Open Government Partnership and stakeholder engagement: A personal experience
One of the most difficult challenges to sustainable implementation of policy reforms is the inability to adequately identify and engage with relevant stakeholders. Controversies abound on the meaning of stakeholder. Although it is a very useful word, its flexibility also creates some complexity. Some people note that it is one of the most abused words in the development arena. To be a stakeholder in a project or program, one should have a stake or interest in the undertaking. Whether their stake is justified or not is a different matter. In claiming stakes, it is observable that many people, who insist that they potentially have a stake in a project, often do not. In countless situations, groups and individuals lay claim to having a stake and when organisations are confronted by these groups they tend to struggle and, in the process, they run into avoidable mistakes which can ruin their often-well-intentioned interventions.
Therefore, systematic and inclusive engagement of stakeholders must be a critical component of any effective organisational strategy. An understanding that there are formal and informal stakeholders is very crucial. The level of relevance of each category of stakeholder will determine the level of relations that should be built with them. Stakeholders range from government agencies to civil society groups to media and other actors in the informal sector. Mapping of stakeholders and designing an engagement strategy that seeks to achieve the priorities of an organisation is vital. Some stakeholders are partners, which means that they are central to decision making and accountability processes. Others are mere participants while some are just suited for consultations.
My first experience with stakeholder engagement was in the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). As an initiative focused on good governance, it provided an opportunity for civil society groups to occupy a seat in government meetings and participate in discussing policy issues for the first time. It was a novel idea, especially for a country that had a history of long military rule. The initial launch of EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) in Nigeria saw intermittent tensions in the relationship between civil society and government, which might have been a result of the carryover from the protracted military era. However, as things progressed, the relationship improved, as the civil society groups nominated a representative to sit in the government secretariat. The mainstreaming of civil society voices in governance as exemplified in the EITI process became an example that other reform initiatives later adapted and expanded on.
The birth of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) took stakeholder engagement to a different level, in that it enabled civil society groups and the government to sit together as equal partners, in determining priority areas of intervention. Drawing domestic reformers from within and outside the government ensures the commitment to make government more responsive and accountable to the citizens. The strong and equal stake that civil society holds in the OGP process has become quite instructive, it means that they are an integral part of decisions made towards implementation.
The National Action Plan (NAP), which guides implementation, has also been co-created with full stakeholder participation. Woven around four thematic areas – fiscal transparency, anti-corruption, access to information, and citizen engagement – the NAP committed to fourteen key areas which include open budgeting, open contracting, beneficial ownership transparency, fair taxation, and others. Almost one year after implementation began, considerable progress has been witnessed in these areas. The distinctive feature of the OGP is that all stakeholders were in the room when decisions on activities were made and therefore their participation in the implementation was gained. This means co-ownership and co-responsibility of all outcomes, be it in progress or not.
When stakeholders are equipped with knowledge of the subject matter, engagements become more constructive. That is why experience-sharing and cross-fertilization of ideas through learning events feature frequently with the OGP. If OGP reforms are sustained, there is a strong likelihood that mutual suspicion, finger pointing, and the usual name-calling between civil society groups and government institutions could come to an end. Structures of vertical and horizontal trust are being built, and constructive partnerships have now taken the place of adversarial exclusion. Networks of enduring relationships have been created, and capacity for project design, implementation, and monitoring has been developed in civil society. Where a climate of mutual trust and respect exists, any misunderstanding that may arise can be resolved before they metamorphose into conflict.
In the coming days, between 7th and 11th of May, stakeholders in the OGP process will come together again under the Global Open Government Week to take stock of the achievements of the initiative in the governance arena. It will afford them an opportunity to assess whether and to what extent the initiative has delivered on its promises. The aim of this transparency of actions by the government and the sustained relationship of accountability with citizens is to improve service delivery for national prosperity. Fighting corruption through direct interventions is useful but building enduring structures of accountability should be the goal.
OGP is a global model, employing a robust stakeholder engagement to empower citizens to demand accountability. It is expected that at the end of the day the initiative will make a verifiable contribution to these objectives which lead to an institutionalized mechanism for improving good governance on a more sustainable basis.