Open Government and COVID-19: A Blueprint for Public Action
Countries’ response to the coronavirus crisis will require at least three stages of coordinated action from governments: an immediate emergency reaction, a reassessment and planning period, and a recovery plan for the long term.
Throughout those stages, the OECD principles of open government: transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholders’ participation should be the guiding light of public action.
Why is open government so important in these times? Because it leads to trust. And trust in government is essential to ensure that citizens are willing to comply with measures to flatten the curve and creating confidence in the recovery plan. We agree with the Open Government Partnership that trust should be the “antidote” for the coronavirus pandemic and the foundation for the aftermath.
After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and restoring trust will also take time. It will require coordination, a set of policies to foster the openness of government and initiatives to build a renewed and healthy relationship between governments and citizens.
The OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government lays the foundation for a trustworthy society: transparency and accountability, public communication, a strong civic space, stakeholder participation mechanisms, coordinated and holistic approaches and indicators to show impact.
Public communication to build trust and confidence
Public communication is essential for effective government action, which is needed to contain the virus and manage the health emergency. Unfortunately, disinformation is affecting countries’ responses to the global pandemic by undermining citizens’ trust in institutions, amplifying their fears, and sometimes even leading to harmful behaviours.
Trustworthy and transparent information about the virus and the actions taken by the government is essential to fight against misinformation. However, to be effective, this information needs to be tailored and delivered through the same channels citizens use to access news and where disinformation is often spread, for example social media.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but governments still need to remain accountable as they grapple with the pandemic
Public communication (which is distinct from political communication) is a primary tool that governments can leverage to tackle the infodemic, while also serving as a key means for the implementation of policy responses to the pandemic. For example, the Italian Ministry of Health is using the direct messaging app Telegram to post relevant and official information and the Korean Government held official briefings twice a day and disseminated the information through various channels (television, social media, official channels, etc.).
To respond to the information disorders during and after the Covid-19 crisis, governments can base interventions on evidence, communicate transparently and make communication participatory. The OECD recognises public communication as a key component in efforts to regain citizen trust, promote inclusive policymaking and support open government reforms as the joint guide published with the OGP shows.
We are currently supporting governments to face the infodemic, and in 2021 we will publish the first evidence-based international report on public communication to better understand how it can support transparency, integrity, accountability and participation.
An open civic space for an effective and accountable government
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but governments still need to remain accountable as they grapple with the pandemic. It is crucial that government responses to the pandemic do not represent a threat to civic freedoms and rights and are regularly reviewed by independent authorities. Institutional accountability by parliament and independent institutions is as vital as an open civic space.
Evidence shows that countries that protect civic space perform better — politically, socially and economically. The Worldwide Governance Indicators project has found that the variable “voice and accountability”, which includes electoral and political participation as well as freedom of expression, association, and a free media, is positively correlated to government effectiveness. Data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) shows a positive correlation between the protection of civic space and the economic and human development levels of the country. When civic space is closed, civil society’s voices are silenced, the responsiveness and accountability of public institutions is jeopardised, and citizens’ trust in governments is eroded.
A free and thriving civic space does not emerge of its own accord
Moreover, a free and thriving civic space does not emerge of its own accord. It is the result of active efforts from the state and non-governmental actors to safeguard the rights that enable civic space (access to information, freedoms of expression, assembly and association); protect journalists, whistle-blowers and activists; support the media and establish digital rights and freedoms. Besides, governments should create an enabling operational environment for civil society organisations (CSOs) and open spaces for active and meaningful participation in public decision-making.
Through the OECD Observatory of Civic Space, we are supporting governments and CSOs to promote and protect civic space and citizen engagement at the national and global levels. As part of this work, the OECD will gather data and evidence through a Global Civic Space Survey that will be launched by the end of the year and undertake Country Scans to provide tailored policy recommendations to national governments on how to recognise and protect their civic space.
The first country to be assessed will be Finland, which we would like to congratulate for putting the protection of space at the top of its current reform agenda.
Citizen and stakeholder participation for better policy-making
Planning and carefully implementing the recovery phase will require governments to be open, inclusive, and innovative. Citizen and stakeholder participation will be key to address the unprecedented challenges of this crisis as it can advance compliance and representativeness in all post coronavirus related programs like redistributive policies.
The OECD has long-standing expertise in informing and advising governments about the benefits of a wide range of participatory mechanisms and continuously provides governments with resources like country reviews, the OECD Handbook as well as the Toolkit and Case Navigator. We are currently working on the use of representative deliberative processes to make informed recommendations to policymakers on systemic changes that are needed and which the crisis has brought to light. For example, the French Citizen Convention on Climate Change or the Irish Citizen Assembly are processes that can enhance trust between citizens and government by giving citizens an effective role in public decision-making.
The coronavirus pandemic is more than a health crisis; it is affecting trust in institutions, weakening democracy, disrupting economic growth, increasing inequalities, and directly affecting the most vulnerable people in our societies
These innovative democratic practices could become a new normal for public decision-making during and after the transition. We are supporting policymakers willing to update democracy for the 21st century — needed now more than ever — by helping them move towards the institutionalisation of representative deliberative practices and to continue despite lockdown through the use of digital tools for deliberation.
Finally, in June, we will publish the first international empirical comparative study on the matter, covering uses, best practices and institutionalisation of representative deliberative processes for public decision-making.
Openness must prevail, even during crisis
The coronavirus pandemic is more than a health crisis; it is affecting trust in institutions, weakening democracy, disrupting economic growth, increasing inequalities, and directly affecting the most vulnerable people in our societies.
When implementing Covid-19 responses, governments should follow the principles of an open government: transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholders’ participation to support democracy, citizen trust, social cohesion and inclusive growth.
Dealing with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic will need a coordinated approach at all levels of government, and horizontally across institutions, requiring a close cooperation between national and local administrations, parliaments, the justice system, independent institutions and the civic space. The OECD helps governments develop Open Government Strategies for coordination and coherence in order to maximise the benefits of open government in broader policy areas. In addition, measuring the success and the impact of all government action is essential for accountability and sound policy-making. In this sense, we are currently pioneering the work on open government indicators supporting countries in measuring the impact of reforms.
Applying the open government principles across the State can build the needed trust and cohesion our societies will need to face this and future global crisis.
This article is part of the Open Response + Open Recovery article series in partnership with the Open Government Partnership. Explore how open government can tackle the challenges posed by Covid-19 and ensure an open response and open recovery here and read the previous article in this series here.
Click here to read more about the OECD Open Government Unit.
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