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Open government in Asia – What works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved

Haidy Ear-Dupuy|

In the run-up to next month’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit in Mexico City, ADB and the OGP support unit recently co-organized an Asia-Pacific regional workshop for representatives from governments, civil society, and multilateral organizations to share what works, what remains a challenge, and what can be improved under the current OGP framework.

It was apparent from the country reports given at the meeting that National Action Plans (NAPs) for open government are an excellent way to bring government and civil society together to advance transparency, accountability, citizen empowerment and innovative approaches to use technology to strengthen governance. Even if there is room to further deepen the engagement, the feedback from participants made it clear that the OGP process of jointly identifying and prioritizing reform initiatives to be included in the NAPs provided an excellent opportunity for collaboration. Repeated dialogues, debates, and conversations are great mechanisms to diffuse tension and build trust, but it’s a long-term process that requires much patience on both sides to foster purposeful engagement. And as the drafting of NAPs is every two years, interaction between government and civil society must be an ongoing process.

(Photo: 2015 ADB OGP Asia-Pacific Meeting)

The meeting also underscored the important role technology can play in bringing OGP core teams together to support reform initiatives. Georgia shared how the government’s Freedom of Information Law had led to the creation of multi-purpose community centers that provide public information, and at the same time serve as banking service centers and Internet cafés. Indonesia pointed out how citizens can now report public services deficiencies—and put pressure on responsible authorities to rectify them—through a new online system. We also learned about the participatory budgeting process, or bottom-up budgeting, in the Philippines, an initiative which invites NGOs and community groups to suggest how funds should be allocated in their communities.

Representatives from several OGP countries discussed their successes and challenges of formulating and implementing their NAPs. Indonesia stressed that having a few significant and potentially transformative commitments in the NAP, followed by good implementation of the commitments, is more important than including too much into the NAP and running the risk of overreaching.

Georgia noted that online consultation does not always work if it is not properly advertised. Mechanisms to ensure thorough outreach and awareness about the consultations to civil society at national as well as sub-national levels were pointed out as important. Moreover, civil society should have enough time to review the NAPs, and compile and submit their suggestions and inputs. The Republic of Korea underscored the importance of open data in keeping citizens informed, but expressed the need to build capacity of people to understand and analyze the information shared in order for the data to be used for more than just information sharing, such as informing research, and to hold decision makers accountable.

The Philippines demonstrated that countries are getting better at consultation from one action plan cycle to the next. As consultation improves, the emphasis needs to shift to ongoing dialogue during implementation, better monitoring and successful implementation of yet to be delivered ambitious commitments such as the Access to Information law.

Enshrining OGP principles into all institutions and governance structures so OGP can cement itself as a continuing priority in successive governments was identified as a key priority by most of the participants, given that elections often bring with them changes in national priorities and staffing, including at times the loss of key champions of open government. There was also consensus on the need to strengthen accountability institutions and include them in the OGP process. It is not enough that institutions such as the anti-corruption agencies, internal audit, judiciary functions, and other checks and balance mechanisms already exist in many governments. That misses the point. By strengthening the capacity and voice of citizens to work together with traditional oversight institutions and participate in public policy making, increased governance gains can be made and overall development outcomes improved.

Mobilizing resources for open government reform is still unfortunately seen as a cost rather than an investment. Given that a more transparent and accountable government can help save money, the cost incurred to bring about better governance should be viewed as “smart money,” invested in building checks and balances, improved institutions, and developing national trust. This was a key point emphasized by Secretary Florencio Abad of the Philippines Department of Budget and Management in his key note address at the meeting.

In sum, the event started important conversations on what’s next for OGP in the Asia-Pacificand facilitated new connections. Michael Macaluay from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies of Victoria University of Wellington summarized his key take ways noting “the event opened the eyes, engaged the brain and inspired the heart.  It was fantastic to learn of the brilliant work different members are doing and the difference that OGP is making to people’s daily lives.  It was also a crucial reminder that we are much stronger in tackling challenges together, cutting across political and economic differences, because no country is too advanced or developed to learn from another”

While strengthening open government in Asia and the Pacific will no doubt require financial and technical resources for the implementation of reforms, it will equally require civil society and government to work constructively with each other and learn from the experiences of their peers elsewhere.  OGP provides an important platform for this. Multilateral institutions such as ADB can play a small role in helping governments and civil society create and implement NAPs. The nature of our overall engagement will be in a supporting role, by offering our technical expertise and knowledge to help OGP member countries advance their open government agendas.

We look forward to continuing the dialogue we started in Manila at the ADB panel on ‘Advancing the Open Government Reform Agenda in Asia’ at the Summit in Mexico.  

Photo credit: Asian Development Bank

(This blog was adapted from an article by Haidy Ear-Dupuy on the Asian Development blog:

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