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Open Government: Requiring Open Minds and Open Eyes

Shahid Farooq|

Pakistan joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in December 2016. Government agencies both at the national and provincial levels are now working with civil society on developing the country’s first National Action Plan. Pakistan’s late entry to the partnership offers it an edge, as it can leapfrog the learning curve by  internalizing the experiences and lessons learned in countries that came before, skipping the experiments  and avoiding the errors made in the early stages.

The recent series of consultative sessions between the government and civil society in the context of OGP has stimulated a debate on accountability, transparency and partnership.

Developing a partnership between governments and civil society is not easy, even in politically mature nations, because genuine openness and partnership requires the government to expose itself to citizens for feedback and accountability. What makes the task more challenging in countries like Pakistan is the history of buttoned-down predecessors brewed in colonial legacy, where top down policy making and practice of putting “secret / confidential” tags even to minor intra-government communication have become the norm. Naturally, civil society organizations (CSOs) are skeptical of the current system of governance, and and question the legitimacy of the government’s transparency-related initiatives, such as Right to Information laws, citizens’ feedback programs, public access to data in some sectors, and indeed initiatives like OGP.

Correcting this situation requires an understanding of some guiding principles for realizing the spirit of open government. This spirit, particularly in Muslim nations, can be elaborated with an example from Islamic history. In the era of Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (579-644) in the nascent Islamic state in the early seventh century, some pieces of cloth, received as spoils of war, were distributed among soldiers as per Arab tradition. Soon thereafter, the Caliph happened to address a gathering of Muslims; coincidently, he was wearing the shirt made of that cloth on his tall body; he started his address saying, “O people! Listen to me….” when a common man stood up among the crowd and bluntly said, “Caliph, you should listen to me first … your shirt has been made with two pieces of the cloth, while you were entitled only one piece, like other soldiers.” Umar, the commander of believers, did not appear offended and politely clarified his position; he called out to his son who confirmed that the second piece of cloth was his share of the bounty which he had gifted to his father.

This vigilance on the part of citizens, and responsiveness of the government, marks Umar’s era as a golden time of Muslim history.  Umar is ranked among the 100 most influential persons in history (Michael H. Hart, 1978).

Deriving from the above example, open government needs open minds and open eyes. What do I mean by this? The OGP National Action Plan (NAP) development process itself provides an opportunity for forging partnerships between government and civil society. However, the sustainability of the partnership hinges upon open-mindedness and vigilance on the part of both partners.  The government needs to realize that citizens are the main stakeholders in government actions, and citizen-centric governance is only possible through collaboration with representative civil society, as the latter amplifies the voices of the former. Similarly, CSOs need to revisit their approach towards government, understanding the genuine limitations of government structures and processes, and making joint efforts to address the challenges. In addition, CSOs must expand their presence to grassroots levels, particularly in rural areas, in order to educate citizens about OGP values and to help them assert themselves as true voices of the masses.

Besides this positive mindset and behavior shift, there are some key factors which government and civil society in Pakistan should be mindful of in the early phase of the partnership:

  1. The action plan must be developed on sound evidence and in the local context. Half-cooked food on the basis of incomplete recipes always creates a bad taste. Researchers particularly warn about plans based on untested and weak theories. Chances of such mistakes increase when a plan is either prepared under pressure to meet timelines, or a forced win-win is attempted after a weak or incomplete co-creation process.
  2. Consensus is needed on the definitions and interpretation of key concepts and terminology being used in the commitments for NAP. Many buzzwords surround the concept of openness; the trend of associating colorful meanings to key open government terminology has certainly been noticed during initial consultative sessions on OGP in Pakistan. For example,the term ‘information’ has wide-ranging interpretation by public officials; a few consider online coverage and photographs of day to day activities of an organization as information disclosure. Similarly, terms such as ‘openness’ and ‘accountability’ have been found particularly vulnerable to poor interpretation due to generalized meanings associated with them. Hence, the trap of buzzwords should be avoided and efforts need to be made to ensure that commitments proposed and agreed to live up to both the letter and spirit of genuine openness.
  3. Objective appraisals of existing initiatives for openness and transparency are imperative to identify weaknesses and gaps. In addition, the performance of existing transparency and accountability-related institutions, like Information Commissions and Anti-Corruption Establishments, should be reviewed in order to ascertain the causes of low performance of these institutions in the provinces. This would provide insight into the implementation prospects of OGP commitments that assign responsibility to the same institutions..
  4. Another area where both government and citizens need to approach OGP with open minds and open eyes is the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for information-sharing and citizen engagement. During consultative sessions in Pakistan, it has emerged that tech-optimism tends to confuse open government with e-government, which may undermine the spirit of OGP. Complicated ICT-based solutions may prove counter-productive, i.e. breaching citizens’ privacy rather holding government accountable.
  5. Last but not least, there is a requirement of vigilance on the part of government functionaries to safeguard the national interest, exercising care while making the data public. The parameters regarding confidential information must also be discussed with citizens and civil society during dialogue processes. Similarly, information-sharing codes may also be decided in order to deal with interest/pressure groups and nefarious elements.

Pakistan will  certainly face challenges in the Open Government Partnership, but an open-minded and open-eyed approach would serve well in locating the hurdles and steering towards the ultimate goal, which is to deliver reforms that bring positive results for the citizens of this country.

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