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Open government: after London’s OGP13, there’s still plenty more to do

Jane Dudman|

This article originally appeared on the Guardian Public Leaders Network: Open Government 2013.

The London summit of Open Government Partnership produced some plans and a lot of talk – now it’s time to get to work.

It took a quietly-spoken, sari-clad, elderly Indian woman to ask the most pertinent question about open government.

At the end of a week in which politicians and civil society organisations from around the world gathered in London to discuss every aspect of more open, accountable government, from datasets to budgets, experienced human rights campaigner Aruna Roy asked the question everyone was thinking.

Sitting on the huge stage of the Open Government Partnership London conference, beside UK foreign minister William Hague and beneath the face of US secretary of state John Kerrybeamed in by videolink from the US State Department, like Big Brother, Roy waited until almost the last moment of the session to ask Kerry one final question:

“There’s more transparency in governments, there’s more accountability,” she said. “And at the same time, there are more restrictive laws being passed by all governments today than ever before and there is an attempt at surveillance by my government and your governments. Why is this happening?”

Kerry’s answer – in which he defended the motives of US intelligence agencies, insisting no-one innocent was being abused and that surveillance by several countries had prevented many terrorist plots, but acknowledged that trust needed to be restored and that surveillance had, in some cases, gone too far – made front page news.

Roy’s question went down very badly with the State department, which doesn’t like to go off-script, but was a perfect example of exactly why the OGP’s time has come. More transparency is uncomfortable for some very powerful vested interests around the world. Many governments and powerful commercial interests don’t want you to know what they are doing.

“Transparency is an idea whose time has come,” Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude declared, 18 months ago at the 2012 OGP summit in Brazil and again in London. “Not in Germany,” responded German delegate and activist Christian Heise. Nor, it appears, in France, nor in Portugal, nor many, many African countries. Membership of the OGP may be growing – 62 countries have joined – but that still leaves a lot of countries that don’t want to stick their heads above the parapet.

Another pertinent question came from billionaire Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim foundation and senior independent reporting mechanism adviser to the OGP, who simply pointed to the numbers. The governments who belong to the OGP, representing perhaps half of the world’s entire GDP, have contributed $1.6m to the movement, he pointed out, while civil society organisations have funded work to the tune of $4bn. “Where’s the beef? Where are the commitments?” he asked.

To be fair, UK minister Maude continues to acknowledge how difficult a challenge greater openness can be for governments, for politicians and officials alike. Pressure continues to grow on the UK government over mass surveillance; on Monday 4 November, 70 of the world’s leading human rights organisations wrote to prime minister David Cameron to voice their increasing alarm of the way the UK government is eroding media groups and important public interest debates.

There has been progress. Many felt that the UK’s second national action plan – which was developed by the government working more closely with civil society organisations – was a good step forward, even though activists felt they could not sign up to the plan because it failed to address important issues such as freedom of information.

Indonesia now takes over from the UK as lead chair of the partnership. There is a lot to be done before OGP14. There will always be contradictions and tensions. Some may believe that open data is now the norm, but history shows that quickly created movements can quickly disappear. We will always need those, like Roy, able to hold the feet of the world’s most powerful nations to the fire.

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