Indigenous populations form 2% of the Costa Rican population – and are largely centred in an isolated, rural area. Language barriers, geographic isolation, lack of resources, and most importantly – being excluded from decision-making that directly affects them – have made them one of the most underrepresented and underserved populations in the region. While they had the right to be consulted on projects that affect them on paper, this right – recognized by international conventions signed by Costa Rica – had historically been overlooked by subsequent governments.

To rectify the long-running issue, a dialogue between the government and an association of indigenous territories was included as one of several commitments in Costa Rica’s OGP National Action Plan. This spurred a conversation on what such a consultation mechanism would look like. Costa Rica had signed the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention that mandates a “free, informed and timely” consultation mechanism. It took 23 years – and less than year after making the OGP commitment – for a consultation mechanism for indigenous groups to finally get off the ground. It is important to remember that the outcome wasn’t just the creation of this mechanism, but the stark improvement in public service delivery that the region saw after the communities were consulted – in areas of health, housing, and water, among others. Read more about the story here.

South Africa: Institutionalizing legal support at the community level

In South Africa, the government opened Community Advisory Offices to ensure access of legal services at the grassroots, community level. Unfortunately, the offices haven’t always had the requisite resources to keep their work scalable and sustainable, and often don’t get the institutional recognition to be able to work at scale. Civil society colleagues in South Africa happened to be at a meeting where they heard about OGP, and decided to test out the OGP platform back home.

Upon returning to their country, they discovered that the NAP consultation process was underway. They heavily engaged with government and civil society colleagues working on it and got a commitment added that provided for the institutionalisation of these Community Advice Offices as part of the wider Justice network. This would help ensure that the advice offices are a permanent feature at the grassroots level, that the necessary resources they need would be available, and that the skills that the officers would need to be equipped with to further advocacy, communications, and policy work would be provided in a timely and focused manner. Institutionalizing the sector would be a step forward in recognizing it through a legal framework.

The work of civil society doesn’t always end at advocacy. Often, the expertise of civil society is what governments rely on to implement and scale programs, and to ensure it reaches the right communities. South Africa is currently implementing its commitment, and how successful it is will depend on resources, technical expertise and political will – but also rely on successful collaboration with civil society. Read more on commitment 5 in South Africa’s NAP here.

Indonesia: Police reform and transparency

We often think of access to justice issues as those that are related to the larger justice system, but often citizens find themselves in bureaucratic mazes that plague the day to day regulatory mechanisms that they need to engage with. Citizens in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia faced daily harassment as well as high financial and opportunity costs from interactions with police. The country lacked systems that provided even the basic services in law enforcement, including traffic charges and violations. There was a lack of transparency as to the function and mandate of local law enforcement officials.

Working together, the Indonesian government and civil society added a commitment on police reform to the NAP. The commitment sought to promote transparency, accountability, and public responsiveness in the police and public prosecution service. It provided the mandate to publish information at the officer level, as well as the fees and costs for different violations and services.

Most of us have lived in countries where citizens are made to go through an institutional maze in order for there to be recourse or grievance redressal when their rights are violated or not fulfilled. In many places, interfacing with legal and law enforcement institutions is often rather painful for citizens, and they are left open to harassment. This commitment puts traffic violations and information online and streamlines the information for the average citizen. Read more about this OGP commitment here and here.

Enabling context-specific reform: the OGP platform

What’s the common thread in these stories? The OGP platform allowed for progress to be made in seemingly intractable issues that had plagued populations for, in some cases, decades. Rather than being the bandage over the wound, OGP offered a solution using a co-creative process that made use of resources and individuals already working on the problem.

Each of these stories provided a very different entry point on access to justice – from a more rights-based/inclusion discourse in Costa Rica, to setting up systems to expand access to justice in South Africa, to ensuring that rule of law and enforcement institutions work transparently for all citizens – without harassment or loss – as in the case of Indonesia. The ask is purely defined by civil society and government in partnership in every country.

As we saw from the South Africa story, OGP helps put civil society at the heart of the policymaking process. Civil society demands are elevated as priorities on the policy agenda of senior leadership in the government.

In Costa Rica, OGP helps advance the spirit of Goal 16 of the SDGs through the OGP process, but also in the commitments made – providing marginalized communities a voice and participation in designing policies that affect them.

Most importantly, OGP served as an accelerator or catalyst that opened up a window to push for broader reform in both Indonesia and Costa Rica. OGP involvement produced concrete results on conversations and promises that had been going for years, even in other international forums.

Moreover, OGP’s in-built accountability mechanism and ongoing tracking of commitment data help ensure that advocacy does not come to a dead end. Data and the delivery thereof are key to OGP’s process and vision. It assures time-bound results, is not a black box where advocacy concerns go in but aren’t addressed. Where implementation has not gone as well as hoped, the data provides clues to where the gaps where.

Open government and access to justice advocates can find allies in each other. Access to justice is about responsible government and ensuring the protection of rights and channels of citizens to engage with the state. Globally, lack of access to resources, public service delivery, and even security and justice are core to the vision and objectives of OGP. Civil society partners that work on these issues thus become important partners for OGP –  to promote such efforts for rights-based empowerment, justice, protection, and community participation through OGP National Action Plans. We invite you to work with us in OGP countries to collectively work towards shared goals on access to justice.

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