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Playing the “Inside” game: Does engagement equal co-option?

Su Muhereza|

On September 24 2014, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and Ford Foundation hosted a Civil Society breakfast meeting of senior civil society leaders and open government advocates from around the world. These reformers came together to talk about what is and is not working in the task of making governments more responsive. Being keenly aware that despite significant advances, there is a long way to go for citizens to regain trust in governance, for innovations in government transparency and participation to scale, and policy-making to be more open and collaborative.

CIVICUS Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah made a statement that deserves further unpacking, especially within the context of the OGP. Danny warned that civil society leaders have become overawed by the glitz of international conferences and are too comfortable in ‘invited’ spaces, created and managed by governments and global governance institutions. This comfort has compromised their ability to disrupt the status quo in the way that mass mobilization like the Peoples Climate March and the Occupy movement do.

This dilemma is even more pronounced at the national level where civil society in some countries engages on vastly unequal terms with governments. The options are not always clear cut; if a government uses their membership of the OGP and the presence of civil society at the table as evidence that they are open but fails to deliver on their OGP commitments, what should you do? Stay and take advantage of being close to power to nudge governments or leave and shout from the outside but have less influence?

OGP’s norm-shifting potential 

The OGP could be labeled as such an ‘invited’ space; one of its primary features is a strong commitment to an equal partnership between government and civil society at the international and national levels. The civil society activists on its Steering Committee juggle the insider-outsider divide, recognizing the value of delivering on a powerful idea while remaining rooted in their respective constituencies. What OGP has shown so far is that a strategic and independent civil society can go a long way in building trust with governments and nudging those in power for change that builds on the energy of popular movements. 

In a speech at the High Level Event in New York, Rakesh Rajani, outgoing civil society co-Chair of the Steering Committee, urged the OGP community to “go beyond easy stereotypes of government as callous and corrupt and civil society as entitled and unfair.” He emphasized the norm-shifting potential of the OGP and its ability to nudge governments and “shift underlying norms, compelling governments to make commitments, shift the frame of debate and negotiation.”  

In the current era of closing civic space, the space for political engagement within OGP will be even more valuable as a platform to speak out about what is not working to those who need to hear it the most- the governments of the 65 member countries. Those civil society leaders playing the inside game within OGP should challenge themselves to use the platform to amplify the voices of local movements, informal networks, collaborators and partners who are agitating on the outside.

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