Open government reforms in times of political transitions: lessons from Latin America

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During their participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP), many countries in Latin America have experienced political transitions. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, seven Latin American countries will hold presidential elections, and two more will hold municipal and legislative elections. Every political change poses both challenges and opportunities, and the effects of changes caused by elections are not unfamiliar to OGP or to the open government reforms it moves forward.

As part of OpenGovWeek, seven researchers from OGP's Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) collaborated on case studies about the lessons learned from the electoral processes in their respective countries and local entities. From Argentina, Sao Paulo, La Libertad, Peru, Jalisco, México, Costa Rica and Paraguay, all countries and local entities have experienced the challenges of political transition, each with their own particularities. What can we learn from these experiences in Latin America? The IRM presents five recommendations to reduce the impact of elections on open government reforms and policies. Lessons from the region can guide other countries facing political transitions.

Five recommendations to mitigate the effects of elections on open government reforms and policies:

1. Plan your OGP process according to the electoral calendar and reduce the risks of change.

 

It is important to understand the electoral moment in which an open government action plan will take place and to plan accordingly. In Mexico and Argentina, the action plan co-creation processes began during an election period. In both cases, the electoral process affected the continuity of the initiative within OGP’s timeline. Therefore, in anticipation of the changes from an upcoming electoral cycle, countries and entities could consider implementing the following measures:

  • Consider adjusting calendars to allow the outgoing administration to transfer the commitment to co-create a new plan, and make sure the new administration has the opportunity to develop the action plan.

  • If the outgoing administration delivers an action plan, make the necessary arrangements in the plan to allow the new administration to incorporate its priorities and vision.

  • If the electoral process occurs during the action plan’s implementation cycle, the outgoing administration can prioritize and adjust the implementation timelines for the commitments to its available time before leaving office. This could help the outgoing administration transfer an action plan with substantial progress.

2. Consolidate the multi-stakeholder forum and strengthen the role of civil society to guarantee continuity of the action plan.

 

Civil society is a key agent to mitigate the impact of elections on the open government agenda. Through clearly defined and formalized participation in a multi-stakeholder forum, civil society representatives can play a leading role during the electoral process by consolidating priorities and demanding concrete commitments from candidates to move reforms forward. Experiences in Honduras, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Peru leave us these lessons:

  • During the last year of government, civil society should take on an oversight role to hold the outgoing administration accountable for the information they provide to the incoming government. The information should clearly establish pending processes for the commitments the new government needs to address.

  • During the transition from an outgoing to an incoming administration, civil society members are called to lead early dialogue with the elected administration.

  • Electoral campaigns provide an opportunity to rethink the open government agenda. Linking open government to national priorities that emerge during the campaign or vice versa; envisioning open government as a platform to advance reforms in the public agenda.

3. Document and publish all information on the OGP process to reduce impact on commitment completion

 

Transitions are successful as long as there is knowledge to transfer. For a successful transfer of information, those responsible for coordinating and implementing OGP commitments need to document and make information publicly available. Some recommendations are:

  • Organize information to make it accessible. For example, information can be organized by stages, action plan co-creation process and implementation for each commitment.

  • Create a registry of evidence that validates progress in completed activities. For example, you can publish discussions held at multi-stakeholder forums, work plans, auditing reports, pictures and videos that show progress on commitment completion and any other information necessary for the incoming government to continue implementation and re-engage civil society. OGP recently launched a toolkit with recommendations to establish information repositories.

If the outgoing administration documents all information, knowledge repositories and lessons learned, it facilitates the flow of information and allows CSOs to support its transfer to the incoming government.

4. Develop strategies to institutionalize open government through binding tools or mechanisms

 

When dealing with an electoral process during co-creation or implementation of an action plan, it is important to institutionalize the open government agenda in institutions and not in individual public officials. This can be achieved by involving officials from different levels of government (technical, political) in order to build capacities on open government topics for the continuity of commitments. In São Paulo, for example, OGP’s government point of contact changed multiple times during the action plan cycle. However, the existence of a consistent technical group of government and civil society representatives supported the continuation of commitment implementation.

Furthermore, governments can aim to consolidate an Open State policy as a strategy for continuity. Coordination with other government branches or permanent initiatives in other agencies, can contribute to define an agenda that transcends the executive or the outgoing administration. In Costa Rica and Colombia, both the judicial and legislative branches have committed to promote initiatives that follow open government principles. Finally, Paraguay has adopted a series of measures to consolidate its regulatory framework in transparency and has harmonized its open government initiative with their National Development Plan.

5. Use the OGP platform to maintain dialogue between the government and civil society.

 

The OGP platform is an ally to resume dialogue with new authorities, once the transition process is complete. Most importantly, to support civil society in actions that aim to renew high-level political commitment to the initiative. In countries like Guatemala, for example, OGP representatives visited newly-elected authorities to re-establish communication channels. In addition, IRM reports have served as a convening platform for dialogue between civil society and new authorities. Engagement between OGP and new government representatives helps reactivate commitment implementation, revamp the co-creation process or set neutral ground to renew dialogue between civil society and the new government.

For OGP, navigating these processes has also been a learning experience and it recognizes that flexibility, within the parameters that its policy allows, is fundamental to supporting countries going through political transitions.

OGP, a community of experiences to face challenges

Transitions will always pose a challenge to any reform or public policy process. It is clear that an electoral process puts sustainability of the open government agenda to the test, and there is no magic formula that guarantees a successful transition. However, the experiences presented through the “Elections and transitions in LATAM: Lessons from the IRM to the OGP community” series, suggest that OGP has the tools to navigate difficult contexts and move reforms forward in the middle of political alternation. To date, at least five OGP countries in Latin America have concluded electoral processes and managed to move OGP commitments forward from one administration to the next, even when there are changes to ruling parties. Each country has found unique solutions to the particular challenges it faced, with common lessons learned. These lessons include two essential elements that make up the OGP model: (1) civil society as an immovable liaison in the process, and (2) an accountability mechanism that facilitates learning in and between countries and local entities.

The impact of political transitions on open government reform is inevitable but not always negative. They can put the continuity of initiatives at risk but can also renew commitment to them. It is up to reformers and the opengov network in each country or entity to lead, to view the transition as an opportunity, to use lessons learned and to continue to work towards open government.